Hockey Day on Local Terms


Nepean, ON

Hockey becomes infused with a unique sense of community and geography when taken up by free-spirited Northerners. This I learned one afternoon last February, shortly after moving to Yellowknife. The Great Slave Invitational is a perennial tournament serious in name only. The setting is a natural rink, complete with boards and lights, in front of cozy houseboats on Yellowknife Bay. The year I was in town, six teams competed for the highly coveted, duct tape and toilet-paper roll “Houseboat Cup” (equal parts Lord Stanley and Red Green). I manned the blue line for Team Trailer Trash, proudly representing the trailer park where I was living. Our jerseys? Sleveless undershirts sporting numbers written in mustard. I took the trailer park theme one step further, sporting borrowed skates held together with packing tape. Scores were kept and a schedule followed. Knowing when you played next allowed maximum resting time inside the tournament host’s houseboat, with skates warming by the fire and The Hip on the stereo. With a sub-minus forty windchill outside, time inside was cherished. After an undefeated round-robin schedule, Trailer Trash lost a heartbreaking semi-final. The overtime winner was scored by a high-flying Frenchman from Fort Smith with waist-long dreadlocks and an anomalous competitive streak. It was a tough loss, but after three games and a potato-chips-and-water subsistence all day, I was content to head home. With the final game starting and the evening winds picking up, I trudged across the bay toward my trailer and contemplated the game in a national context. But what is that national context? I’ve recently grown weary of the hockey myths perpetuated by our macro breweries, telling us that hockey is our great national unifier. More Canadian children play soccer than hockey, and yet we are supposed to be 33 million obsessed with men dressed in garters and stockings looking to score. And while I count myself among the masses riveted by my home team's annual playoff march and the ups and downs of our national program, I am often left feeling that our frozen loyalties contain elements of the contrived and predictable, that we’re all just buying into exactly what we’re told to buy into. And yet, an organic sense of territorial pride had grown inside me during the afternoon. The scene of the natural rink set among houseboats on a mammoth lake is not one easily duplicated elsewhere in the world, nor was it scripted by a potato chip commercial. While following the NHL's fake cold war can feel routine and formulaic, that afternoon felt spontaneous, authentic and lacking a forced sense of Canadian-ness. Indeed, the climatic and social circumstances that underscored the tournament were legitimate, inescapable byproducts of life in the far North strong and free. Author Winona LaDuke writes of patriotism to a land but not a flag. I walked away that day feeling patriotic toward a land and a game, rather than a flag and a beer commercial.

Laura Leaf Gardens


Thunder Bay, ON

It snowed last night. Looking out the window to my backyard I'm reminded of winters years ago. When my first daughter Laura was very young I decided to build a rink in my backyard. My yard has a steady slope front to back, great for drainage, but a nightmare for making ice. I was not deterred. First I stomped the snow down, then I started watering, lightly at first, heavier as the base built up. I learned how to open frozen outdoor taps with a hair dryer. Later I discovered flexible electric heater cord designed for eaves. Slowly, the rink began to rise. I made snow banks along the low sides, then misted them so they would hold water. Some times I waited for snow. Some days I waited for cold. When the deep freeze hit I spent it standing in my backyard watering the lawn. And the rink rose higher. I found out that garden hose has to be emptied of all the water and brought inside right away. We always had new garden hose. My thumbs numbed from fanning the spray. My feet ached and I retreated to the house when I could. And the rink continued to rise. How could I explain? I had a picture in my head of the rink and I wasn't going to stop until it was made. What I didn't see was my wife taking my picture, or holding my daughter up to the window to watch. They named me 'Mister Zamboni Man'. And then, it was done. An engineering marvel with ice two feet thick at one end. My daughter could barely walk, but she was on skates. I made a name sign for the rink,Laura Leaf Gardens. Every year I would wait for snow and cold just to stand outside and water the lawn. The rink grew. I moved a swing set and extended the ice under a large Spruce tree. I put a bench under that tree and added flood lights. And I made another sign for my youngest daughter; Natalie's Ice Palace. Both my daughters, and some of their friends, learned to skate on that rink. We had skating parties with music and hot chocolate. We had Olympic Figure Skating competition and a Speedskating Oval. We played crack the whip and 'What Time is it Mister Wolf'. Laura's in university now. The big Spruce tree is gone and it's been years since I made the rink. I miss standing in the cold. Sometimes, when I look at my backyard, if I squint hard enough, I can still see a rink there. And I can almost see Mister Zamboni Man. Gosh I miss that guy.

