Hockey, Boy and Man

For the one-hundred-and-thirteenth time, the Stanley Cup has been awarded, marking the North American professional ice-hockey championship.  Although I played hockey for almost fifty years, I was never good enough to play professionally or compete for that trophy. 

I did, however, once play with a teammate named Stanley Cupp (whom we nicknamed Hick).

I began playing at the age of ten in the old Toronto Hockey League, haunting the bowels of such cold, echoing barns as Leaside Arena, Ravina Gardens, and Varsity Arena, none of which remains now in its original incarnation.  For the final twenty-four years of my playing days, beginning when I turned thirty-five, I played Oldtimers Hockey, suiting up for four different teams in three different towns—two at a time for some of those years.

Our teams played against many retired NHL players during that time, and managed to beat them more than once.  The most memorable victory came in the gold medal game of a prestigious tournament in North Toronto, a victory especially important to our captain, himself a retired NHLer, captain of the Atlanta Flames in the early 1970s.

Among the luminaries I played against were Andy Bathgate, Hugh Bolton, Ron Ellis, Bob Goldham, Jim Harrison, Keith McCreary, Bob Nevin, Mike Pelyk, Norm Ullman, and others I have forgotten.  Three of those men are hall-of-famers.

Oldtimers hockey is, officially at least, bodycheck-free, but I do remember the worst time I ever ‘got my bell rung’, when Goldham refused to fall for my clever head-fake at his blueline, allowing me to run into him at full speed.  My ears were still ringing when I went to bed that night. 

Those guys may have been retired, but they were still superior hockey players.  Off the ice, they were good-natured men who loved having a beer with us after a game; on the ice, they were strong competitors who hated to lose. I still remember one of them telling us through a partially-toothless grin, after a game in which he’d received a major penalty, “Three times that stupid guy hit my elbow with his face!”

The best of the oldtimers teams I played with competed at the highest tournament level for six or seven years until, by then in our mid-forties, we couldn’t keep up with the younger teams coming along behind us.  We gradually dropped from AAA to A and eventually B divisions, but the competition was always intense.  Our most memorable experience was a barnstorming tour of Hungary and what was then Czechoslovakia, where we went 5-0-1 against local club teams.  In the flyers and programmes for those games, we were not listed by our actual team name, but as CANADA, which thrilled us no end.  I still have one of the red-and-white Canada caps we wore.

That same team also endured an embarrassing experience while enroute to a tournament in Lake Placid (home of the 1980 ‘Miracle on Ice’ a few years earlier). At the border crossing, as a Customs guard got on our bus, one of our dimmer-bulbs (probably a defenceman) yelled, “Quick! Hide the drugs!” There were no drugs, of course, but the guard was not amused. For the next two hours, all our suitcases and equipment bags were strewn across the parking lot, open wide in the noon-day sun, while the guard made a show of inspecting them.

We almost had to forfeit our first game that evening, arriving a bare twenty minutes before the start.  Some of our slower dressers were still arriving to the bench halfway through the first period.  It was perhaps poetic justice that we lost the gold medal game on Sunday to a team of policemen from Ottawa, the RCMP Rusty Spurs.

A more pleasant memory is the time when two of the teams I played for entered the same weekend tournament—but in different divisions, so we didn’t have to play against each other.  I have a picture of myself standing rink-side between games, wearing the blue-and-white sweater of one team, the yellow-black-and-white-striped stockings of the other, and a huge grin.  It’s a favourite picture because my wife and two young daughters are standing close beside me.

I also remember being exhausted by tournament’s end on Sunday night.

By the age of sixty, my wife and I had begun spending almost six months a year in our Florida home, and so my playing days came to an inauspicious end.  On one never-to-be-forgotten, rainy fall day, I hauled three tattered duffel bags—emblazoned with team logos and stuffed full with years-old, smelly, but treasured gear—to our local dump.  After steeling myself to pitch the bags into a huge dumpster, I removed that Canada cap from my head, placed it over my heart, and bowed my head for a moment’s reflection.

When I glanced at my wife in the front seat of the car, she was miming sticking her finger down her throat!  Sheesh!

I don’t miss the game, not in the sense that I wish I was still playing.  Nor have I ever wished I could go back and do it all over again.  But I do sometimes miss the camaraderie and company of teammates, and all the fun and excitement and thrill of competing we shared—we middle-aged men clinging to our boyhood game.

And I miss one teammate more than any other, a lifelong friend I played with off-and-on for three teams over thirty years, plus summer-hockey—a pal gone too soon.  On the ice, we were the yin to each other’s yang, the zig to each other’s zag.  But the times I most fondly recall came in our sixties, long after we’d finished playing together, sitting in Muskoka chairs, a cold beer in hand, reminding each other how marvellous we once had been.

There is one item of gear I never did dispose of, however—my skates.  Polished kangaroo leather atop rockered blades, with wide white laces, they sit in their original box in my locker, scarred and nicked from the hockey-wars.  And once in a while, I swear I hear them calling me.

But it’s been twenty years since I last answered that siren call, and I doubt I ever will again.  Nevertheless, getting rid of those skates would be akin to closing the door irrevocably on a significant portion of my life, and I’m reconciled never to do that.   That task, alas, will fall eventually to someone else.

I’m content now to let younger men play the game, giving their all in quest of that elusive Stanley Cup, probably the most beautiful and most difficult of any major sports trophy to win.  It’s enough now to watch, to cheer—and yes, to imagine realizing the dream of winning the Cup that every hockey player, boy and man, harbours forever.

That, at least, never grows old.