hockey in the bleak midwinter: sean fitz-gerald looks to the future of a sport in crisis

A version of this interview appeared in The Globe and Mail on Saturday, November 26, 2019.

Hockey may be religion in Canada, but is the faith fading?

Warnings of impending crisis are nothing new to the game that Canadians have, so fiercelyand for so long, claimed as their own. With another season well underway across the nation’s ice, the symptoms might be as serious as they’ve ever been. The fact that enrolment in youth hockey has been stagnating for years has to do with how expensive the game is to play and the concussive ways in which can harm your health; it also reflects how hockey has failed to figure out exactly how to explain its appeal to new Canadians. If, as Sean Fitz-Gerald points out in his new book, the game just doesn’t seem as essential as it once did, it also can seem that hockey, in the make-up of its players, fans, passions, and priorities, doesn’t always reflect modern-day Canada.     

 Fitz-Gerald lives in Toronto with his wife and two young (and hockey-playing) children. A veteran sportswriter who’s now a senior writer for The Athletic, he has played and loved the game for as long as he can remember. InBefore The Lights Go Out: A Season Inside A Game Worth Saving (McClelland & Stewart), he embeds himself in the hockey heartland of Peterborough, Ontario, using the local OHL team, the Petes, as a looking-glass into the game and how it’s strayed and faltered on its way into the 21stcentury — and where the way forward might lie.     

 Fitz-Gerald was on the phone in early October to answer the questions I was asking, not long after Before The Lights Go Out hit bookstore shelves across Canada, and then again when I called back for an update in November.

How was writing the book different from the day-to-day, game-by-game kind of reporting and writing you’re used to doing?

This felt more immersive. Day-to-day, if you’re at a game or a practice, you’re always looking for the news of the day. Then you have to turn around and interview and then immediately transcribe and often there’s a deadline. With the book, it took me a little while to get used to it: I could go to a practice, I could go to a game, take notes, lots of notes, interview people — but then I could just also sit back in a corner and observe things as they unfolded. Or sit in a coach’s office and just have a wide-ranging conversation that may or may not have had anything to do with the game that night, but there may be something bigger picture. It was a very different experience.

Was there a particular book that inspired you along the way, or informed the way you went about writing this one? 

I re-read and re-read, and thumbed through, and tried to reverse-engineer parts of Friday Night Lights. I mean, obviously, there’s no way that that’s going to be duplicated, one because Buzz Bissinger moved to Odessa, Texas, uprooted his entire life and his family, and lived there, and it was fully immersive. Whereas mine was kind of part-time, because I did have a day job and we do have the family here in Toronto. I got to Peterborough a lot — 15,000 kilometers on the car. But that was definitely a book that I re-read, and it was an inspiration.

How did you balance it all, the research and writing, the commuting, the demands of home?

I’m not sure. The short answer is that my wife, Caroline, is superhuman, and so much of this is impossible without her. She carried so much of the burden. This project was definitely a team effort, and she’s the captain of that team.

Sean Fitz-Gerald

Day-by-day, what I’d regularly do, I’d go up to Peterborough first thing in the morning. So get the kids to school, then drive straight to Peterborough, park myself in the Lansdowne Place Mall food court, because it had free Wi-Fi. And by nine o’clock in the morning, nine-thirty, I’d be set up, doing e-mails, transcribing. I’d go out to the car in the parking lot if I had to conduct interviews. So I’d finish my day-work and squeeze the book stuff in between. On the weekend, our son had his house league hockey team, of which I was the head coach; he had his select hockey team (I was the assistant coach); in the spring, he played house league ball hockey (I was the head coach), he played all-star ball hockey (I was the assistant coach); and over the summer, he played soccer and I was the head coach.

All that stuff I was balancing. For three years, it was immersive. It really helped the project. My day job is in sports, so I was dealing with the high-level stuff, the NHL, the end-product. And then on the weekends, I got to see how some of the ideas being floated up top are being implemented on the grassroots level.

