Saturday, December 28, 2013

Oh, Canada: Falling in Love with Canada's Game


One of the under-appreciated blessings of a life in Southeastern Michigan is the Saturday night broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada. Imported via the Ontario airwaves from just across the icy Detroit River, Canada's illustrious Hockey Night is delivered into kitchen radios and living room television sets in select corners of Michigan. It is not long after my discovery of hockey during the ill-fated '93 Playoffs that I discover this miracle. Thus began what would become a lifelong obsession with Hockey Night in Canada.

It is the early nineties in America. An Arkansas Southerner by the name of Bill Clinton resides in the White House. The music world mourns the suicide of Kurt Cobain. American suburbanites settle into the prosperous nineties as the economy booms and the cocaine-fueled party of the nineteen eighties fades. Forrest Gump becomes a household name over the summer. But I don't know any of that. Second grade at St. Michael's Catholic school and the career of our after school play in the Millwood woods are the sole occupants of my mind.

Life in our corner of Millwood slogs on as an arctic tranquility seizes the woods behind the house. The winter days blend together into a great white void in the way those two-dog nights of February do. The Ford's and Dodge's of the neighborhood gasp and wheeze in metallic agony as their engines reluctantly turn in the glacial temperatures. Over the gas stovetop, Mom stews up chili, clam chowder, broccoli cheddar soup, and anything else that might warm our little bones. We say grace at the dinner table and my little brother Patrick asks us to pray for the endangered dolphins in the ocean; I ask us to say a prayer for the Red Wings players before tonight's impending game, which I spent the majority of the school day doodling and fantasizing of. As Patrick and I skeptically twiddle our forks through our green peas, Mom asks us about our day while Dad tells us to drink our milk.

In the aftermath of supper, routine dictates the order of the house. Armed with yellow rubber gloves, Mom dutifully scrubs our dinner plates with foamy water. Dad sighs, plops himself into his sunken spot on the couch, and flips through never-ending paperwork: taxes, bills, receipts, and all that other stuff foreign to a boy's vocabulary and non-existent to his imagination. Our two cats, Chester and Riley - named for my Father's boyhood baseball heroes - loiter about the house, staring sadly out the sliding glass back door in the same way I look out the classroom window to the playground during the school day - dreaming of warmer days frolicking in the backyard grass; they, too, tire of winter dragging its heavy feet. Blissfully ignorant to the toil sweeping its way through the other rooms of the house, Patrick and I push toy trucks around the family room carpet until I grow bored of the routine and decide to put him in a headlock like Hulk Hogan. My brother chokes out a cry to my Mom and my Mom promptly sends me off to my bedroom to ponder what I've done. I stomp my feet all the way up the stairs, but in typical boyhood fashion my mood dissipates in an instant. I pick up a book about a kid named Tom Sawyer from my bedroom desk and get lost in the first chapter: at last, someone who understands the agony of boyhood. I sympathize with Tom's plight as he begins whitewashing the fence and laments the chore of being a boy. I gaze out my bedroom window to a scene out of one of my Jack London stories - vast woods drooping with icicles - and daydream of sneaking out my window to run wildly with this Huck Finn character. I wonder what Tom Sawyer ever did when the gales of winter came.

Mom yells for me to march downstairs and apologize to my brother. My brother, jaded by previous apologies, does not even glance up from his Gameboy as I mutter, I'm sorry, Patrick, I love you. Dad puts the corded telephone to our ears, whispering for us to wish Grandma a happy birthday. Patrick and I look out the big, frosted front room window, playing 'Who can spot the first thing that moves' in the motionless, snow-capped neighborhood. Our game is short-lived, for the winter sky turns black as soot before the six o'clock news starts. The early darkness confines us all within those insulated walls. We lounge fireside in the living room with a bowl of popcorn watching the Brady Bunch. I wonder what my best friend Steve is up to a couple houses down. During the summer months, Steve's house is but a hop and a skip away through the yards of the neighborhood, but in the middle of winter, his house seems a mile of barren, frozen tundra in the distance. I wonder if Steve eats popcorn and watches The Brady Bunch with his family too, but then I conclude Steve is probably sneaking pickles out of the fridge - he always smells like pickles - or sitting in timeout in his room, too. At any rate, winter soon lures us all into an early slumber. A midwinter night's dream washes over each of us, and we dream the dreams of our own individual lives. Outside, the shutters rattle eerily in the gusts of another winter's night.

