It was April 25, 1984. My beloved Nova Scotia Voyageurs, the top American Hockey League farm team for the Montreal Canadiens, were about to play what would be their last hockey game in Halifax. I was desperate to go but too young to drive myself. My older siblings refused to take me, despite my begging and cajoling throughout supper.
The clock ticked above the kitchen sink. 6:40 p.m. The puck dropped in less than an hour. There was no more time to get downtown, park, buy tickets and find our seats. I went quiet in defeat. Then a voice in the distance interrupted my thoughts.
He shouldn’t have been an option. In his mid-50s, he’d never quite recovered from a serious back operation that left him unable to tolerate cold arenas and hard seats.
“Get ready,” he repeated, laying down his napkin. “Put your coat on. … I’m taking you.”
A father-daughter date in those days was unheard of in a large, Lebanese family like mine.
The Vees lost spectacularly but I was exactly where I wanted to be – by my father’s side.
Unlike my siblings, I had history with the Vees, and through them, with my father. As a child, I’d sought to understand my foreign-born Biya, and make a connection. I craved alone time with him, followed him around the house and stood outside while he barbecued, keeping him company.
I dutifully studied Arabic, his mother tongue. This was a painful endeavour, especially Saturday morning lessons when I wanted to be watching cartoons like other kids.
“Eat everything on your plate,” he’d say, feeding me stories of growing up, sharing one egg between five brothers. He was from a faraway village in a country called Our Land.
Why Canada, I’d ask. “For my children,” he’d reply.
This answer made no sense to me for many years. He was 19, he hadn’t met my mother and we were decades away from being born.
Education and language were important values, thus the Arabic lessons. He was strict, overprotective and taught discipline. I wasn’t exactly afraid of him, but I was terrified of disappointing him.
Growing up, I struggled to find common ground.
Then came the Vees. In 1980 my Grade 6 class was invited to skate with the team on the gargantuan ice surface of the newly opened Halifax Metro Centre. At supper that night, I held court. “Best of all, I skated with the cutest hockey player,” I gushed, “twice, and held his hand both times.”
My crush was an unknown rookie who mostly sat on the bench. “I know who he is,” Dad nodded. “He’s newly arrived from Chicoutimi and needs a good haircut.” Dad and I discovered a hockey player that day whom we followed together throughout his meteoric rise. Guy Carbonneau would soon become a star for the Montreal Canadiens and eventually a Hockey Hall of Famer.
More than that, a hockey daughter was born when Canada’s national game opened the door to my father’s heart.
Like many in his generation of Lebanese immigrants who settled in Halifax in the 1950s and 60s, Phillip Anthony Arab was a rabid Montreal Canadiens’ fan. It may have been easy to cheer for the Habs then, during the team’s glory days when they dominated the six-team NHL. But hockey was probably also a cultural stick immigrants such as my Dad could hold in their hands, like a flag, and find belonging in a new home. All I really know is he and his buddies truly loved a good hockey game.
A devout Catholic, Dad scheduled his weekends around two events – the time of mass and the Habs game. His lighter side came out like clockwork, at 9 p.m. every Saturday night, as soon as the trumpets heralded the start of the game. Da, da-da da, Da da-da da, DAAAAH.
Those days of my youth were defined by my family’s Big Fat Lebanese Hockey Night in Canada. Shish kabobs sizzled in the fireplace, my uncles smoked their cherry-tobacco flavoured pipes and argela (hookah), and cousins and kids gathered in our basement, around one of the first big-screen televisions in the city, cheering for the Montreal Canadiens. It was a projector system with red, green and blue circles of light beaming the image off the front projection screen and onto the rear bigger screen.
Dad taught me the game – icing, high-sticking and playing short-handed. He explained offence and defence. The one thing he could never make me understand was offside, which became a “thing” between us well into adulthood. Of course, I would never get it or I would have to admit that I’ve been offside my whole life, caught between two worlds and cultures, and a father wanting me to be independent but reluctant to let me go.
In June, 2012, my father was in the hospital for two weeks, during what would have been his 50th wedding anniversary with my mother, who passed away a month earlier. He was heartbroken. I knew he had a love marriage, but seeing the power of his grief up close was a surprise.
The family sat around his hospital bed on the night that would have been their anniversary, watching the Stanley Cup playoffs. It was an exciting game, the low-scoring kind my Dad used to love. The New Jersey Devils nearly scored in the dying seconds of the third period, but the shot bounced off the net. It was going to overtime.
When I looked over at Dad then, I realized he didn’t care about this game. Would he have rallied if Montreal were playing? Or was he done? I wondered.
He died a few days later, just after Father’s Day, 10 years ago on Monday.
Dad was loyal to one team his whole life, while I flipped allegiances with every change of address and city. Slowly, as our relationship grew, I outgrew hockey altogether, some time after free long-distance and before Biya became too sick to gab on the phone.
But once a hockey daughter, always a hockey daughter.
Today, there is a team I do care about, that keeps me awake at night when they are in the playoffs. It’s the only team that has the power to bring my father back to me and into my living room, if only for a little while. It’s his team, Les Habitants. More than this, the Canadiens represent his legacy and the ultimate gift a father could give, when he left everything familiar for the unknown Canadian cold all those years ago, for his unborn children and their future.
Paula Arab is a Vancouver-based writer working on her first book, Hockey Daughter; Bonding With My Lebanese-born Biya.
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