Well, the Cardiac Canadians did it again this year.
A cluster of young, amateur hockey players in the World Junior Hockey Championship managed to galvanize Canada with two intense heart-ripping playoff games, making sports fans out of a nation that hasn’t paid a lot of attention since the last winter Olympics.
Professional hockey, like most sports, has become a pasteurized consumer experience performed by overpaid mercenary thugs and a few sincere, often brilliant athletes. Professional sports are rightly regarded as entertainment these days, and they’re barely just that.
If you want to see good sports, aside from the Olympics, you have to go to the local soccer pitch, hockey rink, or high school gym.
The sports industry has become so enormous that actual sport has nearly become irrelevant, and the games only really spark the interest of fans when there’s a grudge match or a heart-stopping playoff series where the prima donna athletes suddenly remember what it was like to play as a team.
But while the hockey juniors were thrilling Canadians another young man died because of a hockey fight.
His helmet slipped off when he was checked and in the ensuing dustup he fell and hit his head. He never recovered from the coma. Don Sanderson’s parents made it clear they didn’t blame the other player involved, and even encouraged him to keep playing. But once again the outcry to ban fighting and clean up the sport echoes across the country.
Canada’s two indigenous sports, ice hockey and lacrosse, have historically been rough and violent, and there remains a stubborn number of hockey fans who adore rude, hard-contact sports. While they might enjoy a good deke or wrist shot, they appear to get more of a thrill when someone is pancaked into the boards. And that’s why the various volumes of Hockey’s Greatest Hits remain best sellers.
Most people claim hockey originated with the Gaelic prehistoric stick games of hurling and shinty, which might be why kids will still play a local pick-up game called shinny either on ice or in a field hockey version.
Others claim that hockey developed as these games merged with Choctaw lacrosse. When the colonialists’ priests first arrived they were horrified by the violence of this native game, the gambling and its spiritual aspects.
Native cultures have always taken their games seriously, and still do. Medicine men acted as coaches, and taboos and rituals and prayers were part of lacrosse which, in various tribes, went by transparent names like little war and brother of war, and bump hips. A coward was a man who dodged an opponent, and passing was originally considered a cheap trick. Biting, stomping, kicking, head butting and tripping were practised by the truly skilled.
Players died and were crippled in games, and it wasn’t just reserved for a few hotheads burning off a little energy thwacking each other. It was sometimes played between tribes as a substitute for war, and as many as 1,000 men would enter the field.
A lacrosse match was used by the Ottawa tribe to lure the British out of their fort to watch the game before they were all massacred. And we think its descendant, hockey, is too rough?
Lacrosse was played year round, including on frozen fields in winter. As immigration swelled the number of players, some innovative lover of lacrosse/shinny decided to try on a set of skates, so it could be played on frozen ponds and lakes, and thus ice hockey was born.
Putting a bunch of aggressive men on ice, wielding sticks while skating on knife-like blades, was bound to make hockey an even crazier game than lacrosse, and Canadians, naturally, welcomed it with enthusiasm.
This brief history makes it obvious why ice hockey will always be a balancing act between ballet and thuggery.
It inevitably attracts great athletes like Wayne Gretzky or Hayley Wickenheiser of the women’s international hockey team. It also attracts bad examples like Sean Avery, infamous for his “sloppy seconds” remark about a former girlfriend. While Avery might be a cad and a creep, suspending him for his stupid mouth was even more foolish. A player’s mouth has nothing to do with how he plays, and we should never forget that hockey has always needed a beast to walk alongside beauty.
Sports, by their nature, demand competition, and the rough competition of beefed out apes on a football field balances the scales that also carry the exquisite elegance of the Chinese girl twisting off the high diving board.
We have to remind ourselves that the word ‘fight’ derives from the word for ‘play.’ And play itself, evolved from risk … chance … hazard — whose various forms evolved into peril and plight.
Some people might want to put a sequined tutu on a gorilla and call it hockey, but no, that’s the Ice Capades. Hockey still means the occasional fight, teeth lost and elbows.
Even our prettiest players can be tough. The mythology tells us that Gordie Howe could elbow a player while simultaneously scoring a goal. Those legendary elbows were fast and hard and had some reach!
Watching these 18-year-olds play out their dreams, piling up the penalties, yet still defeating Sweden for the trophy, almost made me feel young again. Better than watching a bunch of mindless mercenaries mouthing platitudes and showing off on the ice.
And maybe that’s why more than 2 million Canadians — one out of 15 of us — far more than twice the audience of an NHL game, sat at their television sets, cheering for these young men and their determination.
Maybe hockey on television will eventually end up with lots of swirls and twirls, performed in sequined uniforms by players who always give 120 per cent in cliches and collect their millions, but the rest of us will be out beside the frozen ponds, watching the young ones with their black eyes and missing front teeth, playing like there’s no tomorrow.
Brian Brett, poet, journalist, novelist, lives on Salt Spring Island and returns to the Yukon whenever he can. His most recent book of poetry and prose is Uproar’s Your Only Music.