As the morning sun peeks its head out of the gray canvas at dawn, a slush-coated school bus puffs to a halt on Millwood Street as Millwood's sons step on, sleepily. Even during the daylight hours of those February days, it seems a drowsy spell is cast over the neighborhood. Not even the squirrels bother to wake from their cozy homes inside the trees.

But something shifts come Saturday evening. On Saturday nights, Jack Frost blows a breath of energy into the air, reviving all into the late hours of the night. And on this one night of the week, the winter sky seems forgiving.

Come Saturday night, Mom and Dad's spirits perk up, and Patrick and I's spirits naturally follow suit. Dad cranks up the living room stereo: John Mellencamp sings and Jack and Diane revitalize the house with young love. Patrick and I run around the living room like banshees, sent into a locomotive frenzy by John Mellencamp's nostalgic rock and roll. Mom wipes down the countertops with Windex and arranges ceramic bowls of potato chips and salsas atop the kitchen table. Pine-scented candles linger in the living room. Upstairs, Mom and Dad dance between their closet and the bathroom mirror, heavy aromas of hairspray and cologne clogging the upstairs air. Patrick and I watch the whole scene unfold with intrigue, wondering what the commotion is about. Finally Dad heads out and brings home boxes of cheese pizza and bottles of Coca Cola - all that is necessary to satisfy Patrick and I for an entire evening.

For as long as I can remember, Mom and Dad, the Racine's, and the Rivard's had been spending those Saturday nights together. My Dad, Jim Racine, and Dave Rivard were childhood buddies and go back even further than my seven-year old self can fathom. They had watched Red Wings games together on wintry Saturday nights for years, and gradually the girlfriends and then wives fell into the routine. We kids are new to it all, though, still learning about the magic of these Saturday nights. The three of our families are like second families, doing everything together throughout the year: New Year's Eve at the Racine's house, renting a single cottage together on the Carolina shores over summer vacation, Fish Fries during Lent at the Knights of Columbus club, Up North on the Racine's pontoon boat, and everything in between. Later on, my brother Patrick, wise beyond his years, would dub our families "God-Friends," as our families were all godparents, godsons, and goddaughters of one another. The term would stick when he pronounced it to all at my god-friend Lindsey Rivard's funeral a couple years later - only seven years old when she lost her long bout with leukemia.

Tonight, all of the parents of the God-friends group are together at my house, in addition to a couple of the other regular tag-alongs - my dad's beer league softball buddies, their wives or girlfriends, and my aunt and uncle. As winter parkas are taken at the door, the house self-segregates like a middle school dance: the women gossiping in the living room over red wine, the men submerged in the basement watching hockey over Molson's like the glory days, and us kids roaming freely about. I naturally am drawn to the basement. I want to know what men do, how to be like them.

At first I merely listen through the crack of the basement door on those Saturday nights, mesmerized by the curious conversation among lifelong pals and the echoes of masculine laughter periodically booming up the walls of the staircase. As the Saturday's pass, I go further. I tiptoe down the creaky wooden steps, gaining just enough courage in the course of the week to go down one more step each passing Saturday. Tonight, I make it halfway down the staircase, just far enough to sneak a peek around the staircase wall into the scene of boyhood friends who had become men over the years. I had long imagined this scene in my head, the way other kids might dream of what Disney World looks like before first stepping foot in that magical kingdom.

At long last, I muster up every ounce of courage in my body and turn my head around the corner. Eyes wide as saucers, I watch in awe as the scene unfolds before me. The sounds fit together like they had been composed that way: the myserious masculine voices chattering over beers, the nasally but calm tune of Neil Young humming from the stereo, the energetic, rapid-fire call of the Canadian hockey broadcasters, and the happy laughter of friends remembering times I could not comprehend.