So, going in, you well understood the challenges that hockey faces. As you delved deeper, did the detail you were discovering about the state of the game give you cause to be optimistic or fear for the worst?

I’m still wrestling with it — it was a bit of both. There were days where I’d have interviews, and I’d be, Oh my God, this game might be irreparable, the challenges are just so daunting, all these factors are working against it. And then I’d have other days where I’d say, Oh wait, no, there’s a lot of hope here, the game, it can do so many wonderful things for us as Canadians.

The people at the top, the decision-makers, are also well aware of the challenges and are actively trying to address them. And that was one of the more surprising things. I expected a lot of resistance — like a lot— when I went to minor hockey associations or boards or executives. I expected them to say, your whole premise is out to lunch, you’re out to lunch, this is a waste of time, hockey’s fine. But everybody — from [CEO] Tom Renney at Hockey Canada on down — said, yeah, we know we have challenges, what are the solutions, and what could possibly be the implementation protocol for a game that’s so widespread over a country so geographically diverse?

On one hand, the book you’re written follows a conventional, diary-of-a-season format. But it’s also very much about the city of Peterborough, its past, and the changing demographics that are shaping its future. Was there a sense that what you were working on here was as much about social forces that hockey exerts in Canada as much as those having to do with sports?

I like hockey. That’s not a hot take. And my wife and I have stumbled into creating a hockey family here. Our son, who’s eight, plays. Our daughter, who’s four, is a future all-time penalty minutes leader for the Canadian Olympic women’s team — she starts hockey school in a couple of weeks. We’ve found what hockey can do. We go to the rink now and we’ve met the literal butcher, the baker, candlestick-maker in our neighbourhood, that we might not otherwise have met. Our kids have made friends and they might not otherwise have made.

So on top of keeping them physically active, it really does sort of serve as a tether for the community. And as I talked to people, I learned how this was repeating itself over and over again, in towns and cities across Canada. It really did worthwhile to take a step back and evaluate what hockey has done for us as Canadians. And what are we at risk of losing if that tether does fray.

What’s your outlook for the game at this point? Are you optimistic that it can be redeemed?

The book aims to chart Canada’s evolving relationship with hockey. Canada is changing. And to be clear, that’s a good thing. For years and years, hockey, at the grassroots level, didn’t change. You know, hey, it’s cold, we’re opening the arena doors, come on in play hockey, because that’s what you always do — that doesn’t exist anymore. There are far more options for Canadian families, for Canadian children. And hockey has allowed a lot of barriers to grow up around it, to prevent access. It also makes it really challenging for children to stay in the game because it does demand so much. Hockey is a great game and it’s done wonderful things for Canada, but both in terms of accessibility and for the kids who are already in it — it needs desperately to make itself fun again.

With Don Cherry’s departure from Hockey Night in Canada and the soul-searching that has ensued in his wake, I wonder what you’d say has been revealed about and hockey and its diversity, or lack thereof?

It’s a really interesting question. Last weekend I was at a summit organized by the Greater Toronto Hockey League for volunteers and stakeholders. The numbers they put up were staggering. Generally speaking, more Canadian kids between the ages of 5 and 17 are dropping out of hockey than are signing up. Retention is an issue — it’s not just getting them in the door, it’s keeping them in. And among communities of new Canadians, hockey’s popularity among the top 25 activities for kids — it’s something like 22nd.

It’s not just the hard economic cost, it’s a whole bunch of different barriers. But when you’re looking to have more people in the tent, you don’t want to close the door and say, well, no, you can’t come in. And I think that when Don Cherry is othering people, you’re not keeping that tent door open. And if you go back over it, he did this over and over for years and years. Whether it’s the Swedes or the Finns, or whether women belong in a professional capacity in the hockey dressing room … Every time you do that, symbolically, from the biggest pulpit you have, you’re othering people.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

 

ivan ho!

