and so this is christmas

Happy holidays from the Toronto Maple Leafs of Christmas past, and their seasonally spirited owner, Harold Ballard. What else, really, can you say, faced with the team’s 1987-88 Christmas card? A mention of Leafs’ mascot T.C. Puck might be order, since he shows up in both photo and painting. The latter, painted by Joan Healey, is called “A Gift For The Giver.”

A very Merry Christmas, and a happy new year.  Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.

 

 

tijuana brash

Jean Béliveau, thoroughbreding through centre!

Frank Mahovlich, moosing down the wing past the Montreal blueline!

I don’t what it is about Blades and Brass, but it makes sense. If you’ve screened William Canning’s short film from back in bygone 1967, maybe you know this already. The old technicoloured hockey is fascinating in its own, though without the soundtrack, it just wouldn’t be the classic it is. Don Douglas wrote that, and Ken Campbell orchestrated it. Just what kind of sense the pairing of the hockey and the music makes, the how, and the why of it — that’s a whole other parcel of questions that might be better off left to itself, over there, in the shade, where maybe is it best if we just leave it unopened? The National Film Board’s catalogue copy has an understated charm that  surprises even as it fails to convey the near-perfect oddity of what you’re about to watch. “This short documentary showcases the best of the 1967 National Hockey League season, set to music in the Tijuana Brass style.”

Well, why not?

Jacques Laperriere!

Bobby Hull!

John Ferguson!

Forgive all the exclaiming, but I’m not sure there’s any other way to translate the footage to the page.

Terry Sawchuk! Eddie Giacomin! Gump Worsley in full flop!

Toronto’s Bob Pulford looking downcast! Béliveau wailing on Reggie Fleming of the New York Rangers! Phil Goyette, not seeing the shot that hits him amidships and drops him to the ice in painful anguish that causes you to shift in your seat, especially if you happen to be male! J.C. Tremblay carried off on a stretcher! One lonesome overshoe on the ice! The rink crew scraping up bloody slush! Toe Blake in a porkpie hat, chewing his chaw! Béliveau pressing a towel to a cut! Great goal, Claude Provost!

Blades And Brass is a masterpiece. Is there any doubting this? Watch it, the whole thing. It’s not long. Me, now — watching these 50-year-old scenes, I’m just not sure how I’m going to be able to endure the plain old modern non-mariachi NHL.

 

the intangiblest game

A version of this post appeared at thewalrus.ca, over here, on April 19, 2017.

Winter has had it in for hockey for a couple of years now, with all the willful warming it’s been doing. And while we’ve tried our best not to take the surge of planetary temperatures personally, it does kind of feel like an attack bullseyed directly on our identity as much as our backyard rinks.

Can you blame Canadians for feeling persecuted? Nature’s punitive thaw is only part of the existential crisis that hockey — our game — finds itself facing. Across the country, simpler, safer, come-from-away sports like soccer and basketball are luring our kids from the ice. And why wouldn’t their parents let them leave? Armouring up for hockey is expensive, plus why risk the concussions?

Over at the NHL, the men who run the low-scoring, high-gloss league are still disputing the link between hockey head traumas and the cumulative damages it’s doing to brains. Collecting franchise fees from new teams in the Nevada desert rather than returning hockey to Quebec City isn’t, of course, a symbol of just how far the game is straying out of our national interest, it just seems like one.

We can’t even claim, as we’ve done in other beleaguered eras, that the players are still mostly ours. It’s no longer so: last season, for the first time in a century of NHL hockey, the league’s content of Canadian-born skaters fell below 50 per cent.

Another traditional curative of ours in times of hockey crisis involves whomping foreigners on international ice. We’re having trouble with that, too: sure we won the World Cup, but Canadian juniors and women were both bettered by U.S. rivals in recent world championships. The news last week that the NHL has put a nix on going to the 2018 Olympics is an international shame—but somehow doesn’t it feel like it’s us, Canadians, who are being singled out for punishment?

