On the Road Again

If you were born and raised in Canada, you are doubtless familiar with sounds that typify our country—the quavering call of a loon across a lonesome lake, for example; the eerie, chilling howls of a wolf-pack under a cold, starry sky; or the absolute sound of silence in a colourful, autumn woods.

For me, the most iconic sound of all is the shrill warning cry from a group of kids playing hockey on the street when an approaching vehicle is spotted—

CA-A-A-A-R-R-R!

Back in the 1950’s (yes, dear reader, that long ago!), I was one of those kids.  Every day after school, all day on Saturday, and on Sunday after church, the neighbourhood boys—no girls back then—would assemble on our street in what was then North Toronto, hockey sticks in hand, to play road-hockey.

road hockey

If we all showed up together, we’d choose teams the fairest way possible.  Gathered in a circle, both fists held to the centre, we’d listen to one of us count off, tapping every fist:  One-potato, two-potato, three-potato, four, five-potato, six-potato, seven-potato, more!  The boy whose fist was tapped on the eight-beat would step back, waiting for the next kid, and the next, until half the boys were out.  Those would be the teams.

Kids who showed up late jumped right in, joining the team with the fewest players at that moment.  Our sticks were sawed-off wooden models, many of the blades worn thin from the constant scraping on the asphalt.  Our puck was a scuzzy tennis ball, no longer white and fuzzy, and I remember how that ball could sting, especially when frozen, if it hit an unprotected spot.

Everyone at some point played with tears in his eyes, waiting for the pain to abate.  Nobody laughed at the crying kid, though, because we all knew only too well how it felt.  But no one ever quit.

In truth, we had scant protection—no helmets, no padded gloves, no shin pads.  Toques, thick mittens, and lined jeans were all we wore, along with sturdy boots.  Inadvertent whacks on the shins and hacks across the fingers were merely occupational hazards we all endured.

prohibited

We didn’t care that road-hockey was technically forbidden, even when, once in a while, a police car would roll down the street.  We’d simply scatter up any of the myriad driveways between the houses, sticks in hand, until the danger was past.

Makeshift goal-markers would be set up at each end of the stretch of street we had claimed—sometimes small piles of snow, sometimes mounds of frozen horse-turds left behind by the stoic steeds that pulled the carts of the milkman, the bread-man, and the ice-man.  The youngest kids’ sticks were requisitioned to gather and pile the turds—a sort of rookie hazing, I suppose.

When those intrusive cars would dare to interrupt us, we’d trudge begrudgingly to the side of the road, glaring at the offending drivers as they passed, and yelling at them if they managed to squash one of the goal-markers.  Repairing it was gross if it was one of the turds.

There were few rules:  no slashing, no high-sticking, no deliberate bodychecking.  That left lots of room for incidental body contact, however, especially when the number of boys playing was particularly high.  When that was the case, we had to move the goal-markers back, lengthening the playing area to fit everyone in.

By and large, all the boys played by the rules, governed by a commonly-understood code of fair-play.  The odd kid who might repeatedly play dirty was not assessed a penalty time-out for his transgressions, though; he was simply told to go home.  Adult supervision was not required.

rules

With no goal-nets and no end-boards, the ball would sometimes roll halfway down the street after an errant shot.  The youngest among us were designated to chase it, but we never minded.  It was a chance to practice our stickhandling as we came back up the street, unhindered by the other boys hungering to steal the ball from us.

Most of us had nicknames, some ethnic in origin, which nobody regarded as a slur back then.  All that mattered is if you could play.  There were Boo and Dinny, the Draper twins, Paul (Puppy) Jackson, and Terry (King) Clancy, son of the Maple Leafs’ hall-of-famer—all of whom would go on to win a Memorial Cup in 1961 with the St. Michael’s Majors.  We had the twins’ older brother, Mike (Meatball), and Gary (Swampy) Marsh, who would win an Allan Cup in 1973 with the Orillia Terriers.  No one knew of the fame some of the gang would find, of course, not then.  But we all harboured our own dreams of grace and glory.

We played with Kraut, whose parents owned the Salzburger Deli on Eglinton Avenue; Mick, whose parents owned Murphy’s Meats nearby; and Dago, whose family owned Carradona’s Fresh Fruits and Vegetables.  Our mothers all shopped those stores, two or three times a week, back in the days when icebox-chests, not refrigerators, were still the norm for many of us.

groceries

Other players included Boomer, he of the hard shot; Skinny, the guy who could slip through any defenders; and Magic, the kid who could stickhandle in a phone-booth.  I think I was mostly known as Hey Kid!

