Learning Humanity Through Hockey

On the last day of 2016. I found myself deep in thought at 70 miles per hour headed to a hockey rink.  While mounds of snow surrounded the state highway, I bathed myself in one of Canada’s national treasures: The Tragically Hip.  For whatever reason my music shuffled to “We Want To Be It” at the right moment and my mind wandered.

Drip, drip, drip.

I imagined what it would have been like to live in Canada and be traveling an hour, like I was, to play hockey.  All around me were the signs of what I pictured life in parts of our Northern neighbor must look like.  There was snow piled on the side of the road, some cars had snow on them, it was cold and of course my car was full of my hockey gear.

When’d you get so zen?

I thought about Gord Downie and what he must have gone through when he wrote this song – not knowing he would end up with terminal brain cancer.  Downie spent so much of his life introducing Canadians (and non-Canadians) to the culture and history of the country.  Downie introduced me to a little Ontario town known as “Bobcaygeon,” the “Hundreth Meridian” as well as some of the oddest and coolest historical parts of Canada. The legend of Maple Leafs’ player Bill Barilko has always been one of my favorite stories and Downie’s “Fifty Mission Cap” made him mythical.

Drip, drip.

However, driving through New York state isn’t even remotely close to Canada.  I’ll never forget the times I’ve driven on Queen Elizabeth Way in Ontario on the way to Toronto.  I always figured that if I could drive through New York City in rush hour or navigate the East Coast of the United States I could drive anywhere but the QEW is a completely different animal.  First, driving Kilometers is bizarre to me.  I’m so used to Miles Per Hour that when you put that km/h up on the sign, I start questioning my speedometer.  Plus I know that if I speed I’m going to get pulled over because I’m the guy from out of the country. Even if everyone else is blowing past me and trust me, if you drive the QEW they are going to blow past you, I will get pulled over.  Cars will leave you standing still like you aren’t even moving.  I’ve never driven a road like the QEW and I’m not sure there is anything that compares to it.

When you thought all my dreams sucked.

Getting to the rink, changing into my hockey gear and getting onto the ice for “sticks and pucks,” I realized that I wasn’t going to have a good day.  One side of the rink was full of 8 to 11 year olds, it seemed were killing it with their hockey coaches.  Center ice was full of younger kids and their fathers going from mini goal to mini goal at top speed.  Each time a kid ran into a goal I couldn’t help but imagine one of them breaking their necks but apparently they were made out of rubber.

Finally at the other end, “my end” so to speak was about five adults including myself. Taking turns shooting at a goal, we all were sizing each up until the oldest adult in a Red Wings jersey, took a cone from behind the boards and put it in the net.

“Four on four,” he shouted before pointing at a couple of the adults and a few of the 8 to 11 year olds.

I dropped down to the ice to stretch under the assumption that I would be picked for one of the teams.  As I stretched I could see one of the other players asking Red Wings jersey if I was playing.

“No he’s not playing,” Red Wings said as I finished stretching.

Was it because I was wearing the blue and white of my Toronto Maple Leafs?

Was it because I wasn’t the best skater?  I stood up, took my stick and puck past the red line near the bench and started puckhandling on my own.  From time to time I would look up and watch the rink, making sure that they knew I was there.  My new “Hamilton” Ribcore stick freshly taped pulled the puck back and forth while I avoided the young kids at center ice.

“Good play Ovie,” Red Wings yelled at one of the young kids on his team.

Apparently those young kids were much better than me or at least Red Wings thought he would rather play with them than me.  What does that say to me?  How should I feel? I come out to get better at hockey and instead of being given the chance to play, Red Wings picks little kids over me.  My heart sank.

I pondered the options: I could take it as an insult and take my puck and go home.  I almost did it too.  I stared at the rink door for a few minutes thinking how easy it would be to just skate over and leave.  If I just left I could avoid the embarrassment of being the adult standing by himself puckhandling.  I wouldn’t have the little kids out there staring at me. I wouldn’t have Red Wings skating past me as close as he could.

However, why should I let Red Wings win?  If I took my puck and went home it meant I drove an hour just to spend fifteen minutes on the ice.  It meant that someone else was going to dash my dreams.  It meant that I’m letting someone else decide whether I’m good or not.  It should be me who decides whether I give up or not.  It should be me who figures out whether I suck or not.  I can’t let Red Wings win.

I was just happy you gave a fuck.

After who-knows-how-long the game ended and I took the puck out to shoot on net.  One of the other adults called me over.

“Hey,” he said, “you are skating on the inside edges.”

“Yeah I know,” I replied, “I have a hard time with my edges.”

“Try these.”

He showed me a couple of skating moves that would force me to work on the outside edge of my blades, something that I went to a month’s worth of lessons to learn.

“I did some of these here in lessons,” I said.

“How long have you tried skating?”

“Since April.”