What I saw that night would stick with me for years. The beer cans seemed to make the room move. Beer mugs floated around the room, clutched in every hand. Empty Molson's and Labatt's overflowed from the old coffee table. My Dad and Jim Racine take sips of the curious brown substance in between turns tossing darts at a green and red-checkered dartboard, the word "Cheers" scripted above the circular target. Dave Rivard and Joe Treehee sip from their own mugs while staring intently at the ancient black and white television set, antennas sticking out of the box and all.

To my wonder, the faces of the work week are nowhere to be found. Sunken eyes light up. The faces I have come to recognize when my Father trudges home from work, briefcase in hand, transform into genuine smiles. Forced voices I have come to associate with calculating bills at the kitchen table take on a cheerful tone. In that basement, I quickly learn about the magical effects of alcohol. There is something in those glass mugs that makes those grown up boys light up like lightning bugs on the Fourth of July. My Uncle Frank sinks into the hand-me-down sofa worn loose by the years, bemused, allowing the lines around his eyes to relax, while that calm, but happy voice emerges in my Father's speech, as he glides from one conversation to the next as though hoisted by a great wind. The men seem so much happier, less alone. And I wish I could preserve that feeling for them, too, in a mason jar and bring them home aglow.

Suddenly, the men throw their arms up and the basement erupts in cheers. "Stevie Y! Stevie Y!" the Canadian broadcasters shout, sounding astonished. I bolt up the stairs, but not before witnessing the utter joy on those men's faces.

I want to be like those men. I immediately embark on my quest to manhood. Patrick and Jimmy Racine content themselves with games of hide and seek throughout every nook and cranny of the house, tossing Nerf balls in the dining room, climbing up coat racks like monkeys, and other games that would on any other night be forbidden in our household. They can have all that. I seclude myself away in my Mom and Dad's bedroom with the only other television set in the house, desperately flipping through channels by hand, searching for this Hockey Night in Canada show. When I finally, to my own quiet surprise, recognize those familiar Canadian broadcasters' voices - on channel ninety-night - boyhood games with Patrick and Jimmy disappear from my mind. Hockey Night in Canada now holds a monopoly on my imagination.

From inside the television set, Don Cherry, Canada's venerable hero, soon appears as Coach's Corner begins during the first period intermission. In trademark white goatee, baby blue tuxedo, and commanding voice, Don Cherry gives me my first lesson in Canadian culture.

I wonder how this slice of Canada found its way into my house. Later on in life, I would turn to the hockey broadcasts of Hockey Night in Canada during some of my darkest days. Grappling with depression brought on by lost love and yet another alcohol binge, I often tried in vain to reconstruct the magic of those boyhood Saturday nights - those simpler times. I thought that somehow Don Cherry, a heartfelt rendition of the Canadian national anthem, and a case of Molson would somehow allow me to recapture the innocence of times long remembered. Try as I might, however, I never quite could manage to recapture those happy faces I had seen in my basement that night. Like it had oft before, hockey became a crutch to lean on during those dark times, sports a means of eluding the real world.

At first, it wasn't the hockey so much that enraptured me. That first night, sitting alone in my parents' bedroom with eyes glued to the Canadian Broadcasting Channel, with my Dad and his childhood friends down in the basement, my Mom and the other women mixing fruity vodka cocktails in the kitchen, and Patrick and Jimmy discreetly trying to glue the pieces of a glass Santa Claus back together, it was the mere idea of Canada that fascinated me.

It seemed to me then a brilliant stroke of luck, a miracle of the invisible airwaves in the star-lit winter skies, that I could get a slice of Canada right there in my own Michigan home, on my own American television set. During that broadcast the camera cut periodically to images of foreign places my teachers failed to mention in Geography class, which only gave them more appeal to me: Edmonton, Winnipeg, Manitoba, Calgary, Quebec - even the names of these cities inspire mystique. Great towns appear on the television screen: bright city lights illuminate hallowed hockey stadiums folded into the makeup of the towns; city streets bustle with frenzied hockey fanatics despite subzero temperatures; frozen lakes stand against mountainous backdrops, on which kids seem to skate freely, endlessly across the glossy surfaces; industrial factories sit at the feet of great rivers; and snow packs every artery of the towns. I remember, quite distinctly, the cameras cutting to the bucolic imagery of a mythical place called Saskatchewan frozen over; for all I know this place sounds as foreign to me as Moscow, which further adds to the mystery spinning in my imagination.

