Where I grew up in Northern Alberta, hockey was a big deal. My big brother played hockey. And my dad, who was not a great skater, played hockey in a community league. Everyone had a team, or pretended to.
Everyone talked about the “game last night”.
Neighbours, mostly men, watched televised games together. They sat around and smoked, drank rye and coke (or rye and seven), and cheered for the Oilers. During commercials they would revisit their other conversations of choice, like, how much Ottawa and Quebec were ruining Canada.
I wasn’t a fan. I’m still not a fan. I watch when it’s socially mandated.
I’m a fan of playing hockey. As a kid, on the street, and at the gym, I loved to play. I was a lunch box. I was never a great skater, although I love skating now. And I love passing the puck. I’m terrible at it, but I could seriously do that for hours.12
Watching hockey is another matter. I don’t like pro hockey. I don’t enjoy entertainment hockey. I don’t know how I became a hater, but here’s three stories that might have something to do with it.
“Bench clearing brawl!”
Whenever we played hockey, we would also play at the fighting part. Even into our teenage years, it was common, during a game, for someone to yell, “bench clearing brawl!” and then everyone would drop their mitts and sticks and run at each other and have a massive play fight. I say “play fight” but it could still be rough. But we were friends. It was mostly good.
One winter night, we were having a “bench clearing brawl!” at the local tennis court (hockey court). And two police officers charged onto the court with their batons drawn. One guy had his hand on his pistol and was yelling “break it up.” We were astonished and we didn’t even see them drive up (although the court was raised a little over the parking lot). We all looked at each other with blank faces and explained to these two angry cops that we were all pals. Turned out, they had received a phone call from one of the nearby homes that gangs were fighting.
We laughed about it later.
I’ll never forget that moment, with the sweat running down my face and our frosty breath catching the court lights in the dark. It was a beautiful, silent, winter evening, lit by the ambient glow reflected in the frost and clouds.
Luckily, no harm was done (we were all white kids, that night). Surprised by how we were seen by others, I found myself wondering. What were we enacting?
One season, my father and my friend’s father got tickets to go watch the Oilers play the New York Islanders. This was very exciting because my friend was a huge Islanders fan. Even though I didn’t watch hockey, and even though I wouldn’t have thought to go to a live game in Edmonton, I didn’t want to miss it either.
We called Edmonton “The City” back then. It was a three hour road trip and it was always exciting. We would watch on the highway and the first person to see the tall cityscape on the horizon would announce it to everyone else. We would sometimes stay in a high rise hotel right downtown and it all felt very magical.
What struck me about that trip to the game was that it was just the guys. It was nice, hanging out with my friend and our dads. To this day, I’ve nothing but warm thoughts for them. They’re gentle, intelligent, fun, and warm.
What transpired at the game was not.
The Oilers were losing. And we were cheering for the visiting team.
During the second period, two adult men who were sitting two rows below us stood up, turned around, gave us the finger and told us to “fuck off!”
They held eye contact with us until we sat down. And we did. We sat down and we were quiet.
To this day, I am filled with the toxic impulse to find those fuckers and break their noses. It’s shameful, I know. And yet, there it is. They frightened us. We made ourselves small for them. Because, sports. And men.
Fight or leave
There was a second part to that experience in Edmonton that I’ll never forget. You see, the entire stadium was quiet while the Oilers were losing. No one cheered. No one made a sound.
Until there was a fight, that is. The third period was utterly quiet, with sudden bursts of standing and cheering for the combatants who would clinch and spin and then go to the bench.
It was eery. Everyone was sitting, silent. And then suddenly, everyone would rise and scream and yell. And then, almost as quickly, everyone was silent again.
And then, before the game finished, people started leaving. The four of us looked around at each other wondering what we were supposed to do. We stayed until the end.
People tell me hockey has come a long way. I’m not in a position to know one way or another. Gender stuff is funny though, and it’s not clear to me that things are improving.