The Old Wooden Toboggan


Hanover, ON

It was New Year’s Eve, 1996. The snow-covered backyard lay undisturbed by wind or footprint. Its slope dimly lit by an array of spotlights and the glow emanating from the house windows. The old wooden toboggan leaned against the back door – tall, regal, and freshly waxed. Although it was a remarkably calm winter night, the excitement was mounting at the top of the hill. Warmth radiated from the house, and the smell of freshly baked pastries lingered in the hallway as the athletes donned their costumes – suspendered snow pants, bulky jackets, and mittens-on-a-string. To the sounds of remixed 1950s rock tunes, they gathered their crazy carpets, flying saucers, and GT snow racers and rounded the house to the backyard. Although the athletes and their sleds varied in shape and size, the objectives remained the same – speed, distance, and, perhaps most importantly, fun. The first team mounted a flying saucer, and the frenzy began. The shouts and laughter rang across the neighbourhood as the athletes raced up and down the hill, fueled by the rush of the slide and the knowledge that, on this night, no child nor dog would be going to bed before midnight. Teams paired up to make trains. They traded sleds, and they swapped players. It came as no surprise that my father, Dr. Bob, was one of the most popular competitors. Not only did he bring unsurpassable energy to the game, but he and the old wooden toboggan were inseparable. For Dr. Bob, riding the old wooden toboggan was about technique. He kept his feet tucked up under the curled bow and insisted each team member’s legs wrapped around the rider in front to ensure no limb flew off the narrow base. He steered through a combination of leaning and shouting “C’mon baby”, and always warned his teammates to “Duck!” when the snow puffed up to whop the riders in the face. As the athletes tired, Dr. Bob made one final player swap; trading his son and daughter for his two best friends. The crowd roared as they watched the three grown men attempt to mount the old wooden toboggan. After a ten minute struggle, the kids sent them off with a push. Almost losing the rear rider at the first knoll, they managed to regain their momentum and plow through the fresh snow. They lurched across the flats, and halted just inches away from the fence that separated the backyard from the old railroad tracks. The record was set! The men were ecstatic! Never before had backyard tobogganing seen such aggression in the quest for distance. The celebration was muted only by the realization that the distance frontier had been reached. Sensing the end-point, Dr. Bob shouted from the bottom of the hill, “We’re going to need to build a ramp over that fence next year!” The crowd howled and headed inside to celebrate another great year. Dr. Bob returned the old wooden toboggan to its position – guardian of the backyard.

Idle Teens' New Game "More Fun Than Hockey"


Montreal, QC

There was no rink, nor diamond, no teams, no uniforms, no schedule, no trophy—nothing you’d find at a typical sporting event. Hell, there weren’t even any rules or a name for the game because no one had played it before. There was, however, a slick tobogganing hill, a set of stairs, an abandoned sled, and perfect snow to make iceballs. To the five teenagers cutting across Talbot Park it was everything they needed to invent Surfing The Winter Gauntlet. The object was simple—get from top to bottom, surfing down the hill on the plastic disk. If you fell you were eliminated. The four who weren’t surfing formed the “gallery,” which stood at intervals on the stairs down the hill. Each member of the gallery was allowed two iceballs to throw at the surfer. First up was Charles, the least coordinated of the six. At 16 years old, he had no history of participation in any organized sport. Charles pushed off from the top. Before the first break in the hill Charles had fallen on his face. Cheers rose from the gallery. A flurry of snowballs pelted him late. Next up was Al, the hockey star. Al stayed low on the disk to make a smaller target for the gallery. But he focused too much on the iceball threat and failed to see the approaching bump. He took air without preparing for it and crashed in spectacular fashion. More cheers. Next up was me, a tall, lanky basketball player (20 years ago). I ran and jumped on the disk. I took off fast down the hill and kept perfect balance, my long arms stretching out like wings, but I had started on an angle and was veering closer and closer to the stairs. The snowballs came fast but missed. I had to bail out before I hit the stairs. I crashed hard and the disc flew high up in the late afternoon sky. The gallery cheered. The ice balls kept coming. I took one in the head. 3 out of 5 had gone. Still no one had surfed the gauntlet. A man with a dog had now stopped to watch. Next up was Andrea—the lone female. She couldn’t throw an iceball to save her life, but she was an experienced snowboarder. When Andrea took off, her comfort on the hill was obvious. Her strategy for the gallery was to ignore it. She sped easily to the bottom of the hill. She credited her karma for protecting her from the iceballs. It was that easy. Now there was pressure for the last surfer, A.J., competing not only for himself but also male pride. A.J. pushed off firmly from the top. The gallery launched its attack. Several iceballs found their mark, but A.J. stayed upright, cool and calm. He too whizzed down to a flawless finish. The first game of this great new sport ended in a tie. How boring!

