Hockey, heroes and ice cream floats

Like the rest of Canada, Satur­day was Hockey Night at the Benedetti house

The Hamilton Spectator - - COMMENT - PAUL BENEDETTI

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.

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