In the absence of major professional hockey, the NHL, the CBC and Bell have teamed up to keep the dream alive. Their reality show—sorry, their “docudrama”—Making the Cut gives sixty-eight Canadian hockey players the chance to win one of six spots at the 2005 training camp of a Canadian NHL team. It was a no-brainer for the league’s teams, who now have someone else to handle the weeding-out process and present them with top prospects. Lest anyone think this is a joke, let me assure you that the quality of play is quite high; some of the recruits have even played in the NHL before. A telling comment from Jack Birch, one of the Making the Cut coaches (he and a long list of coaches seem to do most of the work, while celebrity invitees Scotty Bowman and Mike Keenan are just there for show), is that there are many guys on that ice who have “cost scouts their jobs.” Still, the dream, such as it is, remains alive.
For me, the dream faded long ago. I never played organized hockey when I was a kid, which is a pretty serious confession for a hockey writer to make. According to my mother, when I hit the age at which many young Canadians start playing hockey, I was too sick to participate. By the time I recovered, I was far behind the other kids my age. I suppose I was sickly for most of my youth, which is why I turned into the wiry distance runner I am today as opposed to an athlete in a contact sport. The other story is that hockey is expensive, and my family couldn’t afford it—this seems more likely, as neither my brother nor my sister played hockey.
I made up for a lack of ice time by playing as much ball hockey as I could. In fact, ball hockey was the unit in my PE schedule in grade one. We played for a week, I guess, then the gym teacher tried to switch us over to pommel horses or springboards or something (yes, Garth, there was even a rope to climb). Unfortunately for her, the gymnastics didn’t take. We began every class sitting in a circle at the centre of the gym and chanting “Hockey! Hockey!” until she grudgingly dragged out the nets and plastic sticks. By grade two, some semblance of order was restored, and through a distraction of some kind (sex ed, maybe?) we were weaned off our blue and red blades.
At home, I played a good deal of street hockey in the schoolyard of the seemingly abandoned Grace Street Public School. I was at a French institution downtown and I didn’t know who went to Grace Street, but I envied them. They had benches in their yard that made convenient nets: low enough to keep you from raising the ball too much, but high enough to keep the goalie from smothering the net with his jacket. Eventually, I graduated to ball hockey at the local recreation centre (“Trinity Bellwoods all around us”), and we formed a team that played against the bullies from Parkdale, the tough-as-nails neighbourhood adjacent to my own.
When I hit high school, I felt like I was the only guy in the entire place who didn’t play hockey. St. Michael’s College School has a fine tradition of hockey. Tim Horton, Red Kelly, Sean Burke, Tony Tanti (yeah!) and Eric Lindros all played for St. Mike’s. Over the course of my five years there, the school iced six teams of differing ability: two junior teams (for grades 9 and 10), two senior teams, the Buzzers (an OHA Tier 2 Junior team) and the Majors (a Major Junior hockey franchise, which continues to be one of the top teams in the OHL).
In gym class, we no longer played ball hockey. There was an arena, of course, so part of the physical education program included bona fide ice time. Though my skating abilities were minimal, I was pleased to discover that my hockey skills were so-so, and more than that, I actually wasn’t the worst player in my class. I suppose my relative fitness helped, but for the first time in my life, I was actually a better hockey player than other people. Lewis Leon, for one. Lewis had a love for hockey that matched my own, and through what I can only call good, old-fashioned, private-boys’-school initiative, we formed a house league for ankle-burners like ourselves.
After a couple of seasons in the house league, I decided to try out for one of the school teams. This may seem like a realistic proposition to those who don’t know me, or to those who might assume that the house league had a certain skill level. It didn’t: we used pylons for goalies the first year. The second year, my team won the championship, thanks in part to Lewis Leon’s heart (if not his skill), and so I thought I might try out for the Senior B team, mostly made up of guys who played in church leagues or of former A or AA players who smoked a lot and thought they were rock stars.
This was not a realistic proposition. I was still years behind in terms of my skating, so much so that in the first few moments of the tryout, as I was struggling across the red line (with my head down, partly in shame, partly in pain), I collided head-on with Steven Brockerville. I went down hard and ended up with my chin split open, probably the result of my helmet being strapped too loosely. I don’t think I lost consciousness. I probably owe my life to coaches McKernan and McCann (good Irish boys), who thanked me for my “incredible” effort and then suggested I sit out the rest of the tryout.
As a consolation prize, I was offered the position of manager for the Baby Blues, one of the junior teams. The Baby Blues were so called because they were the B team of the Junior Double Blues, which got the pick of our best players. The Junior Double’s coach, however, was known as a bit of a prick, and so the Babies managed to scoop a couple of solid skaters. We went 24-0-1 that year, and I got my second hockey championship in two years (still one more than Dave Andreychuck).
In university, playing in a non-contact league, I actually scored a goal. That was the night of the varsity athletic awards, and I had been hanging out with the rest of the track team, drinking vodka at the coach’s house. I still wanted to play, though, so I took off early, joined the game (loaded) and scored a goal. I think it may have been my best game ever.
I don’t play hockey now because running takes up far too much of my time and I’m a bit concerned about getting injured. I look forward to the end of my running career when I can join a league of fat, old, slow guys and be a hotshot until I get fat, old and slow myself. For there are many hockey players in this country, and all of them have a dream. More than 4,000 came to the preliminary tryouts for Making the Cut, most of them knowing they didn’t have a chance, but hoping that maybe, just maybe…
And that’s the thing, I think. NHL, no NHL, lockout, strike, whatever—hockey goes on. It lives in memories and in dreams, in schoolyard rushes, six-year-olds chanting, drunk university distance runners and fat, old, slow guys. Especially fat, old, slow guys. As David Adams Richards says in his Hockey Dreams: Memories of a Man Who Couldn’t Play, “No matter how well, how badly we played, the game was ours. It was what the Colonel said it was—it was in our hearts. It was life.”
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner.