The game was a big part of my childhood. Back when I was growing up in Calgary, my mother was a rabid Flames fan. She knew all the stats and selected the players for my dad's hockey pool. I think he got as close as no. 2 one year.
She could tell you about the players' wives, too. What I recall is trying to eat dinner in peace as the game was on. Our TV was in the family room, right next to the dining room. Mom would face the TV, while I faced mom. As things got crazy on the ice, she would stand up and yell: "He tripped him! Did you see that?" or "The ref didn't see it! I swear he hates the Flames."
All the while, there'd be rice falling out of her mouth. Oh yeah, she loved the fights, too. It's my memory of that, and the incessant din of the hockey game during dinnertime that prevents me from enjoying the game as an adult.
Every year, my parents would beseech the hockey gods to let the Flames whip their rivals, the Edmonton Oilers, and go on to the quarter- or semi-finals. They had unwavering loyalty. We watched hundreds of games.
I can recall some of the players from those days: Jim "Peppy" Peplinski, Lanny MacDonald with his walrus moustache and big Willi Plett. They would often appear at the Calgary Stampede parade. We were proud of them, even without a Stanley Cup.
Hockey is everywhere. Just the other day, as I waited for an Icelandic film to start at the Toronto International Film Festival, two girls were talking about the final World Cup game. They told the man behind them that last they heard it was tied between Canada and Finland.
After the movie, as we left the theatre, a man in a turban and "Canada" T-shirt ran screaming past us, followed by a group of his friends. They did a victory dance in front of Holt Renfrew. A true Canadian moment.
"The world is right again," said my boyfriend, with the solemnity of a Jedi warrior (apologies to Star Wars).
As a Canadian, especially if you're not hockey crazy, you can never escape it. My first time in Europe, I was eating in a bistro in Paris with two Americans, who asked me if I knew who won the Stanley Cup. The guy behind me turned around and said "the Oilers." He was from Edmonton (arghhh!). What followed was a long conversation about the playoffs. I ate my steak frites in silence.
My second time in Europe, I was at a hostel in a remote area of Sweden where there was a common room with a TV. I said hello to the two guys watching it. When they found out I was from Canada, one of them asked if I preferred to watch hockey. They changed the channel to some Finnish league game. Then they brought up Wayne Gretzky. How far does a hockey-impaired Canadian have to go to avoid "The Game" (or the Oilers)?
Thing is, I have seen The Great One play in person. He was an Oiler then and shimmied up and down the ice with the likes of Mark Messier and Jari Kurri. I admit they were a cut above. They were playing their own game as other players scurried to catch up with their intricate stick play and fast blades. It didn't convert me.
When I really think about it, I just didn't have enough respect for the game. It was something to click past on the TV. That was until I actually tried to play. In the mid-90s, when I lived in Ottawa, a girlfriend organized a girls and guys hockey game. I foolishly agreed to go with my boyfriend, a recreational hockey player.
I struggled to play in my dainty, white figure skates. Whenever I chased the puck, I could never get far enough before it was headed the other way. I remained in the middle of the rink. They called me a "cherry picker." I discovered how difficult it is to skate and move a puck at the same time let alone hit the puck towards the net. I fell every time. There is some skill involved - major skill. Another thing I learned: my boyfriend is a damn fine hockey player.
While I still don't know who's playing who in the NHL, the game is a part of my life. And since there will be no games in the foreseeable future, I feel a loss. Weird, eh?
My mother always held hope for the Flames and they finally did win the Stanley Cup in 1989. But, by that time, our family had relocated to Edmonton. It was bittersweet.