It wasn’t long ago that Ken Dryden, the game’s resident conscience and better angel, was raising his voice to warn that hockey was in danger of drifting out of the mainstream. The game’s indifference to its own wanton violence, he argued, was steering it into outright irrelevance.

Now, even with fighting on the fade, does hockey seem like it’s corrected that course? Even as the games go on, there are days when it feels like the game is diminishing so fast that its only future might be as a fairytale that our grandchildren will tell to theirs. Continue reading

where gretzkys forge their gifts

rink-closed-version-2

A version of this post appeared on page 129 of The Story of Canada in 150 Objects, published jointly by Canadian Geographic and The Walrus in January of 2017.

We know where hockey really lives: out the kitchen door, in the January cold, on the ice of our backyards, poured out by parents from a hose to freeze overnight. That’s where our Gretzkys forge their gifts, not to mention those of us whose only claim on the game is simple frigid passion. So the mythology says, at least, and it’s a beloved one. Now, in a warming world, outdoor rinks are increasingly at risk. A dire 2015 study projects that by 2090, the “skateability” of plein air rinks in Toronto and Montreal will have declined by 34 per cent. Maybe there are more pressing planetary threats, but this is one that skates to our very core. Of all the existential challenges facing hockey, from concussion crises to declining youth enrolment, this one seems a specially poignant threat: if the very ice won’t last, how can the game?

(Image: © Stephen Smith)

confident canada

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Paul Henderson was there last night in Toronto on the eve of the World Cup, and that was meet and right, probably, because it’s September and as the temperatures starts to drop and hockey fires up, Canadian self-regard hits its peak.

That’s what happened, of course, this month in 1972, and while we’ve never before been quite as filled with hockey hubris as we were that famous year, we have been Septemberly sure of ourselves ahead of the 1976 and 1987 Canada Cups, and going into 1996’s inaugural World Cup. The United States won that last one, of course, but that doesn’t really change a thing: before it all started, we were pretty sure that there was no way anyone could beat us.

This year’s World Cup, which begins today, pits six of the world’s top hockey nations against one another and — well, there are those two “concept teams,” too, Europe and the U-23 North Americas, all battling for the title of the world’s best hockey nation, and/or continent and/or age group.

Is Canada favoured to win? Canada is. Not that there aren’t those who believe that the youth and speed of Connor McDavid’s North Americans might surprise everyone. And not that the Canadian team is proclaiming its superiority — not for public consumption, anyway. “I didn’t know we were the favourite,” defenceman Shea Weber told Ken Campbell from The Hockey News this week. “I think we all think we’re going to win,” coach Mike Babcock was saying, which sounds kind of cocky without the context — he was talking about all the teams in the tournament rather than all the players in his dressing room.

The headline atop another Mirtle story in the morning’s Globe and Mail is one they store in a drawer in the newspaper’s composing room, ready for times like these, ahead of international hockey tournaments:

Canada full of confidence

 It’s not just that we’re playing at home, although that is, of course, to Canada’s advantage. No, this is mostly a question of our ongoing dominance on the ice, not least at successive Olympics. “This is a roster of Canadian players that, as a group,” Mirtle writes, “have become this country’s golden generation, and they largely only know winning at best-on-best events.”

Ken Campbell cites the “ridiculous” success that the 23 players on Canada’s roster bring to the table: between them, they’ve won 14 Stanley Cups, 21 Olympic gold medals, 15 World Championship gold medals, and 17 World Junior Championship gold medals. “It should come as no surprise,” Campbell writes, “that Canada is the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament … It would be a major shock to see anyone other than the Canadians holding up the ugliest trophy in the history of sports once the tournament ends.

“How exactly does Team Canada not win the World Cup of Hockey?” Steve Simmons wonders in The Toronto Sun.

“Only two things can really beat Canada in this tournament. One, is Canada. The other is a red-hot opposing goalie. And the belief here is that neither of those are likely to happen.”

