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“In the fields and in the streets”: Hockey as War

I’m going to read from a book coming out in September, Cold-cocked: On Hockey. The book started out as a meditation on how and why I became a born-again fan following the Salt Lake Olympics. I wanted to think hard about why someone like me would go back to a game that had excited and obsessed me as a teenager, bored me in my twenties, and then disgusted me in my thirties. Before long, the book took on other dimensions and not only took me into the Canucks dressing room during the notorious rise and fall of Todd Bertuzzi, but also into my own past and specifically the relationship with my father. It’s been interesting to me that when I talk about the book, women seem particularly responsive to that angle: it seems many of us secured the father/daughter bond on Saturday in front of the game, and many of us had crushes on Derek Sanderson because our dads thought Jean Beliveau was so great.
I’m going to read an excerpt from a chapter that details what might be my favourite day so far in my life: April 11, 2004 I flew to Calgary, rented a car and drove south to Nanton to visit the Lancaster Museum and sit inside the kind of plane my father flew in WWII—the kind that blew up around him and landed him in a German POW camp—and then drove back to Calgary to attend the Canucks/Flames third playoff game.

A Lancaster Bomber

The war starts at playoff time. Hockey builds tough athletes, but by the end of the season, their bodies have exploded: for how many rounds will this tendon hold, how many wrist shots can I snap from a crumbling elbow, how many hits in the corner before the shoulder separates—again? “Warriors,” gush the hockey gurus. In 2003, then Vancouver Canucks GM and former history scholar, Brian Burke, orated on television about Lord Nelson, soldiers fighting minus an arm or an eye, battling for the honour of the platoon. He said of the aging Trevor Linden, game seven versus the nasty St. Louis Blues, “He was a warrior. He was like Braveheart out there.” In war, the rink music is no longer the pumpy, campy Queen’s We Will, We Will, Rock You. For key face-offs deep in the defensive zone late in a playoff game, it’s irony-free heraldic trumpets, gladiator power chords, John Williams movie scores off a Hollywood battlefield.

At playoff time, though, the rhetoric gets ridiculous. Broadcasters and players take what should be a metaphor and treat it like a simple comparison: a hockey player is just like a warrior; a team is just like a squadron; losing a game is just like losing a battle. Same stakes, same heroes. That’s the first cliché of hockey that needs a good shake.

I grew up watching Habs vs. Big Bad Bruins on Saturday night, sprawled on the living room carpet while my dad colonized the recliner with a big hunk of cheddar cheese in one hand and a Labatt’s Blue in the other. His heart attacks were still to come, sure, but that’s how it was in Vancouver in the seventies. Dad took Jean Béliveau, daughter took Bobby Orr. The Vancouver Canucks entered the league in 1970; I was 14. Over the next few years my father and I went to games at the Pacific Coliseum. By that time, though, Bobby Clarke and Dave “The Hammer” Schultz were cracking faces and winning via intimidation. Throughout the league, fists fired and blood spewed. By the late seventies, for a Vancouver girl travelling inward, even Gretzky had Dave Semenko and that made The Great One less great. The game was too rough and I looked away for a long time. My dad stopped looking when the WHA paid players millions to be mediocre.

Pacifism was an easy bottle to guzzle in the seventies and so I also looked away from my father. Post Vietnam, bra-less anti-war gauze-wearers appealed more to a teenager like me than did the suits and their power and democracy and capitalism.

I was a smart but sad teenager. I was smart but made very dumb by grief, and so the pairing of war bad, peace good allowed me to assume that my father’s participation in World War II was shameful. I remember being in that same den, maybe even watching hockey’s parallel violence together, and feeling outraged that my father had gone to war, let alone killed people from the cockpit of a Lancaster bomber. If you’re not part of the solution you’re part of the problem, man, and that’s how I saw it. It didn’t help that he wouldn’t speak of war, or flying, or Germany, or the prison camp he lived in for 18 months as a 24-year-old except to chuckle through the occasional anecdote.