Blue Crew: An original New York Ranger, the defenceman everybody knew as Ching Johnson was originally named Ivan Wilfred early on in life, which began in Winnipeg on a Tuesday of this date. The year of his birth was 1897, despite what you may see in the many of the standard hockey references, wherein it’s often given as 1898. (Somewhere along the line it got smudged; military and census records confirm the earlier date.) Here he’s posed, poised, in the fall of 1933, when the Rangers were heading into the new season as defending Stanley Cup champions. Johnson was on the brink of his eighth NHL campaign, about to turn 36. He’s the middleman in this set-up, amid fellow Ranger defencemen (from left) Earl Seibert, Doug Brennan (Peterborough, Ontario’s own), a snarling Jean Pusie, and Ott Heller.

no doubt about dit

Five Alive: Dit Clapper was born on another Saturday of this date in 1907 in Newmarket, Ontario. Son of a cheesemaker, he was christened Aubrey Victor: Dit evolved from a childish mispronunciation of the latter name, and stuck. He played 20 seasons for the Boston Bruins, on right wing and defence, captained the team, coached it, and helped in the winning of three Stanley Cups. Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947, Dit Clapper died in 1978, in Peterborough, Ontario, at the age of 70.

bob gainey: the goal of the game is goals, and I don’t score that many

If it’s odes you’re seeking on Bob Gainey’s birthday, we’ve got those here and here. As Peterborough, Ontario’s own Hall-of-Fame right winger turns 65, maybe a short disquisition on how he exemplifies our hometown’s (his and mine) hard-working decency? This way.

In 1979, famously, the great Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov rated Gainey “the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” When Michael Farber, then of Montreal’s Gazette, asked Gainey about this and more the following year, he got (by no surprise) thoughtful answers. “No way am I the best player in the world when you look at talent and pure ability and finesse,” Gainey said. “The one thing about hockey is that the goal of the game is goals, and I don’t score that many. But the other thing about hockey is that it’s a team sport, and if you make the team better, if you make it a more viable thing, then you also are performing an important role. People say, Bob Gainey, he’s so unselfish. Well, maybe that’s partially true, but I also know that by being unselfish, I’m personally gaining more as a member of a team. Only inside a team could I have gained so much.”

Through the 1970s, this team, it’s worth recalling, counted on Ken Dryden in goal, and featured Larry Robinson, Guy Lapointe, and Serge Savard on defence. Up front: Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Dougs Jarvis and Risebrough. Montreal had won four successive Stanley Cups at the time of Farber’s writing, and Gainey was the reigning Conn Smythe Trophy winner as playoff MVP.

“How valuable is Gainey?” Farber asked. “Consider him and Lafleur (which most pop sociologists do like so: Lafleur and his élan represent the French-Canadian; Gainey and his no-nonsense over-achieving, the English-Canadian. Incidentally, lunch with Lafleur includes a $15 bottle of wine; lunch with Gainey comes with two draft beers.) In games without Lafleur during the past two seasons, the Canadiens are 9-3-2. Without Gainey, the Canadiens are 6-5-5.”

At 26, in his sixth NHL campaign, Gainey had had his first 20-goal season the previous year, 1978-79. Compared to Lafleur or Shutt, it’s true, he didn’t score that many, though he would reach the 20-goal mark again in three of his remaining nine seasons with Montreal. Talking to Farber, he said, “It’s like writing a letter. Some nights, the hand flows freely, other days, it’s just scratches and scrawls. I’m not a good offensive player. I don’t have good timing. I’m not one of the guys who usually ends up at the right spot, or who can knock the puck down in the air with a stick.”

Steve Shutt, one of those guys: “Of course you like to have a guy who scores 50 goals a year, but you want to have a guy who stops 50 goals a year. Bob does that. There are a lot of defensive forwards in the league, but he is the only one who controls a game.”

how I spent my summer vacation: toronto’s 1963 maple leafs

Smokestick: Red Kelly was still a Red Wing in 1956, and not yet a politician, when he had Detroit teammate Marty Pavelich (middle) and his wife, Anna Jean, down to his Simcoe, Ontario, tobacco farm for a visit. Here he shows, as you might, a stick of dried tobacco leaves.

