The dead of a Peterborough winter. Snow, slush, grey, wet, bitter cold; all these are the benchmarks of our short days and long nights. Underfoot, gravel, filthy ice, cigarette butts, and frozen dog shit in sedimentary layers pave our buckling sidewalks. Spring sunlight and greenery are all too remote to be imagined. So we retreat to our screens, our friends, our families, and to whatever sustenance we can find in music. Is it not a glorious accident that ReFrame, Peterborough’s brilliant documentary film festival, always falls at exactly the midpoint of winter? If we can make it to ReFrame at the end of January, we can make it through the gloomy season.
I’ve tried all these coping strategies; they all help. But none of these distractions come close to my drug of choice: I watch NHL hockey. Even more incriminating, I am an unrepentant Habs fan.
Back in the day, such a hockey confession would be like blurting out that I couldn’t wait for the next WWE Smackdown during a seminar on Shakespeare’s sonnets. In my university days, hockey was seen as very uncool; a guarantee of permanent, woebegone celibacy. Only the seedy regulars in dingy bars watched hockey. Everyone else had better things to do on a winter evening.
Then, sometime around the millennium, the heavenly constellations shifted. Rule changes made the game faster. Better refereeing eliminated the tedious clutch-and-grab play. And the pros began playing beautiful hockey again, albeit sporadically. Who can forget Canada—5 USA—2, at the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics?
While there is still much to loathe about the NHL, in Peterborough, as in the rest of Canada, hockey is many things.
First, hockey is a business. The bulbous salaries of the players are obscene. Tickets to games in top-market cities like Toronto require a bank loan. The schedule is far too long: hockey in April, OK, but not hockey in June. There are too many trades. The fact that cities like Anaheim, Los Angeles, Phoenix, and now Las Vegas have NHL hockey teams while Regina, St. John’s, Quebec City, and Halifax do not speaks to the power of the dollar to control who sees the game. Given the speed and size of the players, the rinks are too small. But larger rinks are not built because of costs.
Hockey is a reflection of our national culture, warts and all. The crowd cheers for the crushing checks and fights. The game is far too gladiatorial; there are too many malicious hits to the head. Rough play too often stifles skilled, smaller players. The ethos of today’s hockey promotes dubious cultural linkages with a faux nationalism that, in the rants of Don Cherry, gives voice to a jingoistic celebration of so-called Canadian values that is truly cringe-worthy. Occasionally, Coaches Corner on Hockey Night in Canada is indistinguishable from Fox News. Of course, Cherry is free to indulge in his right-wing advocacy from his TV pulpit, but could he focus more on the performance of the right-wing (and other) players on the ice and less on the right-wing politicians he loves to promote?
NHL hockey is environmentally unsustainable. Hockey used to be played outdoors on natural ice. That was before global warming changed the rules. Now, the environmental footprint of the NHL is atrocious. Flying around North America to play hockey on artificial ice in cities with palm trees in winter is ludicrous.
Hockey is about drama. If there is compelling storyline between two evenly matched teams, as during a playoff elimination game, then a hockey game can transcend all our expectations. Such a game can produce a dramatic moment that even Shakespeare cannot touch. We watch a play for the performance, despite the fact we know the ending. But we don’t know the ending of a decisive hockey game between two great teams. On September 28, 1972, the iconic William Hutt was performing a matinee of King Lear at Stratford, when he turned to his audience after the storm scene on the heath and brought the house down with these simple words: “Ladies and gentlemen, Canada has just defeated Russia, 6 to 5.” Hutt later said that it was the largest round of applause he had ever heard in a theatre.
But most of all, hockey was be the game of our childhoods. Our nostalgia for the hockey we knew as children gets roughed up by the realities of the hockey we know as adults. Adult cynicism trumps childhood wonder.
Still, when I remember growing up in Montreal, hockey was my religion. The last organized, league team I played for was the Montreal West Central Pee-Wees back in the 50s. Someone’s father knew someone high up at Molson, which meant that my team—privileged anglo kids from the suburbs, oblivious to the gifts of class—got to play its final playoff game early one Sunday morning at the Montreal Forum, the Temple Mount of hockey for a kid.
After the game, we wandered around the cavernous old building unsupervised. I felt as if I had broken into a cathedral. Complete silence. Down one corridor we saw a bright room open with all the lights on. A salty smell in the air. We walked in. The sweaters from the previous night’s game were hanging up to dry, names and numbers facing out: Olmstead 15, Bouchard 3, Lach 16, Plante 1, Harvey 2 and Richard 9…. We had stumbled into the Canadiens’ dressing room. This was the Holiest of Holies. I remember seeing the quote from John McCrae’s Flanders Fields painted on the wall above the sweaters: “To you from failing hands we throw / The torch; be yours to hold it high.”
We touched nothing; we told no one.
Does hockey still matter? Probably not. Its time has passed. Or has it? Would a ten-year-old today feel the same way about seeing the Habs’ or Leafs’ dressing room? My reverence for the game may be dated. But the idealized mythology of hockey still exists on an organic level—despite the big business, digital swirl, and politics of hockey. It’s just that today’s fan culture uses different codes. The lyricism of the game is still there. Magic can still happen on the ice, if only we let ourselves see it.
Many thanks to Tim Etherington, hockey player extraordinaire, for his encyclopedic knowledge, sharp editorial advice and deep respect for the game.