Returning to the Temple

I’m standing in line at the security desk at the CBC. A short, balding producer arrives to collect a short, balding visitor who stands in front of me. “Are we going to the same place as before?” the guest asks. “No,” the producer replies, “Ever since hockey’s been back, that room is impossible to book.”

A member of the CBC’s PR team shows up to wrangle more press, and as she’s escorting me up the elevator to the tenth floor, I ask, “So, how quick was the shift back to hockey?”

She gives a laugh that’s equal parts giddy and weary. “It’s been zero to sixty.”

I step into the studio and arrive at the shrine. The Hockey Night in Canada set is redesigned, but unmistakable, provoking nostalgia and excitement. All the same, this is a bittersweet moment. I’m a hockey fan, and if you are too, I don’t think I even need to explain why.

After a quick audio/visual presentation, the producers thank everybody who needs to be thanked and lay out the facts. This is Hockey Night in Canada’s sixtieth season, Ron MacLean’s hosting, and he introduces the four guys who’ll join him at the desk: Kevin Weekes, Elliotte Friedman, Glenn Healy and PJ Stock. After all, who doesn’t want more opinions with their hockey? Andi Petrillo is taking over the I-Desk. Don Cherry’s doing two Coach’s Corners, but MacLean can’t introduce him just yet, because Grapes is flying in from Halifax and is running late. Every Canadian team will see coverage at least once a week. Original Six parings, rivalry matches and eighteen all-Canadian games highlight a packed—packed—schedule.

Jeffery Orridge, the executive director of CBC Sports, evokes Shakespeare by name and calls hockey “the stuff dreams are made on”. Prospero, the wizard from The Tempest Orridge is quoting, was referring to the insubstantial but precious nature of performance, but also of our lives in general, though he was speaking from the perspective of a character at the end of a performance and a playwright at the end of a career. A couple of people chuckled as Orridge pauses to drink in the tepid reaction. I wonder if the man is especially prescient, has an off-kilter and unpractised sense of humour, or if he’s a dipshit with a quote book.

Half an hour later, after a small army of producers has taken pictures with the talent, I sit down with Kevin Weekes and Andi Petrillo. So, how quick was the shift from lockout to hockey?

“It’s zero to sixty,” Weekes says. “Talk about going from zero to sixty, the players need to be in the shape that they’d be in in the second half of the season,” Petrillo adds.

Weekes and Petrillo begin to speak quickly and eloquently about their excitement and the nature of the abbreviated season to come. Petrillo acknowledges that some fans, perhaps thinking of the NFL, want a shorter season anyway, but she points out that it means a reduced travel schedule.

But will the players be ready? Weekes speaks up.

“It may not be the cleanest brand of hockey for the first little bit—guys are playing themselves back into playing form, if you will, and nothing replicates playing in the NHL. Nothing. No matter where you practice, no matter what other league you’re playing in, nothing matches NHL tempo, competitiveness, skill set, the best of the world.”

Weekes knows what he’s talking about. He was a goalie in the NHL from ’97 to ’09, joining the Carolina Hurricanes in the Stanley Cup Finals in ’02.

They’re both excited to watch the Oilers, because with that much talent, they’ll break out soon. Weekes has nothing but praise for their young player’s attitudes and how they “burned up the American league”. Petrillo is most interested in Vancouver and Calgary, because those teams are getting older and “they’ve got big decisions to make”.

But don’t these guys feel a bit like me? Conflicted? Excited that hockey’s back, but wary of being burnt?

My query quiets the room. Weekes mulls a bit and says, “That’s a fair question,” and mulls some more. He starts to answer. He’s always been a fan. He was fortunate to play for the league. Now he talks about hockey on TV. “Hockey is bigger than you individually. I learnt a lot of hard lessons in the business side of the game, since I was 21 and coming into the NHL. You realize how much control you don’t have over certain things. That’s why I think hockey is so great, it’s much like life that way. You control what you can, and you let go of what you can’t.”