The Toronto Maple Leafs won a second successive Stanley Cup in April of 1963 when they rolled over Detroit in five games. They finished it off at home, beating the Red Wings 3-1 in the final game on two goals by centre Dave Keon and another (the winner) from left wing Eddie Shack. Afterwards, the Leafs poured champagne on one another, except for Carl Brewer, who was in Wellesley Hospital getting a broken arm tended to. Next day, the Leafs paraded through a crowd of 40,000 on their way up Bay Street to City Hall, where Mayor Don Summerville presented them with golden tie clips.

Then, next — it was the off-season, then, and the Maple Leafs dispersed to do what hockey players do when they’re not playing hockey. Some went to school, some on vacation. Many had jobs; a lot of them, then as now, played a lot of golf. They did not, in 1963, get an opportunity to invite the Stanley Cup to visit their various hometowns — several more decades would pass before that turned into a tradition.

How did the Leafs spend the summer of ’63?

Centre Red Kelly, one of the team’s elders, was the Member of Parliament representing the ruling Liberals for the Toronto riding of York West. Originally elected in 1962, he’d been re-upped the night before the Stanley Cup finals opened in early April, healthily defeating his Progressive Conservative rival, 30-year-old Alan Eagleson.

Kelly was a busy man. On top of the pucking and the politicking, he owned both a tobacco farm and a bowling alley back home in Simcoe, Ontario.

At the end of May, he gave his maiden speech in the House of Commons. Secretary of State Jack Pickersgill said it was one of the best performances he’d everseen in Ottawa; a Toronto Star editorial that didn’t go that far deemed it “sensible,” “well-considered,” and likely to put paid to the Conservative canard that the election of a hockey player had somehow lowered the dignity of the House of Commons.”

“Mr. Speaker,” Kelly began, “I am not sure whether or not it is because I do not have on my skates, but it feels much more slippery here than it does on the ice.”

It was a wide-ranging debut, lasting ten minutes, and delivered without notes. Kelly made light of his having waited a year to speak, and he likened the Speaker to a referee. He talked about his riding and gave some views on flags and anthems. Hearing “O Canada,” he said, before a game in place of “God Save The Queen” made him very proud. “My chest stood out a little more.” People wondered why he’d decided to run for Parliament and he said he told them it was because of how excited he was about where Canada was headed. He wanted to be a part of that, and to help the country grow.

Also, the Liberal leader and prime minister Lester Pearson? Such a great guy. The more Kelly got to know him, the more he thought he might just be “the tonic Canada needs.”

“I felt he could do a whale of a job for the future of Canada,” Kelly said.

Other Leafs who were working on the country’s future included left winger Frank Mahovlich and his wife, non-winger Marie, who had their first child in the summer ’63, a son, Michael Francis. Sylvia Harris and her husband, centreman Billy, welcomed twins.

Left winger Dick Duff, the team’s last bachelor, golfed in Florida for a while before flying north to enroll at the University of Toronto for courses that would lead him towards an undergraduate degree. When he wasn’t hitting the books, he had a job selling cars at Gorrie’s on Gerrard Street at Yonge. It’s possible that while on campus he ran into teammates: both Brewer and centre Billy Harris were both pursuing B.A.s that summer too. Brewer, his arm in a cast, was taking French courses while also working part-time as a car salesman.

Leafs’ defenceman Bob Baun was in the car business, too, as was trainer Bobby Haggert. The latter took a vacation at the Calgary Stampede in July before returning home to work the lot at Ron Casey Motors in Newmarket. The Leafs’ rented a house in Florida that players used, and Baun spent time there before getting back to work; he also had a gig as host at George’s Spaghetti House on Sherbourne at Dundas.