Memories On Ice


Ottawa, ON

I was never very sporty as a kid. That fact was not lost on my parents, especially given that under the same roof lived my brother, a child so taken with sport that he learned to drop his gloves before he could tie his shoelaces. On one side of the dining room table my sibling would test offensive strategies by pitting his peas against his potatoes while on the other sat I, glasses an inch thick and utterly unable to master that all-important skill of simultaneously walking and chewing gum. Communication being what it was in my family, I once mumbled something about wanting piano lessons and found myself promptly enrolled in hockey school. I could kiss my ritual of sipping hot chocolate and watching cartoons goodbye, my Saturday mornings were now shot to hell. Through no fault of my own, half of my weekend away from the stressful and socially awkward world of grade 2 was now to be spent in the frozen torment of a hockey arena, a world where kids hopped up on Eggos and adrenalin took pleasure in exertion, sweat, and the drive to succeed. You might as well have dropped me on Mars. Decked out in hockey pants I could tent in, shin pads that were up to my elbows and ice skates that felt like they had blades on the inside, I staggered towards the ice. I was no athlete but I was no idiot either, and I knew if I was having such a hard time getting around on dry ground that my chances on the ice were going to be meagre. As I approached the rink the gate opened, and beyond the boards I could see that lined and circled surface that is familiar to all Canadians. The playing field that I had watched from the stands so many times was about to become my reality. I recall being very afraid. I’m sure my parents were looking on anxiously and yelling encouragement, but I felt very alone. I remember taking a deep breath and, for the first time in my tiny life, just damn well going for it. I’d like to say that when I stepped on the ice something magical happened, that my soul became one with the rink, but that would be a lie. If there was any miracle, it was that my parents soon realised their son’s athletic limitations and pulled me out of hockey school before any serious psychological damage could be inflicted. And though my sporting career met an early demise, I did take away some important lessons from the experience, and isn’t that the point of amateur sport? As I found myself back in front of the television with a warm mug in my hands, it occurred to me that sometimes you have to try things that you think you can’t do, and that failure isn’t always failure. But most of all I learned to stop asking for piano lessons.

Well Grounded on the Road to Success


London, ON

The enduring myth of the overnight success is as old as sport itself. Although a fortunate few have managed to thwart the odds, for most athletes – and more specifically young players trying to make the National Hockey League – the road to stardom is long and unusually arduous. No one knows this better than London's own Drew Doughty, a defenceman who was second pick overall in the 2008 NHL draft and the newest member of the Los Angeles Kings organization. Much has been written about Drew and his accomplishments of late. But his success didn’t just happen overnight and he’ll be the first one to tell you he has some help along the way. Only coffee beans could be more grounded than Drew and he has his family to thank for that. Drew’s parents, Connie and Paul, two of the most self-effacing people you would ever want to meet, are at the forefront of this success story. The NHL draft is often viewed as a celebration of sorts, a reminder of all the sacrifices made along the way, the tournament travel, the hotel stays, the expenses. When the Doughty’s are asked what went through their minds the moment Drew was selected as the second overall pick of the 2008 draft the overwhelming definitive answer was relief. Says Connie: “I told myself I wouldn’t cry.” It seems she had done the crying years before the draft ever took place. Drew was just 15 when he left his home in London to play with the Guelph Storm of the Ontario Hockey League. “I just shut the door to his bedroom and didn’t open it for three weeks,” Connie admits. His leaving at such a young age broke her heart, even though she knew it was exactly what Drew wanted. After three weeks Connie finally got up the courage to enter Drew’s room. She noticed a teddy bear, the usual resting place of which was on a dresser in her room. There, laying at the head of Drew’s bed, the teddy bear held a message for Connie. It read, “I love you Mom.” Drew knew his mom was making a most unselfish sacrifice. She was letting him go. His note spoke volumes. “I’ve always wanted to play for LA. Ever since I was a kid Gretzky was my favourite player.” Drew got to meet his boyhood idol on the day of the draft but it was Wayne who introduced himself to Drew. While a host of Gretzky memorabilia once adorned the walls of Drew’s bedroom, in addition to an intact LA King’s Western Electric Trimline deskphone, circa 1990, still remaining, clearly no introduction was necessary. At the start of this interview Connie said, “I’m not sure where to begin but I do have an ending. The road to success is always under construction.” There's roadwork ahead for Drew but he's made a great start.

