A FROZEN RIVER OF STOUT
If it’s true that the best time for sports is when you’re eleven, I’ve discovered that it’s also pretty good when you’re forty. My athletic renaissance came on the heels of turning thirty-four, which is how old I was when I lit out to discover world hockey. Later, and older, I spent an entire summer dogging an Italian baseball team up and down the Boot. One evening while I was in Nettuno — my Italian baseballing town — I paced with some agitation behind the town’s seawall, holding my cellphone and listening to my friend Ozzie from his couch in Etobicoke, Ontario. He was shouting the names of undrafted nhlers: “Thomas Vokoun? Available, I think. Comrie? Gone. Brisebois? You really wanna pick Brisebois?”
Purple waves licked the beach not twenty feet from where I was standing under the bright Roman moon, pondering the kind of quibbler that must have perplexed Marcus Aurelius or Cicero or any number of Latin thinkers who’d paced this same long stretch of sand:
“Anson Carter gives us depth, sure, but if Brian Boucher’s around, you know we can never have too much goaltending.”
Ozzie paused while a Sputnik orbiting hundreds of miles overhead ensnared our transcontinental frequency in static, then volleyed a thought about the unpredictability of a young American goaltender. Would Boucher ever supplant Sean Burke as number one in Phoenix, he wondered, and, hey, what was Italy like anyway. I told him that Italy was fine, just fine, then pressed on with the matter at hand: to draft our fantasy league team with a handful of other hockey freaks.
Arguing eggheadedly over draft picks during the sweet soft hours of an Italian evening — to say nothing of spending what should have been prime holidaying time catching fungoes — is proof that sports means as much to me now as it ever did at age eleven. Which is saying a lot. As a boy growing up in suburban Toronto, my life was a hockey card collection, a gas station stamp book, a Team Canada poster, an Export ‘A’ Leafs calender, Gordie Howe’s name scribbled in blue ink on the back of a beer mat, Tiger Williams at Kingsway Motors, a pair of Marlie greys, a front tooth knocked out by Martin Dzako’s street hockey follow-through. I was just as obsessed as the next scamp with the gladiators of ice, but my friend Murray Heywood went one step further. When Murray was eight, his brothers would invite their friends over to watch the kid put on a show. He’d leave the room while they put a hockey card on the kitchen table, obscured except for the players’ eyes. They’d call Murray back into the room. He’d guess right every time.
The players Ozzie and I drafted onto our fantasy team were the adult equivalents of a hockey card collection. We obsessed over them as we once obsessed over the flat, sugar-dusted squares stacked stat-to-stat in shoeboxes and lunch tins. A fondness for the outdoor rinks and skating ponds and scraps of ice that collect in the ravines, creeks, and parking-lot potholes of my kid-dom returned after a long, post-adolescent, soul-clearing wander into the land of art, love, dope, movies, and the strains of Killing Joke. Hockey had been drummed out of my heart, head, and hands by demanding coaches, aggressive peers, and a natural tightening of life, to say nothing of the siren of rock and roll. It had led me away from sports, but it had taken me back there again. In rinks like Bill Bolton, Moss Park, DeLaSalle, St. Mike’s, Scadding Court, Dufferin Grove, McCormick, and Wallace Emerson — each pad seated near the heart of the city — I rediscovered the game.
This rebirth of sporting love is common among youngish Canadians who, on the other side of twenty-five, suddenly see hockey as being more than just the domain of guys in mullets weaned on White Snake and Extra Old Stock. A collection of these enlightened folk can be found every Easter weekend at the Exclaim! Cup hockey tournament, a yearly play-down sponsored by Exclaim!
, a national music magazine that is to The Hockey News
what Thurston Moore is to Michael Hedges. The tourney takes place over four days and features twenty-four musician teams whose players, like me, fell out of, then back in, love with the game. Members of the Fruit, Dufferin Groove, Wheatfield Souldiers, Victoria Humiliation, Vancouver Flying Vees, Edmonton Green Pepper All-Stars, and all the other teams know that while the dividing line between art and sport is thick, the E! Cup proves that the geek and the goon can co-exist, even flourish in a single body.
During the tourney, rinkside rock bands serenade the crowd with everything from “More Than a Feeling” played in twenty-second kerrangs
to the occasional hippie drum-jam extended for as long as it takes the referee to collect players for a faceoff. It’s the Vans Warped Tour meets the Allan Cup Finals. At the evening socials (coined the “Hockey Hootenany” by the organizer, Morningstar Tom Goodwin), the teams become bands again, executing the kind of cultural switcheroo that never would have happened back in my high-school days, not when left wingers were beating the snot out of safety-pinners on local football fields. For their performance at the ’04 Hootenany, the Montreal entry, organized by Ninja Tune records, debuted a work by British electronic music king Amon Tobin: a remix of the Hockey Night in Canada
theme. The tune — transformed by Tobin’s thunderous beats and growling industrial textures — became a celebration of hockey without the macho cruelty, art without the arrogance.
The E! Cup began as a challenge match between the Sonic Unyon Pond Hockey Squad (Sonic Unyon is a Hamilton label that’s put out records by Frank Black, Sianspheric, and Mayor McCA, who also happens to be Ric Seiling’s nephew) and my team, the Morningstars, which has suffered three straight Cup losses after winning the first three.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Best Game You Can Name by Dave Bidini. Copyright © 2005 by Dave Bidini. Excerpted by permission of McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.