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Two-Universe Hockey
by Allen Abel

1. When they are eliminated from the playoffs (or win the Stanley Cup, a 1,000-1 longshot), the Jets will be moving to the noted winter-sports hotbed of Phoenix, Arizona, leaving loving, deserving Manitoba bereft of big-league hockey forever; and,
2. The last time I read an entire book of poetry was in the eleventh grade.
The two worlds I'm inhabiting tonight could not be more disparate, yet they are twin dimensions of a single sport. The hockey on the television is public, adult, and antiseptic: a universe of laundered sweaters, corporate systemization, and commercial din. Yet on the printed page-in the artists' invented memories-it is internal, youthful, terrible, and dreamlike, as in Laurence Hutchman's Playing Hockey on Crang's Pond, where

Each game was different
the swerves, the deeks [sic], glides, passing, and shooting
to break through the defence
the breakaway...bearing down on the goalie
(the way I saw Belliveau [sic] or Mahovlich move)
aiming for a corner by the boot post into the snow net.
After the breathy exhaustion of the sudden death goal
We left our indecipherable signatures on the dark ice

On Hockey Night in Canada, my CBC Sports buddies confidently call the play: Don Wittman, Ron MacLean, Scott Oake. "The tradition continues," we are assured, as the Red Wings' power play (five Russians) peppers the Winnipeg goaltender (Nikolai Khabibulin) with dexterous backhands and death-blasts from the point. (Long gone are Jean Beliveau and both Mahovliches.) The action is furious; finally, after six months of the "regular" season, meaningful competition has commenced.
Now a big defenceman takes his man to the boards and grinds him against the Little Caesar's Stuffed Crust Pizza sign.
In poets' hockey, there are no whitewashed boards besmirched with ads for supermarts and the Michigan Bank. No owners, coaches, trainers, agents, road trips, buses, broads. Instead, there is a transportation to a small boy's paradise of backyards and frozen sloughs and ecstatic suffering. Hugh MacDonald captures it exactly in Behind the Red Brick House (Charlottetown, P.E.I 1955):

We play till toes are trapped
laces locked in hanging icicles
We're never more awake
than when we leave
and crunch along streets
sticks across shoulders
hobo style
our skates
lace-hung and steaming
at our backs
and once in bed
we sleep so fast
and dream
of how we'll play
the next game
and the next

In the real world, Alexei Zhamnov of Winnipeg (via Moscow) swoops in on the Detroit net and scores! One-nothing for the underdog Jets. "The complexion of the game changes in a real hurry," our colour commentator sagely limns. But back in Bruce Meyer's neighbourhood,

we shouted and raved
in a dead-end street
pushing and hacking
each other's spindly legs
until the night descended
blackening the game
and calling us home
to those tiny rooms
taped with clippings
of Howe and Hull

Does ice hockey hold such a primal grip on our souls, or has this reverie been concocted by our writers as a counterweight to America's vastly overblown attachment to baseball? (I can't claim the rectitude to objectively judge. At the Globe and Mail, fifteen years ago, I made my living lionizing these hulks.)
Certainly, to the Canadian writers herein collected, the game is as vital as beer and oxygen. To many men-all men?-success or relegation at hockey is the defining enterprise of childhood. In Boy, by Mark Cochrane:

Where I come from
athletics are a man's first career
Any other life
is a rebellion or a compromise
based on the failure to make pro

But to the female writers in this book, the sport is the first symptom of a gathering and ineluctable exclusion. (This may be becoming an obsolete view, with women's hockey booming and the Olympic Games embracing the sport for 1998.) In The Shut-Out, a vivid short story, Delores Reimer describes how a girl named Fiona is torn from the street-sport she loves-not by the boys who welcome her to the fray as the foil and agent of their own unripe sexuality ("You're good for a girl," confides one lad), but by her own mother.
"You won't have any mystique," the parent chides damningly, hustling her virgin indoors. In the real-life hockey cosmos, it's 1996 and Florida has more NHL teams than Quebec; California, insanely, owns one more than Ontario. The Montreal Forum is abandoned; Boston Garden and Chicago Stadium deserted; the Detroit Olympia dust. What remains is a troupe of itinerant unionized millionaires and Scott Oake in the corridor beside the Detroit dressing room after the first period with the favoured Wings still trailing, asking the superstar Steve Yzerman, "Has the complexion of this game changed?"
The answer, of course, is that it hasn't-the game's mystique remains beyond the reach of all the little Caesars of Phoenix and Anaheim and Tampa Bay. (Rich men own the teams, but not the sport.) Its soul remains invested in the character of characters such as Coach Wolf Slawson of the North Field Comets as created by Allan Safarik:
"Wolf was a pack animal. He understood the old time pride of small town hockey players. First thing he did was grab T-Bar by the throat and take away all his lucky charms including the voodoo doll and the Playboy centrefold he tucked into his pads.
" `No excuses,' he said exhaling his bad breath between T-Bar's eyes. Wolf kicked over the coffee urn. He grabbed Billy Smile's lit cigarette and butted it into the palm of his hand. Turning on Racoon Coogle he sneered, `Coogle, that leg brace you're wearing would do more good if you wore it on your head.' One by one he went around the room. When he got to Onion Head, he snorted, `You may as well head for the rest home the way you're playing.' "
Three years ago, when Lord Stanley's cup reached its hundredth birthday, a camera crew and I roamed around frostbitten Saskatchewan, searching for the consummate image of the national game. In a hamlet called St.-Isidore-de-Bellevue, not far from the fabled Batoche, we fortuitously came upon a schoolyard that had been flooded to make the faultless rural rink. One teen-aged boy was turning crispy circles in the snow.
Delirious with the kind of joy only another TV producer could comprehend, we tumbled from our van and went about our customary, uninvited intrusion, hauling the camera around the rink with the boy's every turn, shooting, scraping, scoring, sliding, steaming in the twilight sky.
"Success comes not from silver, but from striving," I narrated as the scene was broadcast, expecting plaudits from my peers. Instead, I got panned-my knowing colleagues assumed the scene was a set-up; that we had to hire a boy to skate so loyally and alone. They were wrong. The game still lives without need of subterfuge. The poets know this, know that boys still and always chase the black-hard puck, as Roger Bell writes in his wonderful Small Histories in the Snow:

mornings till the big bell called us
noons after gulping scalds of soup
after 4 as the light gave out, grey
and often, softer, after dark
in the shadowland of houselights
flecked with falling clouds

The last time I checked, the Red Wings had tied it up, 1-1.

Allen Abel's Flatbush Odyssey: A Journey through the Heart of Brooklyn has recently come out in paperback, from McClelland & Stewart.


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