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Ice Dreams

I grew up in a little Canadian town where we played ball near cornfields or in leafy squares, and got the hockey sticks out in late September. For reasons that I still can’t entirely explain, I became a hoops hostage in my mid-teens. I officially became a Basketball Guy, I think, during the UCLA Bruins’ astounding 88-game winning streak. I was a fan of Bill Walton and his Gang (and, later, of their coach, the legendary John Wooden), who were by early 1974 pursuing their third straight undefeated championship season. I remember my anguished disbelief when Notre Dame knocked off the Bruins in February to end the streak – it was a big enough game to actually be on television – and again two months later, when NC State (and the gloriously soaring David Thompson) beat them in the NCAA finals. (Or was that the semis?)

I had played the game for about a year and half by then. I was a grade 11 and thought I was getting good, but Haldimand County clay didn’t exactly ooze with hardwood competition. Or hardwood, for that matter: I played mainly on tile and that sort of parquet floor where the fingers of wood are always coming loose. I’ll bet there weren’t more than ten people in my town who even watched the Final Four that year, and most of them were the oddballs on my team whose skates were dusty, who believed that playing basketball was The Thing.

But before all that – with my Red River cereal and Riverview Dairy milk (home delivered!) – I ate and drank other sports: Hamilton Tiger Cat (and four-boy) football, Montreal Expos baseball (and endless games of “scrub” on the town square) and, especially, hockey (every kind, everywhere). I worshipped Gordie Howe from afar and the impossibly big and fast young men of the Junior D Caledonia Corvairs from as close as I could get. (I’d stick my nose right through the iron fencing that ran around the end boards.) The Sutherland Street Hockey League was fabulous in those days, and the games never stopped for long.

I don’t watch a lot of hockey in the regular season anymore, though I still pay attention. (I know the Ducks are no longer Mighty, and that Alexander the Great plays wing for the Washington Capitals.) But when CBC ran its annual Hockey Day in Canada last Saturday, I had cranked our coal-fired television up to watch. The Canadian hockey Goliath has often been something I wanted to take my slingshot to, but there’s still so much to love about the sport. I saw parts of all three games, but what grabs me by the heartstrings is what comes in between on Hockey Day: the grateful words of NHL players remembering their roots, the interview with that grinning guy who kept outdoor hockey alive in his Quebec town for 40 years, the rink that is the best hope of a struggling northern Saskatchewan community. I eat it up. It moves me to my sports-loving core. Gosh, I even got misty over the Tim Horton’s ad — yes, I insist on the comma! — with Sidney Crosby laughing and stickhandling with all the little fellas. I used to be one of those wee sprouts on skates, before Timbits or full facemasks had even been invented. And now, at an age where I should perhaps have outgrown these things, this ol’ basketball coach still has occasional hockey dreams: all that speed, the cool wind on my face, maybe one more great glove save from my goalie days…

Back in my hometown, there is a new twin-pad arena complex that has the town pretty excited. (Somebody had the smarts to get a new library built in the bargain. Come on, boys, you can read, too! ) I hope kids smile when they play, that they’re taught the speed and skill of that wonderful game, not just systems and corner grit. I hope the parents have some perspective. (I often had too lofty ambtions for my basketball coaching back in what folks always insisted was a hockey town, but there was one benefit: nobody thought their kid was going to the NBA.) The great Canuck poet Al Purdy described professional hockey as “this combination of ballet and murder”. True. But at its purest, and in the deepest caves of my memory, it’s a cool and an ever-gorgeous game. (And there are no goons, and no uptight, gum-chomping coaches. And I get to play forward whenever I want. And man, I can really fly out there…)

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