One shot


Mississauga, ON

One shot. We’d settle for one shot. Just one “virtually-impossible-but-still-have-a-chance” shot. In June, we’d watched a victorious Stanley Cup lap around the ice by Canada’s own Sidney Crosby. In August, he’d raise it again in his hometown of Cole Harbour to celebrate his 22nd birthday. My eight year old son had to be there. A chance to meet his hero enhanced with $10 posters that included ballots to be one of 87 to have your picture taken with Sidney and Cup. My son’s enthusiasm grew as did the list of people he’d buy posters. Eight posters…that’s 8 ballots! With thousands expected, we arrived early. Amongst the crowd, a smattering of posters. I enquired where I could purchase them. “Sorry…sold out”. Two hours early and sold out?? My heart sank. We had no ballot. Not one shot. Toting his #87 Penguins jersey my son asked “What do we do now Dad?” A father doesn’t always have answers. Nor does he always have a plan. I bought time. “We’ll just have to wait and see….be right back”. Wandering the street lined with people, I wondered if perhaps, during Sidney’s arrival, someone might inadvertently “drop” their ballot. I’d swoop down and grab it! Our shot! That’s how I envisioned it…my plan. Yet, at age 50+ with Parkinson’s, I have difficulties walking and never swoop. I hobbled to the start. Bagpipes began, followed by the mayor’s car. The local beauty queen. DJ on flatbed. Teammate. Finally, atop a big firetruck – Sidney and the Cup! I walked alongside the firetruck, alternately looking up at Sidney and down at the ground. Accentuated by my Parkinson’s exaggerated movements - flailing arms, gaited walk, blank stare. Soon, I noticed guards - on and around the firetruck - looking directly at me, speaking into concealed microphones. A motorcycled policeman drew closer and did the same. Was I stalking Sidney? Extorting the Cup?? Best to move along. Dejected…but not arrested. The sea of people was now a tsunami. Wading through, I noticed behind the stage, there were trucks and storage containers, but virtually no people. From here, at least we’d get a partial glimpse. Straining your neck, you could see the side where Sidney would enter. I recovered my family and together we strained. First came the mayor. Then the others. Each disembarking at the side. Then a firebell! We gave our necks one last good stretch. But the firetruck didn’t stop. It kept going. Past the side and behind the stage. In front of us!! This was it...our shot. “GO” we shouted. “STOP….BEHIND THE LINE.” retorted security. As our dejected son returned, another more severe breech of security broke out elsewhere. Guards left their post to assist. “GO…GO.” we again urged. Jersey in hand, he rushed to the firetruck just as Sidney descended. “Happy Birthday Sidney…would you sign my jersey?” while passing him the pen. They conferred where he’d like it signed and on the number seven he did. My son’s hockey number. We had it. Our one shot. Scored!

Injured Players Make Ends Meet as Parking Valets


Toronto, ON

In a startling sign of the harsh economic realities facing the global population today, reports indicate that injured Markel Pride players were spotted last night pulling double-duty as parking valets to help make ends meet while their compatriots battled CIX to a narrow, 15-14 loss in extra innings at the notoriously parking unfriendly Coronation Park. Denied a full softball salary while on the Disabled List, injured players including Commercial Underwriter, Marvin Azzopardi (knee); Service Desk Analyst, Paul Rambali (arm); and Actuarial Analyst, Aman Saggar (undisclosed), were seen assisting other ballplayers park their vehicles throughout the night. “You do what you gotta do,” shrugged Azzopardi, favouring his recently operated knee. “Just ‘cause we’re athletes doesn’t mean that we don’t suffer the same issues as normal people when the economy goes in the tank like this.” He then whistled for Saggar who quickly drove a rusted ’94 Chevy into the space being held by Azzopardi – the two agreeing to split the discreetly palmed toonie slipped to Azzopardi by a player from State Street. On the diamond directly behind them, the Pride led off in their first away game of the season against the imposing presence of the CIX squad. The teams traded a quartet of runs each through two innings; Rambali pressed into action by a depleted lineup, taking a rotation at 3rd base despite his injury. In one dutiful inning, he belted a long single, scored and managed to park four vehicles, earning a tidy 10-spot in the process. “It’s alright,” Rambali opined of having to moonlight as a parking valet despite his status as a highly-touted star athlete. “What I don’t like though are those crappy little eco-cars with their two seats and no leg room. It gets me all crunched up trying to park those things.” An errant foul ball off the bat of Network Analyst, Gonzalo Soliz, late in the game nearly caused a physical confrontation when he nearly hit his own car parked directly behind the Markel Pride dugout. It was not confirmed whether Soliz’s vehicle was deliberately left in that high-damage location as retribution for his failure to tip Azzopardi earlier. The game’s excitement built to a crescendo in the 6th inning as CIX rallied for two runs before tying the game with a furious four-run attack in the bottom of the 7th, sending the game into extra innings. Holding Markel off the scoreboard in the 8th frame, CIX scored the game winning run with a long RBI to center field. “I guess the good thing is we were busy on the sidelines thanks to the [Nine Inch Nails] concert [at the Molson Amphitheatre next door],” rationalized Saggar, returning keys from a Toyota Yaris belonging to a Mackenzie infielder. “Tough loss though – I’m not gonna sleep well tonight.” Under a towering maple tree only a few yards away from the dejected Pride dugout, Azzopardi and Rambali split their evening’s profits three ways – a total of $21 each. At least there’ll be food on the table.

