Growing up in a U.S./Canadian border city with the great wilds of Windsor, Ontario a mere few miles away, there are Canadian cultural curiosities that just seep into your life. When your frame of reference includes radio and television stations that begin with ‘C’, watching Saturday morning curling, knowing who movie host Bill Kennedy was, or listening to the legendary Foster Hewitt do play by play for Hockey Night In Canada games, you are, for all intents and purposes, an honorary Canadian citizen.
Most everything I ever learned about hockey in my younger years I gleaned from those Hockey Night In Canada broadcasts and Hewitt’s adrenaline pumping voice made even the most routine play seem like you were always just a hair away from something magnificent. For me, Saturday nights were made for a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken and another tilt between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadians.
Hewitt, who coined the phrase, “he shoots, he scores!”, once said: “I try to sell hockey. The man who sells his product, not himself, is valuable to his sponsors.”
I’m sure he was right about the sponsors but, personally, listening to him describing those mad rushes up ice sold me on hockey and made me want to learn to skate. Forget about the inevitable danger, I wanted to get out on the ice and fly.
I was a faithful Detroit Red Wings fan but it was the Canadian, Hewitt, that inspired me right into a pair of CCM’s. It was obvious I was going to have to learn to be a decent skater or none of the rest; the pads, the stick, the gloves or the skill-set, would ever come to pass.
Hearing me muse about wanting to be a player, a teacher of mine handed me a pair of old hockey skates one day, declaring his own passion for the game and the hopes that this would get me started. They were fairly broken down but oddly in my size and good enough to see what I could do.
One catch though…at 15 I was embarrassed to fall on my ass in front of people, feeling like I should already have mastered this skill much earlier on in my border city upbringing. I had to figure out a way around the humiliation until I got my hockey legs under me, then unveil myself, suggesting that I’d popped out of the womb with sharp metal objects strapped to my feet like a real Canuck.
As soon as it got onto Winter and the nearby lake was frozen I got up on a Saturday morning at around 5:30am and hiked down to a public beach front entry point and strapped on my skates. Even though it was surrounded by houses, I was pretty sure that the majority of folks would still be in bed, uninterested in watching some wobbly little twerp compound contusions.
I was also too embarrassed to get a real teacher or go to a teaching facility so I was going to teach myself technique gleaned purely from watching Hockey Night In Canada. I figured there shouldn’t be much problem since all the moves were safely cataloged in my head and I’d just call them up, break down the action and imitate the motion until I could do what I had imagined doing.
It’s a shame I was such a head case that I had to go to my own school because of a fragile pride but that was the way I was going to do it and there was no one at home to tell crazy-only-child there were better ways. I doubt if my mother even knew I was doing this since I’d go to the lake, bust my rear end a little, and be back before she’d brushed her teeth.
At first I worked just to stabilize myself since remaining upright is the preferred posture for a good skater. Then, with a little confidence, I moved on to a crossover step, side-stop, skating backwards and crossing over backwards and so on, until I had approximated a fairly mediocre hockey player. That was good enough for starters and at least no one saw me, that I was aware of, looking like a toddler on a bender.
After going through my private basic training I graduated to some equipment, including better skates and before long I was learning to shoot and playing pick up games on the lake near my friend Gary’s house. He’d clear the snow the night before and use the embankment as makeshift boards around the rink. It was there that I acquired that trophy of all trophies, a stick slash to the side.
During the melee that was the game I didn’t even know it had happened until we went home and I was taking my jersey off and there it was, a cut about 4 inches long that would have bled more but for my tee-shirt that acted as a convenient compress. Now turn away from the rest of this sentence (move to next paragraph) if you don’t want to know the gory details but…the tee was literally stuck inside the wound and had to be peeled out of there and the site swabbed with hydrogen peroxide (yuck, in hindsight).
My hockey career would move into indoor rinks and even involve leagues but that first cut went onto become a full fledged scar, a badge of honor signifying that, beyond any future accomplishment, I was a true hockey player. What’s better, that scar has never gone away and become a prized possession to be hauled out at parties and given an enriched story along the lines of Lord Tennyson’s epic Charge of the Light Brigade. Sure, it starts ignobly enough with a simple, “Hey, do you wanna see my hockey scar?”, but in my head the poetry goes a bit differently:
All in the rink of Death
Skated the one bearing lumber:
‘Forward, the puck up ice!’
Charge for the net he said:
Over the blue line of Death
Skated the bloodied one, eh?