Gradually over the weeks I muster up the courage to ask my Dad about it all. He tells me that it's no mistake of the airwaves after all, which I disregard. He describes how Ontario is only a short drive over the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit away, that actually most of our own Red Wings come from this land Up North, and that in fact I have been to the Racine's schoolhouse up in Canada once or twice over Memorial and Labor Day weekends. I reach my own conclusions after that. After much befuddled, yet awe-inspiring  study of the maps in my Encyclopedia, I conclude it happens like this: somewhere over Lake Huron, the Michigan airwaves get tied up with the Canadian airwaves, tangling up the transmissions in one big, theoretical knot which creates a glitch and causes the Canadian broadcasts to be sent to only a few houses in Michigan, mine of course being one of the lucky few by some miracle from the sports gods. It all seems a marvel of the stars in outer space to me, something straight out of the television show Unsolved Mysteries, a show that I sometimes catch when my Mom is not looking, despite its propensity to give me nightmares.

During our afterschool romps in the great outdoors I brag to Steve about this miracle of the airwaves that I have concocted in my own head. By some struck of luck, I tell him, the tangled airwaves streams Canadian hockey into my television set. It is then that I learn that Steve gets this Hockey Night in Canada thing at his house, too; in fact his Dad watches it all the time. In one of those tragedies of growing up, I learn in time that the other boys at school are aware of this Hockey Night in Canada show, too - Chuck Elstone claims he watched the Canucks game just this past weekend. I sulk in this discovery not unlike the way I will sulk after Red Wings' playoff losses years later. It is not so much this news that discourages me by the end of the week so much as the fact that I appear to be the only one that finds this Hockey Night in Canada spectacle to be of monumental significance. Forget it, Chuck Elstone advises, We gotta get ready for Gym class! and he gallops off to the outer reaches of the school playground as recess concludes.

Like most things in a boy's life then, the mystique of the airwaves, something once magical, fades under the tight grip of Time's weathered hands. It is not until then that the mystery of the sport - the game within Hockey Night in Canada - takes on greater importance. And as with most important things in my seven-year old world, it would be my Father and his Saturday night gatherings with his friends that lures me in. Somehow, I eventually find myself amongst the men in my basement on those Saturday nights. I listen carefully as Mr. Racine explains the ins and outs of the game to me. I learn which colors belong to which teams: blue and orange to the Oilers of Edmonton, crimson and blue to the villainous Montreal Canadiens, the iconic blue maple leaf to Toronto, dreadful orange and black to the hated Philadelphia Flyers. I learn the intricacies of my hometown team, too: the Russian Five lineup made up of Soviet-style skaters Fedorov, Konstantinov, Larionov, Fetisov, and Koslov; the beloved tough guys on Detroit's roster: Darren McCarty, Keith Primeau, Paul Coffey, and Joey Kocur; and Detroit's heroes, of course: Stevie Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, and Dino Ciccarelly. I keep one eye on my already-pegged favorite Red Wing, the young netminder Chris Osgood, but I keep this secret to myself. As my hockey education continues, my Dad even offers me a sip of Red Dog beer, and that first rotten taste is enough to keep me away from the stuff for a few years, at least.

Most Saturday nights I was sent to bed before the nightcap games broadcasted from the West Coast. And most of those nights I didn't fall asleep easily, knowing in my head that I was missing out on hockey and the goings-on in the basement amongst my Father and the other men I admired most. I tossed and turned restlessly in bed, periodically getting up to stare out my bedroom window to the dark woods hibernating behind the house. I listened carefully for the far-off cry of the night train, the old iron horse hissing steam into the night. All I could think about was the smiles on those men's faces as they watched hockey. Those happy smiles. And Molson beer.

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