Eddie Shack and his wife had their own Florida getaway before Shack returned to join with the NHL All-Star team that toured Ontario through July and August playing softball. Centre Bob Pulford spent part of his summer working in the ticket office at Maple Leafs Gardens. Right winger John MacMillan already had an engineering degree to his name; he spent the summer working on an education degree at the University of Denver in Colorado.

In March, when Richard, Dave Keon’s 18-month-old son died, died of pneumonia, the Toronto papers took a respectful step back. I think that’s what it was; it did mean that their muted mentions in the local papers explaining why the Leafs’ centreman missed the final two games of the regular-season was filed in as awkwardly as possible alongside tidings of Frank Mahovlich and his flu, and John MacMillan’s injured elbow.

Keon returned for the first game of the playoffs, wherein the Leafs beat Montreal 3-1, and he contributed two assists to that. Leaf fans were outraged, in April, when Keon wasn’t named to the NHL’s 1st or 2ndAll-Star teams — Stan Mikita and Henri Richard were elevated above him — but he did win the J.P. Bickell Cup, which used to be awarded to the Leafs’ team MVP. Keon and his wife flew to Hamilton, Bermuda soon after the Stanley Cup paraded, so he didn’t learn until later that he’d also won the Lady Byng as the league’s most gentlemanly player.

“The Hamilton paper,” he explained later, “only carries cricket and soccer results.”

The rest of Keon’s summer involved golf (he caddied for an American pro at the Canadian Open in Scarborough, Ontario) and chocolate bars (he worked for a candy company, promoting their product). He also travelled to his hometown with another native son, Leafs’ defenceman Kent Douglas, to be fêted by friends and old neighbours in Noranda-Rouyn, Quebec.

Goaltender Johnny Bower passed most of his summer on the ice in British Columbia, working with 119 eager youngsters at George Vogan’s Nelson hockey school alongside Detroit centre Norm Ullman and the former Red Wing Metro Prystai. The Leafs’ second goalkeep, Don Simmons, was back home near Boston running the real estate and insurance business he owned there. Defenceman Allan Stanley went prospecting in north Ontario, near Blind River.

In August, the list of 62 players that Leafs’ coach and GM Punch Imlach was inviting to training camp in Peterborough, Ontario, in early September included the names of defencemen Don Cherry and Terry Clancy, King’s son.

Most of the late-summer Leaftalk in the papers had to do with the team’s seniormost citizens, Kelly and Stanley and Bower, whether they’d be retiring, what that would mean for the team’s prospects. Stanley was 36 and Bower was — well, hesaid he was 39, though the newspapermen in Toronto thought it was more like 42.

Kelly, who was 35, was thinking that hockey might have to give way to politics, though he hadn’t quite made up his mind. The commute, he said, was killing him.

(All three, in the end, kept playing, helping the Leafs to defend their title in the spring of 1964. And they were all still on the job, of course, when the Leafs won the Cup again in 1967.)

Imlach’s letter in August of ’63 was like others he sent in those years. Winter is coming, was the gist of it, be ready. He asked players to report to camp weighing no more than seven pounds over the weight they usually played at. He said that they should be prepared to show him 25 sit-ups, 25 push-ups, and 30 knee bends, “on command.” Young and old, Stanley Cup champions or not, the Leafs should expect to be awoken at 6.15 in the morning; lights-out was 11.15.

There would be golf, but no golf carts. And as far as getting from their downtown digs at the Empress Hotel to the ice at the Memorial Centre, two kilometres — they’d be walking that, too.

you really have to enjoy it, to play goal for long

Inside Edition: Rogie Vachon went maskless in junior and on through his early years with the Montreal Canadiens. He paid a price in stitches (100 or so) and broken noses (two), but never lost a tooth in those years, or had to be evacuated to hospital. It was 1969 when he opted to change his ways. “It was a shot on the head from Stan Mikita that got me thinking,” he said. “These days I am older, I want more protection.” Ernie Higgins designed the fiberglass mask that would become Vachon’s trademark. Blank at first, it would in Los Angeles take on coats of purple paint and crowns at the temples. The one pictured here from within dates to the late 1970s, and bears the paint and the crowns, along with the marks of many pucks. In 2011, it sold at auction for more than $C22,000. (Image: Classic Auctions)

