I like to think that everyone has their own ideas, goals, and dreams. Everyone is shaped by their own experiences. The thing is, though, that a lot of people share the same experiences, and this in turn makes them more similar than they are different. This is one experience from one guy, an experience that a lot of young Canadians have shared: playing ice hockey.
Before I write about what it’s like to play an actual game of hockey, I think some context is needed for the large number of people who didn’t grow up in the same atmosphere. If you haven’t noticed, hockey is big in Canada. That really does not do it justice. Hockey, for us, is the passion that unites us all. On the day I’m writing this, it’s a crisp Saturday in October and I am preparing for the upcoming night in a way that has become so familiar it is now a ritual.
It’s Hockey Night in Canada, and the Toronto Maple Leafs are playing their Original 6 rivals: the Boston Bruins. I will go back to my hometown for the night. There my dad and I are going to sit down, drink some beers, and watch the game. This happens every Saturday night during the hockey season. I only recently started to partake in the drinking aspect, but we have been doing this together before I could walk. The Leafs made the Eastern Conference finals in 1999 (I was four years old); I still remember it and I remember decorating our Dodge Caravan in erasable marker showing our support for the Blue and White. My grandfather died before I was born, but he played hockey and was huge fan of Bobby Hull, a superstar in his day.
It isn’t just a game or a sport to me or the millions of other Canadians who have their own rituals for Saturday nights; it’s a national identity. If hockey ceased to exist, Canada would cease to exist (no discredit to other parts of our identity). And this is important for what it means to actually play hockey, because the moment you step out on the ice, everything else goes to the wayside. Everything that makes you Canadian is really the lead up to the first stride.
And that’s how every game begins—with the first step onto the ice. A few minutes before that moment, you and your buddies were joking around about each other’s questionable taste in pretty much everything. Their choice of equipment, the woman they spend time with, their music, or anything you can think of. Right before the game, however, things get more serious, because you realize you really want to skate this other team into the ice. Presumably because their team’s playful banter is as good as yours and that’s totally unacceptable.
When you set foot on the ice, things get serious pretty quickly. You want your first few strides to be powerful and long so you can really get your muscles loose. You’ll take in the arena. Some are old barns that have rafters and banners from a bygone era, others are modern with metal and flashy lights and advertisements for your local Tim Hortons. I prefer the old beat-up things—I think they have more character. You also notice the ice. Contrary to popular belief, not all ice is created equal. Some rinks are really soft and others really hard. This affects the way you can dig out for strides and how the puck bounces and glides.
Soon after that, the referee is at centre ice for the puck drop. All eyes are on the two centres taking the draw. First-line centres tend to be prominent players, both in terms of point production and leadership. Also, everyone wants to have a good first shift that gets them into the game. A lot of players’ first move is to go hammer some guy into the boards, and the hit wakes you up and reminds you that you are in the game now. The other team will strip you of the puck, hit you onto the ice, and more or less just try and get in your face.
You know your teammates were making fun of each other in the dressing room? Yeah, you all start saying ridiculous things to the other team out there too, but this time you don’t want them to take it on the chin like a champ, but rather have it deeply affect their soul so they can’t focus on the game. Sometimes things get said that cross lines, but at the end of the day it’s all a part of the game. I’m pretty sure some of the conversations I’ve had on the ice would count as war crimes in other parts of the world.
What else happens in hockey? Oh yeah—actually skating with a puck. I will say this to the day I die: I would rather skate than walk, all the time, permanently. Nothing else comes close. Skating with the puck is like someone giving you the best present in the world, because the puck is yours and it is a weapon. You are in control of the situation, you determine whether to pass it to your teammate who’s posted up high in the slot, whether to dangle it in front of the big defencemen in your way of better scoring chance, or to take your chances and try to beat the goaltender. No amount of control you get as a young adult comes close to the amount you get being in control of that small black rubber puck.
Scoring is like Christmas morning on steroids. You have accomplished your goal (pardon the pun) and what it means to be Canadian. You’ve done something great on ice. Every goal you score is met with the same enthusiasm as for Sidney Crosby when he scored the golden goal. Your “cele” (short for celebration) is really up to you. I personally prefer a stoic arm raise à la Bobby Orr (when he isn’t flying through the air). Others like to do the Selänee Shotgun, Gretzky’s Running Man, or riding the stick like Tiger Williams.
But the point is that when you play hockey, you are doing it for a lot of reasons. The crest on your jersey represents the community you are from. Your best friends are on the bench, your family is in the stands, and generations of former players are looking out for you. Undoubtedly, you also do it for yourself. You want to win, you want glory, and you want the spoils of war. But at the end of the day you have the nation at your back, and you do it because you are Canadian.