by Russell Field
When Ken Burns spent millions of dollars creating his nine-part PBS marathon, Baseball, a gauntlet was clearly thrown down. The American father-son myth had been institutionalized: fathers playing catch with their sons, teaching them to throw the curve ball, telling them about the time they saw Mickey hit one onto the roof of Tiger Stadium. Or how about those Hoosier dads: nailing a backboard to the barn, showing their sons how to square up to the basket, recalling Cousy and Russell.
These are the images of American fatherhood: a kinder, gentler patriarchy perfect for Norman Rockwell's canvas, and distinctly American. There was no place for shinny on frozen ponds or Canadian experience in general.
Roy MacGregor, in The Home Team: Fathers, Sons & Hockey, tries to fill this void by examining father-son relationships in a peculiarly Canadian context.
But he left me feeling as if my citizenship should be revoked. Despite my middle-class upbringing on the frozen tundra of the planned communities of suburban Toronto, it's only in the last three months that I've learned to skate. My father taught me about history, not hockey; made sure that I went to the museum every Saturday morning, not the rink; and, when I was eleven, took me to Europe, not the Montreal Forum.
So, a book about how fathers and sons connect through hockey? I was ready for cliché after cliché and a healthy dose of hockey's stereotypical views about manhood, violence, and proving one's worth. I got exactly what I was looking for and it was, at times, compelling.
The Home Team is a collection of nine anecdotes about hockey players remembering their fathers and hockey fathers raising their sons. Though there is no obvious connection between the anecdotes, the thread holding these tales together is not hidden very far beneath the surface. Across this country and elsewhere in the world, hockey is one way in which fathers relate to their sons. From the frozen fields of the Prairies to the backyard rinks of southern Ontario, hockey brings together parent and child, bridging generations, separating one from MuchMusic, the other from Wall Street Week.
The Home Team is not a primer for parents hoping to nurture a future NHL star. Rather, MacGregor attempts an anecdotal exploration of the men behind the hockey legends and the influences their fathers had upon them. And while the game's greats-Gretzky and Messier, Howe and Béliveau-are all here, it's the stories of the lesser known players that are the most telling: players like Gino Odjick, who left the poverty of a Quebec native reserve for a career in the NHL and now spends his free time counselling native youths.
In fact, MacGregor's book is at its most compelling when he recounts the story of The Home Team's two least-known hockey characters. In March of 1987, Brad Hornung and Troy Edwards were up-and-coming teenagers playing in the Junior "A" Western Hockey League. Their fates were forever linked nine winters ago when Edwards checked Hornung into the boards during a playoff game. At first it looked like a run-of-the-mill hockey play. But Hornung lay motionless on the ice.
Since that day, he has been a paraplegic, living his life in a room at Regina's Wascana Rehabilitation Centre with a specially constructed wheelchair designed to react to the slight muscular impulses he is capable of generating. MacGregor chronicles the sacrifices Brad's parents made willingly; from moving to a home nearer the rehab facility to visiting their son each and every day. (The story of Larry and Terry Hornung is one of many instances where it seems natural to question whether the exclusion of mothers-who do their fair share of driving to early-morning practices-from the "Fathers and Sons" lineage was permitted solely in obedience to a sporting stereotype.) That kind of parental dedication was crucial in helping the Hornungs' son accept his fate and move on with his life. Today, Brad is re-directing the dedication he once channelled into scoring his hockey goals, towards reclaiming an independent lifestyle and pursuing a career.
Despite the "fathers, sons, and hockey" connection he draws, MacGregor illustrates that there is no uniform role fathers play in the hockey lives of their sons. In fact, The Home Team demonstrates just the opposite. The only pattern in the book is that there is no defining "fathers, sons and hockey" bond.
Wayne Gretzky's father, Walter, dedicated himself to his son's hockey career, teaching him the fundamentals of the game, building countless backyard rinks, and even allowing Wayne to be temporarily adopted by a family in Toronto so that the young star could play against better competition.
Bobby Hull was one of the most prolific goal-scorers of his generation. His son, Brett, grew up barely knowing his father; Bobby was often away playing hockey, even before his divorce separated him from his son. These stories are the extremes of the father-son hockey spectrum and their only similarity is the end result: Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull are NHL superstars bound for the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Every parental relationship is unique. The only certainty is that these hockey players are the people they are as a result of their relationship with their fathers. This is as true of Wayne Gretzky as it is of a chubby suburban kid who never learned how to skate. Unfortunately for The Home Team, hockey doesn't tell us anything about being Canadians or being parents. Father-son, indeed parent-child, bonds exist with or without the game.