It had been half a lifetime.
After an 18-year absence from Canada’s national game, ice hockey, I found myself last summer invited to a promotional shinny match for a charity event. The friendly scrimmage was to be Team Media versus NHL Greybeards (er, Alumni, three of whom, research revealed, had in fact been first-round draft picks in their day). My unlikely ascension to hockey-playing adjacent to the likes of Paul Reinhart and Dave Babych was part of an ongoing series of charity work headlined by Mr. Hockey, Gordie Howe, and billed as the Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer’s, whose work and fun takes place soon again in Toronto, early May, with names in attendance such as Ray Bourque and Paul Coffey (sure, those guys can score, but can they play defence?).
Last August, on receiving the invitation to play in Vancouver, my first move was obvious: purchase skates. I had not been a budding hockey prodigy in my boyhood and had never played organized dad’s-shouting-at-children hockey, with equipment. I did know how to skate reasonably well, and played some casual games of shinny with friends, outdoors in real winter back in Calgary, when frostbite and goals were often of equal likelihood. Given extremities of financing and weather, street hockey, and floor hockey, were more commonly -- happier, warmer, cheaper -- variations on the real thing.
I am now 36, and while I was an enthusiastic athlete as a kid, I am stronger and fitter than I ever was when I was younger. Still, the prominent/pertinent fact loomed: Half a lifetime. The last time I skated/played ice hockey was at 18, first-year university, in a late-night game of shinny in Ottawa. I might have scored, hagiographies on fraying papyrus suggest, tattered and unreadable as they may be.
My first practice – facing the ominous prospect of playing with pros, even if greying – was conducted solo, on a Friday at lunch hour, a warm summer day and cold inside the Britannia community rink in East Vancouver, two dozen or so players, mostly men, mostly solo, skating and shooting around pucks. Love of the game. Men playing a boy’s game, paying to play a boy’s game. Love. Crack, crack, crack. Pop, pop, pop. A cacophony, the staccato bang of pucks, jarring at first and then somehow addictive, off the boards, the glass, goal posts.
Summertime sunshine streamed in from windows above the doors, the only real light. A faded Canadian flag was duct-taped to an adjacent wall. Tying on the skates, the fresh pair from Sport Chek, cut my fingers, hard laces, laced them on tight, scabs that lasted several weeks. The private marks of a (re)initiation. Olympians had practised here in 2010 – including a well-known pair of local Swedish twins. It buoyed a boy, these associations.
I was, at first, wobbly. From wobble to wobble, one foot, another foot, I began to find my stride. For the first while, stopping was a bit tricky. But it percolated, the language of travelling on blades of steel on ice. It felt good, heady. Puck, skate, pass/shoot. Skate, sprint, stop. Stepping off the ice, I was high. I felt, in the plainest terms, and perhaps pathetically atavistic, like a Canadian man.
Two more practices. Rapid -- relatively speaking -- progress. Three practices, of course, do not ten-thousand hours make. I was not yet a Sedin. Something one might call agility did, however, emerge, and I gained a (very) modest confidence. Head up, stick on ice, puck on the stick. Like riding a bike. I was sure to be the worst player on the ice come the showdown with NHL Greybeards but I felt fairly certain that my showing wouldn’t be absolutely woeful.
The appointed day was, as it had been for months in Vancouver last summer, sunny and warm. Mid-September, a Thursday, Hockey Afternoon in Vancouver, a spectacle/debacle that would not be televised, nor ripple across the broader or even nearby consciousness. Which suited me right good. My final practice had been the day before, snaking back into the city from the suburbs after a morning Roberto Luongo scrum at a golf course. I was poised.
Nervous, readying, I smoke (an occasional modest habit) a cigarette outside the arena, bummed off a friendly maintenance guy. I am the first to arrive. The venue is University of British Columbia’s Thunderbird Arena, which in 2010 hosted Olympic hockey games.