GUEST COLUMN

Hockey is missing the goal

‘Children become gladiators playing out their parents' frustrations'

Roy MacGregor May 18 1981
GUEST COLUMN

Hockey is missing the goal

‘Children become gladiators playing out their parents' frustrations'

Roy MacGregor May 18 1981

Hockey is missing the goal

GUEST COLUMN

‘Children become gladiators playing out their parents' frustrations'

Roy MacGregor

Ido my best thinking naked. Not as you might think, but in the shower or, as happened three weeks ago, standing on the side of a frozen lake north of Helsinki with a dozen other pink, self-conscious Canadians, steam rising from us like overheated engines, which, in a way, we were. I was thinking not of a Finnish tradition, the sauna, which we were about to return to, but of what used to be a Canadian tradition, hockey that’s fun.

We had just come from an international misunderstanding, a lopsided hockey match where our opponents from nearby Lahti had done more giggling than shooting on the way to an 11-5 victory. An old cliché fit (the score was not indicative of the play) but not the old meaning (they could have won by whatever score they had chosen). Lahti was a real team, only the week before crowned the best old-timer hockey team of its kind in the world; they even came complete with team bus and fans. Their Canadian opponents— Thursday night irregulars for whom fans only came out in summer—had made the naïve, crucial mistake of calling themselves the Toronto Maple Leaves. It was intended as a harmless joke, a weak pun, but somehow, when the games were being arranged, this must have been translated into Finnish as the ex-Maple Leafs. Whereas Lahti had three former Finnish national team members on their roster, the closest any member of the Maany ple Leaves had ever been to the big time was the gold seats at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. Made up of teachers, salesmen, stockbrokers, a publisher, a lawyer, a psychiatrist and a university president, five of them over 50, the Leaves looked more like a jury than a hockey team. The best that could be said about the Canadian team was offered up by centre Alan Plaxton after the first period, with the Finns ahead 5-0: “I think we’re beginning to give them just a little bit more trouble in our end.”

All this would be nothing more than a bar tale were it not for the privileged view of forgotten hockey skills it provided. Coming home to the Stanley Cup playoffs and the endless ennui of the Calgary Flames only underlined the realization that hockey has forgotten that it began as a game. What an honor to be on the ice in Finland, to be the goat of passing plays as intricate as crewelwork, to hear the rare music of effortless skating, to step into the empty wind of passing bodies.

It would be unfair to say it was a bloodless affair. Our first game, a 9-2 loss against a Helsinki team called Wanhat Kissat, began when a thick, smiling Finn set his team pin into the fat of my thumb during the traditional exchange of gifts. Sharp, but a small point considering that in the National Hockey League this past season various jerks served 34,839 minutes in penalties, a new record and up more than 156 hours over the previous violent season.

Allan Fotheringham is ill.

Myth has it there used to be frozen ponds in this country, populated by catalogue shin pads, dung, numb toes and kids with ripened cheeks. Reality today is an angry father at Ottawa’s Canterbury Arena speaking, through the vapor of his Styrofoam cup, the words “I’d chain the little bastard to his net”—directed at a wandering goaltender who is all of eight years old. Perhaps the young goalie is simply trying to escape. The ice today is populated with faceless children, and while statistics can undoubtedly prove the mandatory mask has cut down on eye injuries, so too has it cut down on the humanity of simply playing. Children become gladiators, playing out NHL influences and parents’ frustrations rather than their own innocent dreams. When you stand with the parents, surrounded by their tension, you understand why Douglas Fisher’s recent report on recreation for the Ontario government termed this children’s pastime “barbaric” and “a poor ‘bang for a buck.’ ”

Eventually you come to realize that hockey won’t be rediscovered by the kids because the system won’t let them. When a well-meaning group in Southwestern Ontario set out, a few years back, to eliminate competition by outlawing statistics in the little leagues, it was ¿discovered the parents were «keeping the standings on the side, complete with betting. ^But what is happening, ironically, is that this most marvelous of amusements is being resurrected by older people who have made the simple decision that they don’t like pain, that hockey can be more grace than disgrace. Whether it’s the Thursday night irregulars, where the game has a priority roughly equal to the beer afterward, or the 10,000 registered old-timers in this country who honor a few basic rules—no checking, ’cause it hurts; no slapshots, ’cause they cut; no fighting, ’cause you’re banned—they are the best chance this sport has of once again being called a “game.”

Before going to Finland, the most vivid memory of my silly hockey career was the father of an 18-year-old I had inadvertently injured, hurdling over the boards and running toward me swinging a stick he had grabbed from the players’ bench, only to be felled by a two-hander from behind, delivered by my protective goaltender. A riot, in the small-town sense of the word. But now, now, I have forever the memory of the lucky forecheck at centre ice in Lahti, the long European ice between me and the goaltender, the one fake that finally worked, the shot, the realization, the light flashing, and when I turned, the joyous laugh from the pursuing defenceman. A riot, in the best sense of the word.

Roy MacGregor is a Maclean’s senior writer in Ottawa.