Snow Leopard


Caledon, ON

Canada has previous winter Olympic hosting experience. The city of Calgary played host to the games in 1988. These games shone on the world stage and two unexpected bright stars emerged – British ski-jumper Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards and the Jamaican National Bobsled Team, composed of Devon Harris, Dudley Stokes, Michael White and Samuel Clayton. All were unprecedented underdogs who overcame stunning obstacles, exhibited true Olympic spirit and, in the process, won our hearts. Watching these men compete more than proved the adages “If you dream it, you can do it.” And “Nothing is impossible.” They gave many a lesson in determination and hard work and caused the International Olympic Committee to revise their rules. In 1990, the IOC introduced the “Eddie the Eagle rule” which states all Olympic hopefuls must compete in international events and be in either the top thirty percent or top fifty competitors in their field, whichever is smaller. The Vancouver 2010 Olympic Games will be introducing a man following the snowy tracks left by his Olympic hopeful predecessors - Kwame Nkrumah-Acheampong. He, alone, represents Ghana, Africa, the first time this country has had a qualifier for the Winter Olympics, and he, alone, is the ski team. Nkrumah-Acheampong qualified this past March and will be competing in both the slalom and giant-slalom events. His nickname is The Snow Leopard and he is on a mission to show the world what he is capable of achieving. Nkrumah-Acheampong has been skiing for exactly six years. His first two years on skis were spent working at an indoor ski facility in Martin Keynes, England. In 2005 Nkrumah-Acheampong decided to get more serious about skiing and focused on his dream to one day compete in the Olympics. He took it outside. His first outdoor skiing happened on the impressive slopes of Val d’Isere, France. Nkrumah-Acheampong, when asked how he managed to rise so quickly in the ski world in such a short period of time, answers simply “I have really sweated for it. It’s been a lot of heartache and a lot of hard work.” Nkrumah-Acheampong is realistic about his chances for winning a medal but says, philosophically, “For the Olympics, I want to ski down that mountain. People should be able to watch me and say, 'Wow, that guy is skiing very well for skiing only six years. And he's not last.’” Like Eddie the Eagle and the Jamaican Bobsled Team before him, Nkrumah-Acheampong has faced his share of detractors. He feels he has slowly won respect from fellow competitors as he continues to show he can ski “down those tough mountains”. Nkrumah-Acheampong is busy training and preparing for Vancouver. He has an infrastructure of support and financing he’s building, along with trying to carve out some family time. Nkrumah-Acheampong is driven, focused and determined, but not without a sense of humour. When told by a BBC reporter his story is a movie waiting to happen, he laughed then suggested Will Smith for the lead.

No, actually he won't play hockey


St. Albert, AB

"He might not play in the NHL, but he'll still be able to play hockey". The pediatric orthopaedic surgeon was examining the left foot of my 4 day old son; our first child, and the first son of a first son, of a first son, of an only son. I hadn't even asked about hockey, but the doctor, wisened by more than 20 years of parents' queries knew the questions was inevitable for a Canadian father: "Will he be able to play hockey". As it turned out, my son will never play hockey. His club foot is a symptom of a much bigger disorder. He's 7 now. A couple of surgeries later, blind, hearing impaired-- but with a cochlear implant--, and cognitively delayed. He will certainly pass away in the next decade, but we don't know when. Every Saturday night at 8 pm, after he's had a warm bath and has put his robot or race car or dinosaur pajamas on, we share the best part of the week. He sits on my lap with his special formula drink. We settle in to a big chair. We wrap ourselves tightly in a blanket. I turn on the TV and for half an hour I tell my son about the hockey game. He doesn't understand the game, but I don't care. Its not just about the game. Thinking back, the doctor's reply to my unasked question says as much about my son's "talipes equinovarus" as it does about hockey's place in our national psyche. It is, if you'll excuse the pun, in our bones. And you don't need an ortopaedic surgeon to diagnose that.