Hockey, heroes and ice cream floats
Like the rest of Canada, Saturday was Hockey Night at the Benedetti house
If it is Saturday night, then my brother Joe and I are getting on our identical pyjamas — his blue, mine red — and heading downstairs into the living room.
Because Saturday is Hockey Night in Canada.
It’s also the only night that we get treats. Usually a float — a scoop of vanilla ice cream in a tall glass of Coke or Canada Dry Ginger Ale. And chips, regular, salted chips (was there any other kind?) in a bowl.
We settle ourselves on the floor in front of the black and white TV to watch our team, the Toronto Maple Leafs, do battle with one of the other Big Six. It is the mid-1960s and the Leafs are in ascendance, a talent-packed, storied team anchored by a rock-steady, unflashy goalie named Johnny Bower.
I thought of those days last week on the news of Bower’s death at the age of 93. The write-ups about his improbable — and very late — rise to stardom in the NHL brought back a lot of memories. It’s hard to describe the place that hockey, and the Leafs, held in our consciousness then, in a world without dozens of sport franchises, without cable TV, video games and movies on demand. And it’s even stranger to think about how that team is seared into my memory so that even today, more than five decades later, I can rattle off the names of players on that storied club. I wasn’t even that great a fan, and certainly no player. My ability to ankle skate on our backyard frozen rink was legendary and a source of humour for my brothers and our friends. And hockey was hardly part of our DNA. Our father was Italian and soccer was his great love, as a player, an enthusiast and an organizer, but he was a proud Canadian and Canadians watch hockey and so he came to love the game.
And so did we. Even now, I can not only name those players, but I can see them: big tough Bobby Baun, the workmanlike Carl Brewer, dependable Allan Stanley, the steady wingers, Bob Pulford and Ron Ellis, speedy “Red” Kelly, the nimble, quick centre, Dave Keon, the tall, unflappable team captain, George “The Chief ” Armstrong, Frank “The Big M” Mahovlich and, in net, the “China Wall,” the poke-checking, standup goalie, Johnny Bower.
This was a guy who had spent years in the minors, toiling in the American Hockey League in cities like Providence and Cleveland, a guy who made it to “The Show” long after many players have given up or retired, an old man in a young man’s game. And more than anything, Bower was nice, universally regarded as a great guy — humble and always ready to do a favour, sign an autograph, visit a sick kid.
Bower got to the NHL too late to set career records, but he was on four Stanley Cup winning teams and he twice took home the Vezina Trophy as the best goalie in the league, despite being in his late 30s at the time. Remarkably, he played one of the toughest positions in one of the toughest games until he was 45, a feat almost unheard of in professional sport.
As I read the tributes last week, my mind went back to the 1960s when I was in hockey’s thrall. As the years went on, my interest in the game waned. I hung on during the Sittler, Salming and Gilmour years, but not with the same youthful enthusiasm. And then came more expansion and too many teams and jobs and marriage and kids and it seemed I had neither the time nor the interest to watch much hockey anymore.
I tried, half-heartedly, to get the kids interested, but my lack of real enthusiasm and their entertainment-packed world meant video games and anime won out over Canada’s game.
Maybe hockey teams are like music. Songs take on a special meaning because of who you are, where you are and especially when you are, when you hear them.
Your team, like your music, is etched into your mind, indelibly marked in memory, the players’ names and faces, the lyrics and melodies of your youth.
Paul Benedetti is the author of You Can Have A Dog When I’m Dead.