It was a few weeks after summer had officially begun. I was up in my writing roost – a.k.a. my upstairs office. With the start of summer, I had just started writing a book. I’m not being presumptuous. It’s often what I’ve done over the past 15 or 20 years – I’ve taken the summer to complete a manuscript, I hope for publication soon after the summer is done. Anyway, I heard an SUV pull up next door and a man stepped out and began assembling his survey equipment. I asked him what was going on.
“They’re going to start building here,” he said. “They’re just waiting for this survey.”
I stood in what seemed thunderous chaos. Horses galloped to the right of me, to the left of me. Lances appeared to whisk past my ears. The ground felt as if it were trembling beneath my feet. And I grabbed my dad’s arm, fearing if I didn’t I might topple over. Just audible above the din of the rhythmic panting of the horses and the pounding of their hooves, I could hear singing.
Their faces suddenly lit up. One of the cameras in the arena caught them cheering and dancing all in a row. And there they were jumping up and down in unison to the sound of a Spice Girls pop tune. They were thrilled to be up on the jumbo screen at the Air Canada Centre. But most of all they loved showing off their team jerseys, the North Durham Blades hockey team. And the camera cut to a makeshift placard another young female hockey player was holding.
He wore a baseball cap that had no team emblem and a T-shirt with no sign of his number 81 on it. He smiled for several of the private photographs taken that day; and that was a bit out of the ordinary. Otherwise his visit to Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children went unnoticed even when he opened up a case and revealed – for the children and staff at the hospital only – the Stanley Cup, the one he and his fellow Pittsburgh Penguins had won last spring. And his visit would have gone unnoticed, but for a hospital staffer who tweeted:
“SickKids was buzzing with #StanleyCup fever today! Thx for visiting our patients & families @PKessel81 #NHL.”
I remember the moment, yes, as if it were yesterday. Those of us who were Edmonton Oilers fans back then will always remember. It was early in the third period in Game 7 of the Smyth Division final between arch Alberta rivals – the Calgary Flames and the Edmonton Oilers – in the 1985-86 season. And I remember stalwart CBC TV play-by-play announcer Don Whitman’s call vividly. His surprise and shock spoke for us all.
“Grant Fuhr clears, behind his own net,” he described rather calmly. But then, reacting to Oilers’ defenceman Steve Smith taking the puck, looking up ice and attempting a pass, Whitman continued, “They scored! Oh! Steve Smith, attempting to clear the puck out of his own zone, put it in his own net.”
It was like that 1981 movie, “Cannonball Run,” in which a bunch of fast-car addicts get a telephone call and immediately drop what they’re doing to join a cross-country auto race. Well, even if you don’t know the movie, suffice to say a couple of Saturdays ago I got a phone call from one of my hockey pals to assemble a work party.
“My house,” Mike MacDonald texted, “about 10 a.m.”
When I first arrived at Mike’s place, just after 10, nobody was there. But within seconds several of Mike’s neighbours, Kirk Buchanan, Scott Clayworth, Jamie Steele and Jim Sproxton emerged from their homes and converged on Mike’s garage. In seconds, they’d rolled up the door and were rifling through a pile of wood in the garage. Since this was my first time, I just offered to assist.
At Centennial College where I work in Toronto, this past week, I faced new students, people with different destinations than my students last fall. As I asked them about their aspirations for the course I was about to teach, one asked about what I do. In passing, I mentioned I’d be interviewing a doctor who believes the human brain can change, adapt, and even heal itself. Curious, I asked the class if anyone had ever had a traumatic brain experience.
“When I was young, I had a stroke,” one student said. “It took away my speech. I couldn’t talk.”
I nodded that her current speech suggested a full recovery. “What happened? How did your speech come back?”
“They taught me Italian,” she said. “I didn’t know a word of it. But in learning the Italian I got my English speech back.”
On Saturdays, 35 years ago, Brendan Shanahan the former NHL star forward, travelled to minor hockey games in west-end Toronto with his father. On those mornings at the arena, Donal Shanahan carried a newspaper under his arm; before each game “Father Don,” as he was known, would tap Brendan’s boyhood teammates on the head for good luck.
“For all those times … he got up in the morning (and) took me to the rink as a kid and tied my skates … or drove me to tournaments,” Brendan Shanahan told me in 1997, “I owe him.”
And 1997 was the year Shanahan won the Stanley Cup with the Red Wings. It was the first time Detroit had won the Cup in more than 40 years.
