Canadian Gothic

When Brendan Shanahan took his turn parading the Cup, it was a bittersweet moment.
When Brendan Shanahan took his turn parading the Cup, it was a bittersweet moment.

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.

Canadian women's Team Canada.
Canadian women’s Team Canada.

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.

Parents and coaches volunteering time and support have as much to do with the game as winning.
Parents and coaches volunteering time and support have as much to do with the game as winning.

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.

Sometimes Canadian Gothic is not picture perfect.

When heroes let you down

Dr. Allan Dafoe and the Dionne quintuplets on display at Corbeil, Ontario, in May of 1934

It was a new idea at the time. In the late 1990s, students in college were certainly used to attending classes during which experts lectured them. But perhaps not quite the way I envisioned such a thing. I was interested in having the journalism and broadcasting students I teach at Centennial College meet contemporary media figures, who were highly visible in the profession. One of the first to agree to come to engage my students was quite eager.

“I truly enjoy, and still feel flattered when I’m asked to chair a symposium, referee a debate, or give a speech,” she told me in March 2000.

My guest speaker was Pamela Wallin.

Peace, order and good information, please

Centennial College in Toronto recently asked me to organize a roundtable discussion during several days of lectures, study and debate on human rights. I agreed and have approached several acquaintances of mine in the federal civil service to participate. I was hopeful, in one case, that an expert on federal law might join the roundtable to offer a Canadian perspective.

“I’d love to, Ted,” he said. “But I’ve been told not to speak publicly on anything.”

“Not you too,” I responded. “Not like the scientists.”

Where the Junos come from

The current Juno Award owes its name to a champion of Canadian arts and culture from the late 1960s, Pierre Juneau. Photo Music Canada.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with some of my journalism students about the annual parade of awards shows – the Grammys, the People’s Choice Awards, the Oscars and the rest. The subject of this year’s Canadian music awards, coming up in April, eventually cropped up. They had all heard of the Junos, sure. But then I asked if anyone knew the origin of the Junos.

“Oh, it’s the name of the Canadian beach on D-Day,” one said.

“Yes, you’re right on the D-Day reference,” I said. “But not the musical one.”

“I know,” said one of my more erudite students. “Juno is the Roman goddess of marriage and queen of the gods.”

“Right again,” I said. “But she’s got nothing to do with the Juno Music Awards in Canada.”

Fewer epics, please

Christine Sinclair of the Canadian women’s soccer team. Courtesy The Record, U.K.

The Olympics have dominated much of our attention the past week. And as I suggested in my column last week, nobody deserves the attention or the applause more than these dedicated young athletes. However, there is one side effect to watching, listening to and reading about the Games I find bothersome. And it came up the other night just before the women’s soccer semi-final match between Team Canada and Team U.S.A. Somebody asked an analyst how important the game was for the Canadian women.

“Hugely,” she said. “It’s the most important game ever.”

The right to know

The Toronto mayor chased the Star reporter away from his backyard wall last week.The subject of Rob Ford’s reaction to reporter Daniel Dale’s investigation of land adjacent to the Toronto mayor’s property has come up in conversation a lot the past week. Some acquaintances of mine have described Dale’s poking around Ford’s backyard wall as provocative. Others find the Toronto mayor’s behaviour embarrassing. But I was taken aback by one friend’s criticism of Dale’s newspaper.

“That’s the ‘socialist’ Toronto Star for you,” he said.

Maybe Chaucer was right

Geoffrey Chaucer wrote "let sleeping dogs lie" in the 17th century with implications for 21st century politicians.

When my younger sister and I were growing up, our Greek-born American grandparents visited our home once a year. They came from the U.S. to stay during warm Canadian summer months. While visiting, my grandfather generally tolerated anything my sister and I did or said, with a few exceptions. We could never swear in front of him. We were never to call wrestling a “fixed” sport. And under no circumstances were we to criticize the U.S. president – in those years Richard Nixon – or the U.S. Vice-President (of Greek origin), Spiro Agnew.

“Let sleeping dogs lie,” my mother would warn us. By that, she meant that unless we really wanted to face my grandfather’s wrath, we should just avoid any discussion of Nixon’s near impeachment and Agnew’s resignation over tax evasion.

Building better citizens

Sgt. Isaac Ramos credits his years in Royal Canadian Air Cadets for his outlook and attitude about life.
Sgt. Isaac Ramos credits his years in Royal Canadian Air Cadets for his outlook on life.

The young man stole the show, when it was my job to do it. I had just finished a 30-minute talk at a military dinner in Etobicoke. There were about a hundred young people in the audience, members of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets (RCAC) No. 700 Squadron. I thought my talk – about the romance of aviation and the roots of national service – had gone well. I had managed to capture and keep the attention 12- to 18-year-olds. The end of my talk brought a genuine thank-you from a young warrant officer. Then a young man with sergeant’s stripes on his sleeve rose to speak.

“Four years ago, I was an irresponsible kid. I didn’t get along with my parents. I bad-mouthed everybody,” he said. “But today in the cadets it’s just the opposite.”

Gift of serving

Police officers file toward the Toronto Convention Centre on Jan. 19 to attend the funeral of Sgt. Ryan Russell. As many as 12,000 law enforcement and emergency response officials from across the continent attended the event. Photo courtesy Octavian Lacatusu.
Police officers file toward the Toronto Convention Centre on Jan. 19 to attend the funeral of Toronto Police Service's Sgt. Ryan Russell. As many as 12,000 law enforcement and emergency response officials from across the continent attended the event. Photo courtesy Octavian Lacatusu.

Like many, I found myself drawn to the real-life drama of two families coping. In the aftermath of Sgt. Ryan Russell’s senseless death in the streets of Toronto, last Wednesday morning, I watched the policing family try to come to terms with the loss of one of its own. Then, on Tuesday afternoon, I listened and watched his widow Christine Russell put her mourning into words in front of 12,000 people.

“Ryan always put others before him,” she said at the Toronto Convention Centre funeral Tuesday. “On Jan. 12, it cost him his life.”