During World War II, Johnny Canuck was pictured as a caped strongman who protected Canadians from the Nazis; Canuck began as a nickname for Canadian soldiers, a term of military valour. Easter Sunday, April 11, Trevor Linden’s birthday and the first 2004 playoff game played in Calgary—Flames versus Canucks. My father’s been dead for twelve years. History is huge and vague when you’re looking for a person in it. My resources are few. I have my father’s journal kept in West Compound, Stalag-Luft 1, Barth, Pomerania, Germany, Room 9, Block 8. The hardcover is dirty beige cloth with a lovely retro red maple leaf on the cover. The binding’s a mess and held with three wide pieces of retro Scotch tape. The handwriting inside is my father’s. I expected to find ghostly details of his trauma, suffering, mind and heart as a young man in jail in war in Europe. I’m a schooled reader. I read for pattern, implication and ambiguity. I know that real history is small: it resides in the list of books my father read while in camp, in the flat descriptions of camp routine—the plays, the films, the showers—The average was one hot shower per week and any amount of cold showers in the washroom. For washing hands and faces cold water was used. But this small history relies too heavily on my imagination. I have to fill in his physical and emotional experiences. He does not divulge.

The book contains pictures drawn and painted by other men and a watercolour signed by my father, titled “Day Dreams,” that depicts a young man in blue pants too short, a boy’s cap, hands stuffed in his pockets, strolling in the shadow of an observation tower and high barbed wire. Above his head, a dream cloud puffs with two bathing beauties at the beach—one in a polka dotted two-piece, the other in orange, a discreet mark of penciled cleavage on both, a blonde and a redhead. Lists of household articles, rations, a menu from mess dinner Xmas, 1944 at Stalag Luft I; the contents of an American Red Cross POW Xmas Parcel; rhymey poems; a reproduction of the Postkartes sent to my mother at home in New Westminster and to his father and mother in Victoria. At the centre are twenty pages of heavy grey paper, intended for photographs or mementos.

The book’s too cheerful for the kind of history I’m looking for. It’s like the POWs were given a workshop on scrapbooking by some over-schnitzelled fraulein and told to throw in lists and data and dull details but no commentary.

Each time I read this book, I’m frustrated: most pages are blank. My father couldn’t keep a better record? What was he doing with his time, that rotten kid? And I’m irked, too, that this isn’t the sort of journal we expect from war literature: full of poignant and heart-wrenching moments of personal triumphs and pains, a portal into the tortured soul of a prisoner who would grow up to be my calm and funny father, the Habs fan, the tennis ace, the congenial auctioneer. I missed my chance to talk to him about this. I didn’t ask the questions. The least he could do is hint about what he was feeling, seeing, wanting.

At 20 years old my dad was flying Tiger Moths from Edmonton. April 1942 he was posted at Saskatoon and flew a Crane; a Cornell at Vulcan, Alberta. In Claresholm, Alberta, it’s an Anson. August 1943, he’s training at Hixon, Staffordshire and flying a Wellington. Off to training in an Oxford in Yorkshire, then a Halifax. January 1944, January 22 he’s into a Lancaster at No. 1 Lancaster Finishing School.

The neat columns of his log book, his meticulous record-keeping end on March 26.

Twenty-eight months to train my father from shiny-face neophyte in a sluggish linen-covered biplane, to a tough veteran willing and able to kill people from the complex cockpit of a matte black bomber.

It must have tortured my father when I was in my own early twenties, rambling and confused, marrying and divorcing, quitting university, playing country music in shitty bars, dating jackasses and bringing them home for Christmas dinner. But he never compared my aimlessness with the life he had; he never tried to enforce the sort of discipline he’d known on my chaos. This is the first time I’ve had any interest in coming so close to my father’s past, to touching the cold metal of his last flight as a pilot at war. It has to do with why I’ve also turned back to hockey.

[Off the plane at ten in the morning, an unexpectedly clear and warm day in Calgary, I rent a car and drive south on the hillfree and curveless Deerfoot Trail to the Lancaster Museum in Nanton, Alberta.]