“I’ve been doing it for 40 years and I still do it wrong.”

If he does it wrong, well damn I’d hate to see doing it right.  This guy was skating backwards like a pro – moving every which way with the puck and smooth on his feet.

“There’s other classes you can take too, you should check them out.”

“Thanks,” I replied.

As the Zamboni came onto the ice, everyone scattered like flies and I was standing alone at the far end of the rink.  Me and the goal at the lonely end of the rink.  I just wanted to join in something but everyone was leaving – so I took the hint.

Might as well be on the moon

I got dressed and was the last one to leave the locker room – the weird guy who wasn’t a regular.  I have to admit if I knew it was going to be like that, maybe I would have reconsidered.  Between feeling like I was crap and being all alone for most of the session I could have been on a different planet.  No, it wasn’t fair, but at the same time I can choose to be better, I can choose to make myself better through work.  I’m not going to get better by taking my stuff and going home.  Had I walked through that rink door when I was left off the team I wouldn’t gain anything.  I would only lose.

It’s kinda lonesome though walking through a giant ice complex not knowing anyone and coming off a training session where you feel like crap.  I realize I’m not the most talented player and I have a lot to gain but the only way I’m going to get better is to play. I can’t help but feel like there’s a hidden message here somewhere.  I’m not sure what it is yet, but maybe in time.

Maybe the wound is too fresh, too raw and too exposed.  Maybe it’s just a matter of flat-out rivalry – Toronto and Detroit but I’d like to think that humanity is bigger than rivalry. Then again every single day we see prejudice, racism and animosity played out all over the world.  There’s no reason for us to let these issues cloud our judgement but we are humans and as such we make mistakes.  I can’t hold a grudge but I can choose to make myself a better hockey player.  I hope that one day they make themselves a better human.

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The Hip Of Humanity

Ever since I heard “New Orleans Is Sinking,” I’ve appreciated Gord Downie’s lyrical genius.  As I listened to other Tragically Hip songs I learned about Downie and the things that he was interested in.  Expanding my Hip knowledge is like asking me if I have read the encyclopedia, how can I finish something that is so deep?

Take “Wheat Kings” for example, a song that I always thought was about the Brandon Wheat Kings until I read the lyrics and learned about David Milgaard who was wrongly convicted for murdering Gail Miller.  Milgaard would spend “twenty years for nothing,” because he did not commit the crime and would even have twenty chances for parole being denied every time.

In 2012, Downie said in a CBC interview with George Stroumboulopoulos, “I don’t think you can throw over science and research for ideology.”  Downie, lead singer of the Canadian band The Tragically Hip, was speaking on the cutting of funding and support to small communities in Canada and how it affects their well-being.  Something that can lead to long-term issues like cancer, an issue that Downie knows all too well.  Downie’s ex-wife, Laurie survived breast cancer and Downie has terminal brain cancer.

The announcement of his diagnosis was followed by the band releasing a schedule of nationwide tour dates finishing up in Kingston, where the group has a street christened after them.

As Downie and the Hip toured Canada this past Summer on what was termed a final tour it made me think about what he was going through.  I pondered a man who has spent his life exploring his country, standing up for the people in his country, making people realize that those people need help and even though the Hip are one of Canada’s most cherished bands he’s never let that get to his head.

He’s opened people’s eyes to social injustice – to things that matter not just something random or nonsensical.  Obviously the world is going to miss someone like this.

However, the world is going to miss a man who asks questions.  A man who gets people to asks questions of themselves as well.  Questions that we might not ask unless a poet like him framed it in a melody.

A question like “how do we start dealing with our well-being?”

No, not just about eating the right things and going to the doctor more often, I don’t think that’s the message I get from looking at his last hurrah.  His lyrics seem more cutting and shrewd to be so simple as take care not to get the common cold.

He strikes me as the man who says “when I’m gone pick up where I left off and take care of one another.”  The man who in what could be his last year of his life toured his home country making people smile and spreading the good will of a band that never quit.  For a man who is so intent on keeping his personal life private, he made this last chapter the most documented part.  As someone who is private I can’t imagine announcing something like cancer on a website like he did, knowing that millions of people suddenly know.  With the advent of social media the diagnosis would be known almost instantly throughout the world.  His condition could never be private again.  Downie could never keep this secret again.

Maybe at this point though, it didn’t matter anymore.  There’s nothing left to hide.  It’s all up to us to continue what he started.  It’s all up to us whether we are Canadian or American or whatever nationality to look out for one another.  To keep the hope for humanity alive.  Downie’s hope that the fight against social injustice doesn’t stop with him.  Everyone, especially the people of Canada, continue to learn, love and take care of their land.  I’m proud to be a Hip fan even though I’m American.  I’m proud to have been introduced to Downie’s words before he left this world and to have been influenced by a man who never forgot that everyone matters no matter what they believe in because at the root of it all, we are human.