Once she has settled herself and called for tea, Adrienne Clarkson would like to make something clear.
“Hockey’s never been my favourite sport,” Clarkson says. “Football. Not American football, mind you. That’s too slow. Canadian football. Three-down football.”
Suddenly, she’s off on a ramble about the most recent Grey Cup and various plays within it.
“I could have been a quarterback,” Clarkson says. “I would have loved to have been a quarterback.”
She throws you a look that you take to mean that this is your last chance to lodge any objections. You have none. You are pretty sure that Adrienne Clarkson could have been Joe Montana if she’d chosen to.
She’s called you over to her ornately decorated Toronto house to discuss her namesake trophy, the Clarkson Cup.
Just turned 80, the former governor-general is as close to a grande dame as a country of hopped-up ranchers and pan-global arrivistes can hope to have. The sort of person who makes you painfully aware that no one bothered to teach you how to properly hold a tea cup.
Clarkson is dressed as if she’s headed to the Black and White Ball – a necklace-like sculpture and a dress that must have kept many Parisiens busy for several weeks. You are dressed as if you’ve been napping in the trunk of your car.
By “discuss the trophy,” we mean that you are going to discuss everything from Richard Serra to Inuit mythology to grindhouse (“Mad Max is the best action film of recent years, don’t you think?” – and it’s not really a question.)
But hockey. Okay. There has to be some hockey in here.
You are trying to sit up straight, but every one of Clarkson’s couches is so plush and voluminous that you cannot help but lie down and be enveloped by it. These are the couches you’ve seen on HBO prestige dramas.
Clarkson looks perfectly comported floating atop one. You look as if you’ve tripped over the rug and knocked yourself unconscious into one.
Once the tea has poured – oh dear God, do not spill this – and the football proviso stipulated, Clarkson is off. She didn’t come up with the Clarkson Cup. Not as such.
During the NHL lockout of 2004-05, Clarkson suggested that since the Stanley Cup was not currently in use, it ought to be awarded that year to a women’s team instead. She’s no longer sure exactly when or where she said it, but it became a news item and then a general talking point.
When the idea was scuppered by the killjoys at the NHL, someone wondered why Clarkson didn’t just create her own trophy.
“And I thought, ‘Yes, why don’t I?,’" Clarkson says, as if any one of us could have our own professional sports trophy if we only put our minds to it. “It’s not as if we can give people gift certificates to The Bay or something.”
So, as one does, she created a Cup. It’s now been paraded about for a decade. On Sunday, it will be awarded after a one-and-done in Toronto between the Calgary Inferno and the Canadiennes of Montreal.
Clarkson is not a hockey fan. Her husband, the writer John Ralston Saul, wanders in at one point for a quick natter. He’s dressed as though he’s just been addressing the United Nations.
Saul is a Leafs guy, which means he is in a state of near-constant disappointment about hockey.
“I’ll watch a game with him,” Clarkson says after he’s left. “But I’m not really following it. He’ll be sitting there, shouting and yelling to himself. As men who watch sports will do.”
For Clarkson, “male hockey” is too “brutish.” This doesn’t come across as squeamishness, but rather a distaste for anything ugly or base. Clarkson goes down a rabbit hole about pro sports being too concerned with “money and gain and male domination.”
It’s awfully hard to argue and, at this point, you would not dare try. No one wants to hear from a man shouting from inside a couch.
A decade ago, these ideas about the national pastime would have got you laughed out of the shop, but the world has changed. A lot of people are catching up to Clarkson’s way of thinking.
An admirer of aesthetics as well as equality, Clarkson sees women’s hockey as a purer version of the game.
“The way women play it – the non-brutal way – is the way people want to watch hockey. It’s helping us develop an idea of what hockey can be,” Clarkson says. “They are wonderful skaters and great athletes. That’s appealing.”
Since her Cup is given to the winner of the Canadian Women’s Hockey League, Clarkson also emphasizes its patriotic aspect.
“We have to keep hockey Canadian,” she says. “I’m of the generation that grew up with six teams and I still think of it as that. I live in the past that way.”
Clarkson didn’t play much sport. She was too studious. Her appreciation of the gridiron was sparked during a “health” class in high school. The football coach assigned the duty was too abashed to teach anything biological and so ran the class through the team playbook instead.
She remains a fan in that way – not of the teams or results, but of the tactics, the pomp and the idea of a perfected meritocracy.
“It’s worth having the Cup so that people know it’s there. It’s there,” Clarkson says.
Each year, she is the one who hands the trophy out. She’ll be at the Coca-Cola Coliseum with a couple of dozen family and friends on Sunday. She is aware that this thing she has made is now part of her legacy and, in the Lord Stanley sense, likely to be the most resilient to time.
Talking about it has put her into a supporter’s frame of mind, which is where any one of us ends up once we think for a while about sports.
She balls her fists and closes her eyes for an instant: “When I see [the players] swoop it away after it’s been presented, I’m just thrilled. It’s marvellous!”