The European coach is Ralph Krueger who, born in Winnipeg, isn’t actually European. Nevertheless, he’s on a similar page. “It’ll take a magical day,” he said this week. “It’ll take a world-class goaltending performance.”

There are other pages, of course.

The Finns are said to be … well, they’re also confident. “We know that we can beat anybody if we manage to do our own things and play as best as we can,” a bright young forward, Patrik Laine, told the Canadian Press. “I think we can even win this tournament. I’m not afraid to say that.”

Canadian Blue: Belleville's McFarlands wore a blue leaf (and petiole) to the 1959 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Canadian Blue: Belleville’s McFarlands wore a blue leaf (and petiole) to the 1959 World Championships in Prague, Czechoslovakia. (Photo: Classic Auctions)

Some Americans feel the same way. Montreal captain Max Pacioretty’s idea that Team USA can win is based on teammate Patrick Kane: “I feels he’s the best player in the game,” he told Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston.

Kane himself? “We know that, hey, it’s time right now to get the job done,” he said. “Who knows how many opportunities there will be for a lot of us in the future to play for Team USA. This group is probably at its peak right now, this group that has been together for the last six years. We want to make sure it’s our time to get it done.”

The Czech Republic plays the home team in tonight’s opening game. Frank Seravalli talked to forward Jakub Voracek about the game this morning and heard him scoff “at the notion that his underdog team was taking on an unbeatable juggernaut.”

“We’re not going to war 10 guys against 100,” Voracek said. “We’re going to play a hockey game, start at 0-0.”

•••

Any other factors that might play into Canada’s chances over the next ten days? I wrote in 2010 that, historically, Canadian teams going abroad to seek hockey dominance did best when (1) they travelled by ship; (2) at least one player on the roster was, in name or spirit, a Bobby; (3) the maple leaf they wore upon their sweaters was depicted with its stalk — its petiole, to use the botanical term — intact.

I didn’t invent this formula, I just looked at the facts. It was the maple leaf that was my biggest concern for our team’s chances going into the Vancouver Olympics due to a change in the look of the maple leaf adorning Canadian sweaters that year. I was worried because (a) an anatomically messed-up maple leaf doesn’t look right and is (b) possibly unpatriotic not to mention (c) why was it necessary to be fiddling with the maple leaf as well as (d) was there a risk that its very redesigned ugliness might somehow jinx our team and jeopardize our chances and (e) why would anyone think that it was worth risking years of Canadian hockey glory for this?

Leaf enthusiasts will say that the petiole has no bearing on a hockey team’s performance on the ice. Botanists, I mean there — although Maple Leaf enthusiasts in Toronto could argue the very same thing.

Another thing, too: we won in 2010, stalkless leaves and all, and in 2014 it happened again, at the Sochi Olympics, with a new Canadian logo featuring a newly designed incomplete new maple leaf.

Is too late to love those Sochi sweaters and wish we had them back? Because the World Cup is, of course, a merchandising opportunity as much as it’s anything else (and maybe more), there were always going to be new sweaters to sell. This year’s maple leaf lacks both stalk and charm. It’s too angular, looks out-of-true. The Globe and Mail’s Roy MacGregor thinks it looks like “a bleached marijuana plant,” but I don’t know. That would suggest that it once had some life in it.

It could be worse. The sweaters that the players from Team Europe and Team North America are wearing are each, in their own way, hideously bland — worse than anything I’ve seen in my laser-tag rec league, to borrow someone’s quip from Twitter. It’s not just that they’re generic, it looks like whoever designed them didn’t care how they turned out because it didn’t matter, so long as Connor McDavid would be putting one on, mobilizing shoppers across his home and native continent and beyond.

Old Foliage: Guy Charron's Canada sweater worn at the 1977 World Championships.

Old Foliage: Guy Charron’s Canada sweater worn at the 1977 World Championships in Vienna, Austria. (Photo: Classic Auctions)