In Peterborough, Ontario, where I grew up in the 1970s and played a lot of road hockey in so doing, we took turns in the nets. David Bodrug had actual goalie pads, trapper and blocker, and the gearing up was the main attraction when the time came for me to be tending goal. That and the chance for nonchalant posing, Ken-Drydenate, with arms resting atop pillared stick while the tennis ball was down at the other end. As the action drew closer, you’d hunker back down at the top of the crease that wasn’t really there, wait for the shot. If it was the right one, you might kick out a leg while snagging the ball in your outstretched glove as ostentatiously as possible. For full effect, you’d hold the pose, as for a beat or three. Flashing the leather, the play-by-play men sometimes call this on hockey broadcasts, though on Roper Drive we had our own term: pulling a Rogie.

Born on this date in 1945 in Palmarolle, Quebec, Rogatien Vachon turns 73 today. He got his start in the NHL under that same name, distinguishing himself in the playoffs when starter Gump Worsley. By the time we were watching him in the ’70s, he was just Rogie, a King now, in Los Angeles. It was there that he spent the best years of his Hall-of-Fame career, wearing the number 30 that the Kings would later retire, and that tiny grin on his plum-purple mask. According to a 1972 profile by David Cobb in The Canadian Magazine, Vachon ended up in goal because, as a boy on the wintertime rink, he was small among bigger brothers and cousins. “A doctoral thesis might be prepared one day,” Cobb writes, “to assess the effect of childhood puniness on the formation of NHL goalies.” He could have strayed, in time, of course, but he chose to stay on. “You really have to enjoy it,” Vachon said, “to play goal for long.”

Embed from Getty Images

 

bob gainey: what you get if you turn guy lafleur inside out

On Bob Gainey’s birthday — Peterborough, Ontario’s own five-time-Stanley-Cup-winning former-Habs-captaining Hall-of-Famer turns 64 today — a few fond fêteful notes.

A cornerstone, Stu Hackel dubbed him when, earlier this year, Gainey was named to the NHL’s pantheon of 100 Greatest Players. Hackel’s citation quoted a Montreal teammate from those dominant Canadiens teams of the 1970s, Serge Savard: “I can’t think of anyone on our team,” Savard said, “who means more to us than Gainey.”

The NHL didn’t, of course, get into ranking its superlatives, but if you’re looking for something in that line, I refer you to a book published earlier this fall by the hockey cognoscenti at Le Journal de Montreal. Not so surprisingly, Les 100 meilleurs joueurs du Canadien goes with a top three of Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau, and Guy Lafleur. Gainey gets in at number 22 — three slots back of Carey Price, but just ahead of Andrei Markov, Toe Blake, and Georges Vézina. If that fails to satisfy, you may be better to settle down with Red Fisher’s 2005 Canadiens top ten, whereon Gainey is lodged at number eight. (Béliveau, just for the record, comes ahead of Richard in Fisher’s thinking, with Lafleur holding at third.)

“That No. 23 for the Montreal team, Mr. Gainey, is the best player in the world in the technical skills of the game.” That was Soviet maestro Viktor Tikhonov rating Gainey during the 1979 Stanley Cup finals, which Gainey dominated. You’ll see it sliced up, this opinion, edited down to leave out the final phrase and make it absolute. Not necessary — it’s high enough praise in the original translation. Still, you can understand how, especially in Montreal in those glory days, the temptation to upgrade. “May be one of the most technically perfect hockey players who ever lived,” Gazette columnist Tim Burke was writing the morning after Canadiens beat the Rangers to hoist the Stanley Cup.

Gainey won the Conn Smythe Trophy that spring as playoff MVP. To go with the NHL silverware, Sport magazine gave him a 1980 Silver Anniversary Jeep CJ5, too. That’s maybe worth a mention.