The image of Brendan going to the minor hockey rink a generation ago, and kids like him the generation before that, are what I call “Canadian Gothic,” not unlike the 1930s classic American painting by Grant Wood. Only in this case, the two figures are not a farmer’s wife and a farmer with a pitchfork, but rather a father with a hockey stick and a son or daughter with a hockey bag.
That’s Canadian Gothic, a vision and a symbolism I kept imagining all this past week as Canada’s men’s and women’s national hockey teams won gold medals at the Sochi Winter Olympic Games. Contrary to Don Cherry’s rock ’em sock ’em attitude being credited with the Canadian victories, I’d suggest to you that credit for Canada’s hockey gold medals at Sochi should be given to the players’ moms and dads.
Case in point. A few months before the women’s hockey Team Canada left for Russia, the team’s sponsor (Procter & Gamble’s “Thank You Moms campaign) arranged a special bonding dinner for the players in Laval, Quebec. My wife – a senior editor for Zoomer magazine – attended the dinner because she’d learned that the team brass had planned something different for the young women players – a surprise visit from the mothers.
The golden feeling went right round the room, as Anne Apps, who had not seen Gillian Apps since training camp in August, heartily embraced her daughter; as Nathalie Saviolidis caught up with her daughter Geneviéve Lacasse so that the two could share conversation about the goaltender’s prospects against the arch-rival Americans; and as veteran player Hayley Wickenheiser and her mom, Marilyn, talked of hers and Team Canada’s pursuit of a fourth straight gold medal.
“I’ve never met so many young women who appear so comfortable in their own skins,” Jayne MacAulay wrote in Zoomer. “Elite hockey, it appears, is a college for confidence and leadership.”
While not exactly the same – because there are fat NHL salaries attached – I remember at the beginning of February, when the Leafs brass continued an annual tradition of bringing the players’ fathers along for a road-trip to Florida; on the junket the fathers watched their sons play the Panthers in Miami and two nights later the Lightning in Tampa Bay. The atmosphere of the trip some likened to a tailgate party, during which the players roomed with their dads, attended father-and-son dinners and did a little fishing. Toronto Star reporter Curtis Rush talked to Randy Carlyle about the value of such an investment.
“It’s an opportunity where we can use (the players’) dads as a catalyst and say, ‘Hey, play well for your father.’”
The record shows that the Leafs got dumped by the Panthers 4-1 on the Tuesday night. But after the hoped-for pep talk from their dads and a couple of days’ R and R, on Thursday night the Leafs came through with a convincing 4-1 win over Tampa.
Over the past five months or so, I’ve carried on something of a tradition in our family. Back before Donal and Brendan Shanahan’s early Saturday trips to the rink in Mimico, back the 1960s, my dad – despite his newspaperman’s late-night hours – accompanied me to the outdoor rink in Agincourt to watch me play early-morning house-league hockey. Two generations later, this winter, I’ve accompanied my son-in-law as we watch his son Sawyer and his teal-jersey Sharks learn the skills of skating, stick-handling and shooting.
“Just like my own minor hockey days back in Agincourt,” I said to my son-in-law, “we learned it wasn’t about winning, but being there.”
Finally, I guess I should point out the irony of Brendan Shanahan’s NHL championship with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997. His traditional victory skate around Joe Louis Arena, that spring night in 1997, must have felt bittersweet.
“I regret that (my dad) wasn’t able to see me play in the NHL,” Brendan Shanahan said, “or watch me win the Stanley Cup.”
“Father Don” Shanahan, who had always “taken his son to the rink” in Brendan’s minor hockey days, died of Alzheimer’s disease six years before his son won the Stanley Cup.
It didn’t take long. The trees have just started to turn. Outside town the low spots each morning are full of that chilly mist. The sandals have pretty much been moved to the back of the closet along with many of my short-sleeved shirts. But I wasn’t ready for this: I got a promotional circular from the place I usually take my car for oil changes.
“Get ready to winterize,” it said. “Cold weather’s just around the corner.”
Somewhere in the palatial offices of the International Olympic Committee in Lausanne, Switzerland, they missed something. Yes, they’ve awarded the successful bids: it’s Sochi, Russia, in the winter of 2014 and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in the summer of 2016. They finally got all nations signed on to having women recognized as athletes. That’s all good. But when it came down to the most basic quotient of the games – putting bums in seats – it appears the IOC brain trust has bobbled the baton. The commentators spotted it right away.
“Why are there so many empty seats?” one of them said, Sunday.