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.
The game organizer shows me to the dressing room, shared between Media and Greybeards. I choose the red Scotiabank Pro-Am for Alzheimer's jerseys for Team Media, as I grew up in Calgary, Flames red, it's in the blood. Teammates and archrivals trickle in. Garry Valk, a Toronto Maple Leaf in the late 1990s and the Sportsnet television fellow, is deeply tanned. Paul Reinhart, a star defenceman for the Flames when I was growing up and a man whose three sons are all stars in the making, admits that he hasn't skated since February. "Well, I skated yesterday," I casually note. Reinhart does not seem fazed.
We take to the ice, a warm-up. Team Media has several able players, who have competed for years and still play high-end rec hockey. The ice, fresh from the Zamboni's work, is silky smooth, wet and fast. Numerous pucks abound. I grab one, skate, and pass it to Reinhart, a player who, if not for a bad back, was probably headed to the Hockey Hall of Fame. Reinhart takes the pass and, known for his great skating, glides on.
It is surreal: I don't belong here, yet I am welcome or, at least, not ejected. I am the only one with a wood stick. I am the only one who uses a snowboard bag for hockey equipment. I don't tell anyone I can't skate backwards.
There is only one goalie, who switches teams through the game, which is composed of two 20-minute halves. To score on the empty net, a player must hit the posts or the crossbar -- a rule whose telling I somehow miss. Early on in the game, I score what was, I thought, the first goal. Greybeards are loafing it and on a two-on-one I ding the puck dead middle of the net. No goal, it is technically true, but the tally remains stitchmarked on the scoresheet of my heart.
Improbably, Media race to a 7-2 lead and I've notched an assist. Soon after, I too race, dashing ahead for a breakout pass that got ahead of me and as I push for the puck, gravity takes hold -- and I fall on my ass.
Another snapshot: I am on the ice, floating, monitoring the action. Skating by my girlfriend in the stands, I smile at her and half-wave. This does not go unnoticed by the greyest of Greybeards, Jack McIlhargey, still spry at 60. The man has twice reached the Stanley Cup final (but lost) with the Philadelphia Flyers, where he was a wild-haired pugilist on a squad better known as the Broad Street Bullies.
Time has softened Jack but.... aside from scoring goals, the thing hockey players love the very most is to chirp, to bust balls, the friendly ribbing that is entwined in the game. Hockey players will bust the balls of anyone whose balls need busting, opponents, teammates, men, women -- basically the nearest balls that can be busted. Jack calls out my (brief) inattention to hockey: "Hey, stop looking at the girls in the stands!" Later, unheard by me but relayed to me afterward -- I must have been in full flight on the ice, the air whooshing by, the totality of my senses focused on an upending victory -- Jack on the Greybeards bench observed my non-NHL skating ability: "Hey, Wobbly! Hey, Wobbly!"
Down 7-2 at halftime, Greybeards are not about to lose to a bunch of journalists, the latest lamest version of the pack of braying amateurs who asked all those prying questions after tough losses during their pro careers. Just four minutes into the second half, Greybeards have control, leading 8-7, a lead they would not relinquish. At one point, Dave Babych (who reached the Cup final in 1994 with Vancouver) skates over the blueline and, in stride and the empty net in sight, cracks a rifle. The puck clangs the crossbar like a church bell.
Well, that is how it's done.
The final on the board is a not-as-close-as-it-looks 11-9, Greybeards victory. It is, for us, a loss on paper, but a win in all other guises. Jack McIlhargey has a simple, smiling conclusion: "You were looking at your girl in the stands, no wonder you lost!" Someone suggests a group picture but one of the Greybeards, a true professional, says: "Beer, and a shower." In the locker room, that bastion of camaraderie and ball busting, Reinhart does not even consider resisting the obvious opportunity. Team Media, it is factually true, fell apart, composure melted, and gave up a huge victory-assured, upset-cemented 7-2 lead. It is time to ask a journalist some pointed questions. "What went wrong?" Reinhart queries. "How did you blow that?" Paul's smile is big, as big as everyone's in the room.