I vividly remember reaching the age where my parents let me go back out after supper to play under the dim glow of the streetlights—it seemed a rite of passage, somehow.  And I can still see the ethereal wisps of steam from all the panting mouths, dissipating into the darkness overhead.  But I’ve lost track of how many Stanley Cups we won on that darkened, winter street, running and passing and shooting with reckless abandon.

There’s an old barbershop-quartet song titled, That Old Gang of Mine, and part of the lyric-lines come to mind when I think back to those long-ago good times with boyhood chums—Gee, but I’d/Give the world/To see them all again…

But I can see them, really, whenever I choose, stretched out in my recliner, eyes half-closed, ears attuned to the inimitable sounds echoing in my brain.  It feels like I’m on the road again, under the streetlights, hearing the shouts of those indefatigable hockey players.

Calling loudly for a pass—Here!  Here!

Yelling at a teammate to take a shot on goal—Shoot!  Shoot!

Celebrating a score—It’s in!  It’s in!

And hearing that most urgent shout of all, the iconic warning we all would heed, no matter what—

CA-A-A-A-R-R-R!

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Also Known As

For most of my growing-up years, I wanted a nickname so badly it hurt.  But it never came to pass.  Not once did I ever have a proper sobriquet bestowed on me.

As one who spent a whole lot of time playing team sports, I knew countless other boys by their nicknames—Dingo, Big-Guy, Scoop, Madge (short for Magic-Man), and, rather unkindly, Lard.  When I think of them now, I can’t even remember their real names.  Nor do I picture them as the old men they surely must be; rather, I see them as they were back then—immortals, in a way.

chevy youth baseball

But I was not fated to be one of those ‘also known as’ guys.  My coaches forever called me by my surname or my jersey number.

Twelve!  You’re on deck!  Get out there!

If you are of my era, a Canadian childhood spanning the 40’s, 50’s and into the 60’s, and if you were a sports fan, you will know that our greatest heroes all had nicknames.

In basketball—the Stilt, the Big O, the Cooz, The Mailman, Pistol Pete.  In baseball—Teddy Ballgame, Joltin’ Joe, the Barber, Stan the Man, the Mick.

In football—Crazy Legs, Broadway Joe, the Deacon, Sweetness, Mean Joe.  In golf—the Squire, Slammin’ Sam, the Hawk, the King, the Golden Bear.

In hockey, my favourite of games—Mr. Zero, the Rocket, Boom-Boom, the Big M, the Roadrunner, Cujo, the Dominator, Number 4.

Female athletes, too, had nicknames, ranging across a number of sports—the Babe, Little Mo, Mighty Mouse, Tiger, Moses, the Swiss Miss, Flo Jo, the Black Widow.

nancy_green_lange_chamonix_history

[*The real names of these athletes are shown at the end of this post.]

But I never had a nickname.

At one point—desperate for a nom de guerre I could call my own, and because I was a year younger than my compadres in school and sport—I began to call myself The Kid.  I think I became a legend in my own mind.  In conversation with friends, I would say, The Kid did this…or The Kid did that…

To my chagrin, the nickname never caught on.  Nor did the practice of referring to myself in the third person, although it did garner me a lot of strange looks.

There were times during these years that I suffered the experience of being called a variety of names by others not favourably disposed towards me—loser, dork, pencil-neck, to name a few, plus some even less polite.  But those were not nicknames; proper nicknames had to be given in recognition of one’s accomplishments, talents, or character.

Sticks and stones…I would mutter quietly.  The Kid is above all that!

The closest I ever came to acquiring a nickname was at the end of my playing days, striving mightily to keep up with skaters twenty years younger than I in old-timers’ hockey.  But it wasn’t my teammates who conferred it; it was my opponents, muscling me unceremoniously along the boards.

hockey2

Outta the way, Grampaw!

Not exactly what I’d always aspired to be known as.

So, as you might expect, it has come as something of a relief to me that now, at this ripe old age, I have finally acquired a nickname I can be proud of.  Mind you, I bestowed it myself, to designate me as a ‘teller of tales tall and true’.

I am Talebender.

*Famous Athletes’ Real Names—

  • Wilt Chamberlain, Oscar Robertson, Bob Cousy, Karl Malone, Pete Maravich.
  • Ted Williams, Joe Dimaggio, Sal Maglie, Stan Musial, Mickey Mantle.
  • Elroy Hirsch, Joe Namath, David Jones, Walter Payton, Joe Greene.
  • Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus.
  • Frankie Brimsek, Maurice Richard, Bernie Geoffrion, Frank Mahovlich, Yvan Cournoyer, Curtis Joseph, Dominik Hasek, Bobby Orr.
  • Mildred Didrikson Zaharias, Maureen Connelly, Elaine Tanner, Nancy Greene, Althea Gibson, Martina Hingis, Florence Joyner, Jeanette Lee.