The same night, I cab to the Saddledome. I’ve worn red by accident and I have a moment of ticket-scam panic when my pricey internet score won’t scan at the entrance, but then I’m in and no one comes to take my seat when the game gets going. Outside, this is like Vancouver, the sun bright and warm, fans happy and optimistic in their jerseys: Fleury, Drury, ghosts of squads past. Inside, though, things are different. The arena is old and a not so slick return to the frontier times of hockey. Everything’s too small. The seats are hard and close, and there are no roll bars to keep us in our seats. It’s a ride at a portable carnival, set up on a hot August day to break some hearts, impregnate some teenagers, and leave a certain stickiness across the landscape. At GM Place, I’d be in a comfy seat next to a Harry Potter six-year-old boy in glasses, the one who shares a birthday with his fallen hero Todd Bertuzzi, and Harry would be licking a strawberry yogurt cone with his tidy dad. Here, I squeeze into the uproar of the Calgary Saddledome, into a hard seat at one end of the rink, high behind the net, Lancaster tie tack poked into my coat collar, surrounded by aggressive and drunken lads in their uniform of red, who shout racist taunts at the row of Indo-Canadian boys who also came from Vancouver to cheer their team, to watch rich wonderboys play a fast game and be called warriors.

Vancouver won the playoff game in Calgary that night, 2-1. I watched Brad May trip and his face hit the goalpost below me, the blood and mess. I saw him writhe on the ice and saw him uncharacteristically traumatized. Flame Rhett Warrener—he who did the tripping—broke a playoff code by standing nearby and waiting for May to be okay. May had said after the morning skate, “There isn’t a player on that team who can push me around.” Maybe not. He gave the puck away early in the second for Calgary’s goal. Brian Burke would later say, sure, Brad’s face is a mess (twelve stitches) but “You should’ve seen the goal post!” Hardy-har.

Also, Cloutier. The rink is so hot I have to take off my coat and the sweater I wore thinking these old rinks must freeze. Jason Hartley, Director of Engineering at GM Place told me about ice last year: “The guys are getting bigger. The whole sport has evolved and the equipment has become a lot more sophisticated than it was in the days of Bobby Orr. Some players have the trainers put a very aggressive radius into their skate blades which in effect hollows out the middle of the bottom edge of the blade. The skate blade acts as two razor sharp knife edges, as opposed to the old smooth blade I skated on as a kid. Strap this skate on a guy weighing 240 pounds and let him rip it up and, oh yeah, he can wreak havoc on the ice conditions.” At every rink, engineers have to ensure that the ice is as hard and fast as it can be before, Hartley says, “it hits a critical threshold of becoming too cold and brittle, which is when it starts to break away in chips. This occurs over a range of half a degree. Add a building loaded with 20,000 people all releasing heat at a rate dependent upon their level of interest in the game and you have a variable climate that needs to be controlled at optimum conditions for ice performance.”

There are 20,000 people here, too, and huge furnaces in the ceiling that blast fire and incredible heat every time something good happens, like when the game starts. I’m hot. I’m thirsty. The ice must be total shit late in the first period of a goalless game. Cloutier comes out of his crease to handle a shot by Oleg Saprykin, his skate catches a groove. He tries to coast back into the crease but buckles, falls down, and that’s it. Johan Hedberg finishes the game—right down to the Braveheart face-off war music in his zone with seconds to play in his one-goal game—and takes out Craig Conroy’s face with his goalie stick, too.

The sports news back in my hotel room predicts: knee ligaments, it’s the knee, oh no, not the knee. Undisclosed lower body injury. One crack reporter gets the scoop. This just in, “Cloutier was seen leaving the rink on crutches. The injury-prone goalie has been hampered by a knee injury before.” But will he be okay to play tomorrow night?

