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Ashley Wong

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I spent one Sunday afternoon helping my friend assemble the hockey net he had just purchased for his kids: fire engine red steel frame, polyester mesh netting – and a target to sharpen shooting skills.

Done, we stood back and admired the smart, sleek lines, the precision design. I started to say something about wishing I had such a net when I was a kid.

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But I stopped short.

Don’t get me wrong. Back in the day my friends and I would’ve leapt at the chance to play hockey with such a net, had it even been available, let alone affordable. But we would’ve missed out on so much. Because winter evenings on our neighbourhood rink in the shadow of the Canada Packers plant, a half-century ago and counting, making do for goal nets with what we could find or craft ourselves inspired ingenuity and resourcefulness, taught us leadership and teamwork and stirred us to dizzying levels of fun and joy.

The best-case scenario was when the French-Canadian brothers whose garage stood directly across the rink let us use the two sawhorses their dad had constructed for his woodworking. Those sawhorses were the best replacement for an actual net that we could ever hope to get our hands on. Roughly the right size and shape, if a little squat, they even sported a crossbar of sorts. Playing goalie in front of a sawhorse you easily imagined yourself as Tony Esposito or Gerry Cheevers, guarding the net for your team with valiant dives, kicks and catches.

If the sawhorses weren’t available, we opted for garbage-can lids as our goalposts. But it wasn’t always easy to swipe four lids from the cans along the adjacent back lane without some grown-up protesting. So sometimes we settled for boots, each goal marked by two boots spaced as equally apart as we could manage. Boots were plentiful because most of us changed out of them to put on skates. But not everybody. A few of us couldn’t skate if our lives depended on it so we kept our boots on and played goalie by default.

The trouble with boots as goalposts was that they often went sliding every which way when the puck hit them hard enough. Those moments produced a thrilling chaos as the goal yawned wide open and the goalie had to chase down the stray boot and reset it quickly, or risk someone taking advantage and scoring an opportunistic goal. And we knew to keep our eyes peeled for the occasional dishonest goalie not above pulling the retrieved boot a smidgen closer to the other. Goal sizes changed over the course of the game relative to the goalie’s integrity or cunning.

This imprecision led to heated arguments over what might have or not have been a goal, but we honed our debating skills in these negotiations, learned to stand up to hectoring know-it-alls, and on some charmed occasions achieved a peace that might’ve rivalled the Camp David Accords.

Inevitably, the number of competitors would thin out, in response to a mom calling someone home for supper – or sometimes an older sibling, or a dad, trudging to the rink, hands tucked deep in coat pockets, to remind us of the lateness of the hour.

This was the best time of all, as dusk descended and our breaths fogged the cool night air. Sweat lathered our backs and our cheeks flushed red. Snow and ice hardened in the creases of our pants, rendering them stiff as boards. But we played on. Those of us left behind felt privileged, untouchable, tasting the sweet fancy that, yes, anything was possible.

Players had to be traded to keep the teams even, but we managed the adjustments with remarkable alacrity and decisiveness. No time to waste now, soon the dark would shut the game down. We joined our new team no questions asked, no niceties exchanged beyond the self-appointed captain’s stick pointing to where we needed to play. Sworn enemies became instant allies. Another valuable life-lesson learned, and no teacher or parent anywhere to be seen.

Most of the boots were taken by now. So we took our hockey sticks and carved out hard chunks of snow-ice from the snowbanks surrounding the rink, setting them as makeshift goalposts to resume our game. With fewer players on the ice, there was more space to freewheel. The score exploded to incredible proportions; only the future accountants and statisticians among us felt it necessary to keep counting. This was magic time. Virtually no rules, no stoppages in play. Avowed puck hogs, showing a new-found generosity of spirit, passed to the younger and less skilled, who piled up confidence-inflating goals beyond their wildest dreams.

Finally it became too dark to see the puck. By now our snow boulder goalposts had disintegrated entirely. By game’s end we played with no goals at all, no goalies, just one mad rush after another, merely controlling the puck past your opponent’s last line of defence worthy to be conceded as a score. Great plays emerged. Heroic passes. We reached unimagined heights.

All without a real goal net.

In the business world we are often asked to identify goals that are S.M.A.R.T.: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. Playing with the net my friend and I had assembled for his kids might be like that.

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But I’ll raise a stick to imprecise goals, to playing under a starry Prairie sky with snow chunks as goalposts. Here’s to goals that are daring, untimed, magical and boundless.

John Danakas lives in Winnipeg.

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