Playing hockey once meant all your worldly cares were forgotten as you made that perfect pass or scored that goal. All you had to worry about was The Game.
By Fiorenzo Arcadi
It’s a Saturday in March. It’s cold and snowing, and inside the local hockey store I own I’m surrounded by hockey equipment of every shape and size. To some, I personify the American view of the stereotypical Canadian, suffering through the stereotypical Canadian winter.
To the average American, Canada is nothing more than a source of pastoral snow for Christmas and body-numbing cold and inconvenience the rest of the winter. And of course, hockey.
In this hockey store customers stroll in and out, without great frequency, but they all stop and chat. The local hockey store is a link to the past, like the local general store or hardware store with the potbelly stove blazing in the middle. We are all like countless others before us, from coast to coast, who would gather on a snowy Saturday in the hub of their particular town to discuss the two major themes that permeate Canadian society: the weather and hockey.
Unsaid, unspoken, at times unfelt, but always lurking in the subconscious, is the feeling that the local hockey store provides. It is a return to simpler times. It is Canadiana within arms’ reach.
The look of the hockey equipment may change, but in reality skates are skates, sticks are sticks, and gloves are gloves. The National Hockey League is now grossly overextended (as a result of expansion). Most Canadians still pine for and cheer for the Original Six teams. Look at the crowds in Vancouver, Edmonton, or Calgary whenever the Canadiens or the Leafs visit. For the Canucks, Oilers, and Flames, it is almost like a road game. In Calgary, the Saddledome is a sea of red; however closer inspection shows that the red is trimmed with the blue and white of Les Habitants, not the white and gold of the Flames. The Original Six means simpler times… simpler lives.
Someone once said that the good old days were neither. But hindsight distorts reality. We cling to that which gives us comfort. We cling to those things that can be recalled quickly and bring on associated warmth and security. Hockey is not Jim Hughson and Bob Cole. Hockey Night in Canada is Danny Gallivan and Foster Hewitt.
Hockey Night in Canada
Hockey Night in Canada was Saturday nights. Games during the week, for many fans, were a right reserved for the sanctity of the playoffs. Sunday nights were for the imagination. NHL games were on CBC radio. Even Sunday night broadcasts showed an attempt to hang on to the past, because before television all NHL games were on the radio. But the sense of purity remained. You knew everyone’s name. Even the journeyman, up for a cup of coffee, was worthy of discussion and dissection around the stove.
Life in the big city was simpler. It wasn’t a big city; it was a collection of settlements—Weston, Mount Dennis, Leaside, Long Branch, New Toronto—each with its own particular feel but all with the comfort and security that comes with familiarity. Today, single buildings hold populations equally but the sense of community is long gone. In today’s world we don’t talk much to strangers. This is tragic, because even the best of friends were strangers once.
The local arena was the meeting point for towns during the winter. Even if you didn’t have a child playing hockey, you knew parents that did. It was a social event, not a necessity. You huddled together in galvanized tin barns, sipping your coffee, bundled up against a cold that settled in early and stayed the entire night, only to dissipate when you ventured back outside.
It was a chance to catch up, to plan, and to interact. It was community. You met your neighbours and made new friends. You got to know each other. There was a commonality with a future. You talked about your kids and what you hoped and dreamed for them. Visions were shared, discussed, and decided. You walked away a richer person for your interaction with others. The link was the game. Plans were made to meet the following week… at the game, or at the dance the team was pushing to raise money. It was always The Game. Road [street] hockey, once the stalwart of Canadian society and the producer of dreams in all who were young, is now a rarity.
Road hockey was the best reflection of Canadian society. It instilled the love for the game and the basic tenets of teamwork, fair play, and dispute resolution. Each player had their own role. Although their talents may have been less than others’, they still participated. Even the worst could still be a Beliveau, a Howe, or a Hull in their world. They wore the sweaters of their heroes and tried, sometimes in vain, to emulate their style. A right-hand shot, in his mind, could still be Bobby Hull.
In the city, road hockey reflected the changing face of Canada. New settlers in a neighbourhood brought a new crop of road hockey players. Part of a neighbourhood’s image was the ever-present road hockey game. Cars did not seem to affect the game. It was a minor inconvenience to move the net and allow a car to go by. Like the flow of traffic, constant and unabated, so flowed the players.
A new face would arrive, bringing a stick and ball. The question they asked was always a simple one: “Can I play?” It was a basic form of transition that allowed hockey to renew itself in perpetuity. Road hockey was a noble form of acceptance. It was the blending of societies. The new kid may have looked and sounded different from the others, but he wanted to play hockey. That was acceptable. He was acceptable. To the other players, he wasn’t really that different; he wanted to play the game.
Back to the local hockey store… The number of shoppers has now increased. There’s the doctor with his daughter whose skates that need sharpening. She is wearing a Florida Panthers jacket. He talks about the latest trials and tribulations on Carlton Street. Then there’s the hockey executive, resplendent in his bleu, blanc et rouge of Les Canadiens, who wants to talk about equipment for the league. The Game is being passed to another generation, and though the backroom machinations of the organizations have become greater, it still comes down to volunteers with a love for the game who ensure it continues.
As the great Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden once said, hockey was a game to be played by kids, until the kids were old enough to pass it on to kids of their own. Go to any hockey rink late at night and watch the old-timers playing their pickup game. It is a valiant yet losing battle to regain their youth. The “liniment leagues” means never admitting to mortality. Once a week—and at least once during the game—it will all come together and once again you are 8 or 9 years old. It is a liberating experience. All your worldly cares and woes are forgotten as you make that awesome move or perfect pass. You have been transported back to a time when life was simpler and someone else was in charge. All you had to worry about was The Game.
Another customer soon comes into the store, this one in a hurry. He just wanted to get his skates sharpened; no time to talk but the bond was there. He trusted me with his skates, his most important equipment possession. We were comrades through The Game. On his way out the door he stopped, cast a more discriminating glance at his blades, turned back, smiled and said, “Nice job.” Just one small act of kindness and caring, linked by The Game.
People often cite the expression that those who do not remember the past are doomed to repeat it. That is usually used in the context of mistakes being repeated. Maybe we should not forget the good. The game, its simplicity, its focus, should be recaptured. It brought a sense of community, something so painfully absent today that its passing should be lamented daily.
There’s no doubt that the participation of hockey has diminished on a national scale. Unfortunately, there are many factors: divorce; time constraints; technology; ice fees; equipment costs. It has become a rich person’s game that will never transition to the working-class establishment. The middle-class may just enjoy a simple game of hockey with their friends; for a moment the joy of the game is relived upon the youthful country that grew up with it.
As an immigrant to Canada it gave me tremendous joy to watch the game; it did something behind the backdrop of what I believed in. That is the Canadian character identity that is strong and courageous among the battles in the National Hockey League, elevating the winners and losers as heroic figures. The Game and everything it means survives. Unfortunately, it exists all too rarely and in too few locales.
Another customer comes into the hockey store. He’s wearing a Chicago Blackhawks jacket, and looks to be in no particular hurry. Probably wants to talk hockey.
Fiorenzo Arcadi is the owner of Toronto Hockey and Sports Store, a local hockey store serving the needs of local hockey players for over 20 years.
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