My plane the next day won’t leave until three, but I like the brightness of the Calgary Airport and go out early to read, surrounded by planes at rest, planes departing, arriving. At noon, I have a smart-coffee and a Globe and Mail, and I’m reading about Kathleen Kenna, the 48-year-old Toronto Star reporter wounded by a grenade tossed into her jeep. It landed under her seat and blew up in March 2002 in Afghanistan. She is unconscious inside the transport plane that could take her to hospital, has lost almost two-thirds of her blood, and the plane’s stuck in the sand on an airstrip with two hundred Taliban soldiers a kilometre away at the other end of the runway: “Major Wright could see springs from the jeep’s seat, straw matting, shrapnel, glass and metal embedded deep in her muscles and torn flesh. He could see her right hip bone and exposed tendons, muscles and other bones.” Her husband sits nearby. There is much more to the story: about prayer, the end of Kenna’s heartbeat and her revival, the U.S. Chinook helicopters coming to help, bearing her stretcher through ankle-deep sand at 7000 feet above sea level with land mines, they found out later, planted everywhere either side of the runway. The story is long and it’s too much for me. I’m glad no one looks at people in airports, because my face is stupid with tears and my hands are shaking like a soap opera. It’s as though the description I need of my father’s last flight—details and anguish—have been provided for me in this account of a woman my age, a reporter, trying to go on living and working in war.

“Ya, he’s here at the airport. He’s right over there. Ya. He has a cast on his ankle. No: ankle.” The voice is big and bright and one of the Indo-Canadian dudes from my section last night relays the latest news through the wee cellphone snuggled in his huge hand to a buddy back in Vancouver.

He’s right. There’s Dan Cloutier, wearing the usual sweet smile and congeniality and a swanky blue and red track suit, his black hair glossy, chatting and laughing with a couple of oldtimers. He’s lugging the foot cast—clearly an ankle injury—and sitting twenty feet away, his chaperone—a ringer for the courier guy who delivered my ticket—reads The Atlantic several seats over. Dan’s got a fat hardcover, an athlete biography, but he doesn’t get to read it: he has his picture taken with kids (“Mind if I stay seated?” he says with a grin); he‘s pleasant to the asshole who asks about the injury while Dan‘s on the phone; he‘s hunky with the deep brown eye contact to the teenage girl who asks him to sign her math textbook; he rolls up the rim to win and gets up to put the empty cup in the appropriate bin. His heart must be broken. He’s wearing only one hi-tech shiny shoe; on the right is the ankle walking cast and his toes are showing.

I fold the paper into my backpack and settle into my coffee. A fiction writer takes notes like these, alert to detail and expression and dialogue. A real journalist would be over there in a flash, notebook out, chummy handshake pumping. But what to ask: How does it feel? What happened out there? What now? I already know the answers and don’t wish to ask him to relive the trauma. Hockey players, says Brendan Shanahan, have traditionally been conservative when it comes to talking about the game. But maybe their reticence is more like the soldier’s reluctance to relive battles lost, the indignities, the sad and wasteful endings. To ask my father to talk about his time in Barth would have been selfish; to ask Cloutier how it feels to be done for the season would be rude. He’s a public man in a public place enduring a gut-shredding private emotion. Why intrude? A real journalist would know the answer and get to work.

Have I compared one handsome and bewildered walking wounded goalie—the weight of the team on his shoulders—to the downed fighter pilot?

Revelling in the game for the past two years, pumped full of delight in sport and lust and optimism—having what’s known in certain cultures as fun—I am offended, still, by hockey’s rhetoric. I’ve learned nothing but cynicism from the “hockey players are just like warriors” schtick that the NHL and its media clingons spew at this time of the season. But there’s something: maybe my father was just like a hockey player when he signed up and joined the air force, trained to do miraculous things with his body and brain. He put on a uniform, got handsome, and then played a really big game, a game like five Stanley cups at once for the Habs, a game he lost—one last rush up the gut, time winding down, stopped cold at the blue line by an impenetrable and heavily armed defence.

Hockey players are not just like my dad, but he was a lot like them.

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