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Hockey Sextet
by Anne Steacy

One Boxing Day in an Ottawa blizzard my brother warmed up his car and we set off to see the maligned but surprising Senators play the superstars Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier and the other New York Rangers. During the hour it took to reach the Corel Centre-a place that sounds like a mammoth kitchen mart and turned out to be a hulking barn of fluorescence-the pre-game show on the radio indulged in tales of old-time hockey greats, as steady explosions of snow in the headlights roiled toward the windshield like fireworks. Names like Shack, Beliveau, and Cournoyer transported me back to Saturday nights when I was little; my mind drifted on to the games of my youth, when we played outside on bumpy ice, unencumbered by equipment, and had to stop to dig the puck out of the snowbanks around the boards.
Hockey, with its heroes and traditions, and its place in the consciousness of so many of us who grew up with the game, is a rich mine for nostalgia and metaphor. But Paul Quarrington's excellent Original Six, a collection of short stories based on the fabled exploits of the NHL's six time-honoured teams, skates beyond tales of glory, it seems to me, to celebrate a former unity of spirit: fans flung through the night across the continent tuning in with the same excitement to Foster Hewitt, in days when the CBC forged stronger national ties; faith in the collective power of working people's values triumphing over the avarice of big business; belief in the purity of pursuit over politics. Each of the six superb stories is a fictionalized account of a hockey legend, anchored by a factual but winking editor's note and illustrated by Frank Perna's wonderfully pointed line drawings and a whimsical, ironic, almost Chagall-like colour plate by Sean Thompson.
Quarrington is a novelist and screenwriter; his story here about Eddie Shore and the Boston Bruins is a powerful study of determination and conquest. He has assembled a group of five other story-tellers who write from the heart: Dave Bidini, a columnist and singer with The Rheostatics; the poet Judith Fitzgerald; the novelist Wayne Johnston; the sports editor Jeff Klein; and Trent Frayne, whose turn of phrase over a lifelong career has established him as the godfather of Canadian sports writers. With wit and wisdom, they each spin out a yarn more about challenge and enthusiasm than pucks and points, leaving the reader with indelible images-Klein's description of orthodox Jewish teenagers on Coney Island with their prayer shawls flying in the breeze as they wheeled around, for instance. My favourite story is Johnston's, a softly sardonic and touching adventure tale about the Saint Patrick's Day riot in Montreal in 1955: describing Maurice "Rocket" Richard off the ice, he has the best line in the book: "Richard in his street clothes, grounded, mere shoes on his feet instead of skates.."
The Senators flogged the Rangers 5-2. I bought a polyester practice sweater with one of those garish '90s crests to add to my gear. Back in the car, we were finally able to light up. We listened to the post-game wrap-up as smoke and the beams of hundreds of trapped cars swirled around in the now vast, clear, black night. People called in on their cell phones to congratulate the team and say it was taking more than forty-five minutes to get out of the parking lot. I thought about my father flooding the backyard on nights like this thirty years ago. I thought about Bidini's Charlie Gardiner describing the arenas of the 1930s as "cramped, cold, and smokey" and his team taking horse-drawn sleighs to a game in the 1920s where the rink was lit by torches hung above the goals. Old traditions, new traditions. Original Six is a classic that draws on both.

Anne Steacy is a Toronto writer who plays hockey with an assortment of aging buddies.


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