tinsmiths and bakers, five-foot-one butchers

Johns Ferguson, Sr. & Jr.

It’s good to have a dad. If you don’t have one there’s no way you can make pro. That’s too bad but that’s just the way it is.
Pete McCormack, Understanding Ken (1998)

Hockey fathers are titans, if you read back into the game’s histories and its biographies and memoirs, that’s what you find, the fathers are like characters from folklore. They have bear-paw hands[1] and their strength earns them the nickname Magilla Gorilla.[2] If they felt like it, they could trace their ancestry back to the Duke of Rutland.[3]

They’re painters and five-foot-one butchers. [4] They’re tinsmiths with the MacDonald Sheet Metal Company in Winnipeg, as strong as an ox, and one day they knock a man down, one punch, at the corner of Selkirk and MacGregor, and then the man’s pal comes along, name of China Pete, and studies the downed man and says it’s Harry Dillon, the light heavyweight boxing champion.[5] Or else they work for the CNR in Lucknow, Ontario, in the wintertime, where they singlehandedly lift back onto the road a car that has skidded off. Once, on a dare, they hoist a 600-pound salt barrel onto a scale.[6] They’re excellent swimmers, and compete in three Olympics: 1968, 1972, 1976.[7] At one point they own a Coca-Cola franchise and then a Kuntz’s Brewery franchise out of Waterloo, Ontario. They have two big Geoffesson trucks.[8] They’re pleasant-looking men – five-foot-eight with brown hair, grey eyes, and head tilted at a jaunty angle to the right. Nobody wants to embarrass them, so they never ask the reason for the jaunty tilt.[9] They have no affinity for Americans. If they’re driving from Ontario to Saskatchewan in the summertime, even though it would make for a shorter trip, they refuse to travel through the United States.[10] One of their hobbies was mice.[11] They’re maintenance men at a textile factory in Ruzomberok.[12] They’re machinists in the Angus Shops of the Canadian Pacific Railway in east-end Montreal,[13] and also they’re bakers in Chicoutimi.[14] During the years when their son George is captain of the Maple Leafs, they work in Sudbury’s mines for Falconbridge and if a co-worker abuses Toronto, the fathers of hockey players piss on the heads of the abusers as they come up in a cage from underground.[15]

At 15, they leave home to become a lumberjack.[16] They work for Shawinigan Water and Power and meet their wives while stringing electrical wire in Trois-Rivières.[17] They think oatmeal is the key to life.[18] They play for the Winnipeg Blue Bombers.[19] Eagle-eyed, white-haired, and tanned, they resemble the baseball manager Sparky Anderson.[20] Their sons resemble them the way a terrier resembles a Great Dane.[21] After a stint as an air force navigator in the war, they refuse to fly ever again, so they never see their son play on Long Island.[22] Here’s what they do when they’d do when they go hunting in Saskatchewan at a time when they’re too broke to buy shotgun shells: run a coyote down on horseback, swoop out of the saddle to hobble it by slashing its hind leg with a knife, then smack on the skull with a rock or a fencepost.[23]

Ab Howe was the coyote chaser and whacker, Gordie’s dad, which, I guess, makes some sense. One other particular hockey father I would have liked to seen in action is Wilfred Paiement. Two of his sons played in the NHL, Wilf and Rosaire. There’s a photo of him in lumberjack garb, in a studio somewhere. He’s wearing a tie. At 12 years old, Wilfred arm-wrestled all comers, up to and including men weighing 250 pounds. In 1933, aged 24, he crushed the hand of Paul LaTour, the northern Quebec champion. Wilfred went to Quebec City in 1939. Eighteen thousand people gathered in the Coliseum there, and that’s where they watched him wrestle a 700-pound brown bear until the bear was sprawled out with its dead tongue gone blue.

They have to work. That’s one of the verities of all the old hockey fathers, the fact of their having to work. Or fight. The Wehrmacht would have killed Paul Henderson’s dad, if they could have, and they tried hard at Calais in 1944. Murray Dryden left school when the family wheat farm failed. Cliff Clarke was a driller in a dynamite crew in the mines under Flin Flon in Manitoba. Doug Orr packed explosives in Parry Sound, Ontario.

The fathers have a seam of sacrifice that I’m sure they themselves wouldn’t point to it, but still. Louie Sutter? Sired all those Brents and Darryls and Rons and Duanes? Never learned to skate. He had a farm to run. “We were just too far from town,” he said.

Viacheslav Kovalev writes in his book that he decided in the maternity ward that his son, Alexei, would be a hockey player. The Road To Success, the book is called. As an infant Alexei was covered with what you and I might call boils; his father prefers the word furuncles.

At four the boy was skating. He loved it so much that once he put his skates on and tried to walk down the five flights from his family’s apartment. He liked to ski. He never complained. He was small. In photos from kindergarten he wears shorts and dances under the gaze of a portrait of V.I. Lenin. When Alexei started playing hockey his father traded a box of candies for a real stick. He skated with children two and three years older than him, which some doctors thought would be dangerous. He liked basketball. He played the accordion. His father loved his independence. He practiced for two hours a day. When he was twelve his father drilled out the middles of pucks and filled them up with lead to strengthen the wrists.

Above all, the father said, what he wanted to teach his boy was kindness.

[1] Peter Mahovlich Sr., father of Frank and Peter Jr.; [2] Doug Messier, father of Mark; [3] Ben Conacher, father of Lionel; [4] Cal Gardner’s father; [5] Louis Sawchuk, father of Terry; [6] Garnet Henderson, father of Paul; [7] Vladimir Bure, father of Pavel and Valeri; [8] Charlie Meeker, Jr., father of Howie; [9] Steve Barilko, father of Bill; [10] Ted Baun, father of Bobby; [11] Borden Bossy, father of Mike; [12] George Mikita, father of Stan; [13] Onésime Richard, father of Maurice and Henri; [14] Jacques Vézina, father of Georges; [15] Fred Armstrong, father of George; [16] Gilbert Dionne, father of Marcel; [17] Arthur Béliveau, father of Jean; [18] Ted Donato’s father; [19] Steve Patrick, father of James; [20] Doug Messier, father of Mark; [21] Tom Clancy, father of King; [22] Borden Bossy, father of Mike; [23] Ab Howe, Gordie’s father.