Would we consider here, too, just how much of the literature detailing Gainey’s hockey brilliance finds a way, even if only gently, to scuff at his reputation? That sounds a little defensive, probably, but then what could be more appropriate while we’re talking about the man who won the first four Frank J. Selke trophies?

“A down-to-earth product” of Peterborough, a New York columnist by the name of Elliot Denman called him after those ’79 finals in a column that actually quoted Gainey as saying “Aw, shucks.” On behalf of those of us who, like Gainey, are born-and-bred Peterbruvians, I’m going to turn the other cheek for all of us on Denman’s drive-by dis of our little city, which happens to have been (not making this up) the first municipality in Canada to install streetlights. Gainey, Denman supposed, “much prefers the 75-watt lighting of his hometown to the bright neons of Montreal and New York.”

Then again, Gainey did say himself that if he were a GM (as he later would be, once his playing days were ended), he’d get rid of himself. “I’d trade myself for a Larry Robinson or a Ken Dryden. Defencemen and goalies are crucial.”

Still, it’s not as if the archives lack for Gainey acclaim. Back to that.

Ken Dryden goes on Gaineying for pages in The Game (1983). To his “basic, unalterable qualities — dependability, discipline, hard work, courage,” Gainey added an “insistent passion, an enormous will to win, and a powerful, punishing playing style, secure and manly, without the strut of machismo.”

“If I could be a forward,” wrote Dryden, “I would want to be Bob Gainey.”

Heading out of the tempestuous ’70s into a whole new hockey decade, Gazette sports editor Al Strachan saw him as a symbol and standard-bearer for entire continents and generations to come.

“Nobody in the world,” Strachan wrote, “better exemplifies the true North American style of hockey than Gainey.”

He is a superb skater and an excellent defensive player. But unlike the European players, he also plays a rugged, bone-crunching game. He pounds the opponents into the boards, blasts them off the puck, and makes them pay the price for dipsy-doodling in their own zone.

Yet no one plays a cleaner game than Gainey. … Nothing could be better for hockey than to have the junior ranks start emulating the Bob Gaineys of this world than the Dave Hutchisons.

Rick Salutin writing about Gainey is worth your while, finally. “Gainey works,” he wrote in a 1980 magazine profile of our hero. “Hard.”

He tears up the ice, his legs pumping and thrusting, his face contorted with effort and determination. He is the very opposite of his teammate Guy Lafleur. Lafleur skates lightly, with a Gallic flair that appears effortless: he whirls and corners like one of those toy tightrope walkers you can’t knock off balance. Gainey is what you would expect to get if you turned Lafleur inside out. In fact, Ken Dryden calls Gainey “the Guy Lafleur of defensive forwards.” Lafleur fulfils our every stereotype of French-Canadian finesse, while Gainey does the same for our notions of the earnest, achieving English-Canadian.

It gets better. “What is the Gainey style?” Salutin goes on to wonder.

In a stage play I wrote several years ago called Les Canadiens, a defensive forward steps onto the ice/stage to try to contain a rampaging goal scorer in the Morenz-Richard-Lafleur tradition. The character says, to his teammates or the audience:

It’s okay. I got ’im. Good thing I backcheck. It’s not the glamour job, but somebody’s gotta do it. Maybe it’s because Mom always said the other kids were pretty or smart but I was so “responsible.” I’m there when there’s hard slugging to do

This speech was inspired by Gainey’s play, but it is really too stodgy for Gainey. For, despite his defensive role, he is an exciting player.”

Later in the profile, Salutin adds a perfect parenthetic coda:

(Gainey saw Les Canadiens, by the way, and pronounced it “luke,” as in lukewarm; two nights later, at a performance of his own at the Forum, he had one of his two-goal nights in a kind of rebuttal to the onstage caricature.)

(Painting by Timothy Wilson Hoey, whose work you’re advised to investigate further, at  www.facebook.com/ocanadaart and ocanadaart.com)