Petrillo waits for Weekes to finish making his point before looking me square in the eye. “I know a lot of fans want to get upset at the NHL, but fans also know that players come and go, owners come and go, GMs come and go, reporters come and go. The game of hockey remains.”

I thank the two for their time, return to waiting, and check my messages. When I found out, hours ago, that I’d be talking to the Hockey Night in Canada cast, I alerted the two biggest hockey fans I know since I figured that they’d have a few questions. My uncle Buck sent a text, asking about about teams moving or folding. He also wanted to know how much longer Bettman was going to be around.

I decided not to ask anybody that, since media can’t really afford to continually pillory the man, no matter how keen fans are for a scapegoat to answer for months of spoilt millionaires squabbling. Buck also joked that he’d take phone numbers so he could “help Don stay out of trouble,” though I suspect Buck would only increase the likelihood of Don Cherry saying things that piss people off.

I last spoke to Buck when I ran into him at Costco over the holidays. He was bleary-eyed from operating on Russian time and watching Canada’s juniors lose their bronze medal to Russia. “Well, I guess it’s nice that Russian fans saw them win something on their home turf,” Buck mumbled, looking forlorn. “Ah, fuck it, who am I kidding? I’m still mad about that goddam game.”

Stepping into yet another room to speak with Elliotte Friedman, Glenn Healy, and PJ Stock, I see the three slouched over, playing with their phones. This would be more of a criticism if I wasn’t also playing with my phone.

Healy knew the lockout was over when his phone started going off at about ten after five. “I didn’t even have to look at it to know that they’d solved the lockout. Because nobody calls me at ten after five.”

After taking a break from his story to crack a bad joke at Stock’s expense, Healy continued, “Now it’s time for players to paint the canvas, and for us to depict what’s been painted. Sometimes it’s a Picasso, sometimes they’re painting the barn.”

This is another bad joke. Stock laughs and says he’s going to write down “paint a canvas,” and we move onto talking about the abbreviated season. Stock points out that injuries will play a crucial role. “You’re always injured when you play professional hockey, but you have a little bit of time to fix some of those injuries.”

Once you get past (or ignore) the element of injuries, a short season sounds exciting.

“You start one and five this year, you might be done,” says Friedman. “If you go back to ’94/’95, the last time there was a 48 game season, I think the difference between eighth place in the West and last in the West was five points, and that was before three point games. It shows that if you really screw the pooch early, you can be in trouble.”

Healy is nonplussed. “What is screwing the pooch?”

“It’s bad.”

“Is that some kind of Toronto term? Is the pooch a dog?”

Stock joins in now. “Who screws a pooch?”

I leave the three hockey stooges behind and sit down with Ron MacLean. Don Cherry’s supposed to be here too, but he’s still running late. MacLean’s tired; he and the rest of the cast have been studying since the lockout ended. His impressive encyclopaedic knowledge of hockey is wrought from hard work and, ordinarily, access to preseason games that, of course, haven’t happened. “We’re definitely working without a net on Saturday.”

I suspect that if MacLean hadn’t mentioned that, I wouldn’t have noticed. He talks shop effortlessly, mentioning that the first couple of weeks might determine the playoff spots, that he’s worried about the Canucks and their injuries, that Brad Richards is a friend and, even though the Rangers seem to be the consensus for the East, he thinks that Boston is getting underplayed. Yes, Boston, over Pittsburgh, Philly, and New York. And the team he’s most excited about? “Oilers. How can it not be?”

MacLean mentions that it’ll be difficult playing into June, especially if there’s no Canadian team. “I can promise you when Richard Stursberg and Kirstine Stewart inked the last Hockey Night in Canada deal they never dreamt the Toronto Maple Leafs would miss the playoffs seven years running.”

Also on the horizon, 2013 will be twenty years since a Canadian city has taken home the Stanley Cup. Even a run with no cup at the end is something incredible. I was in Calgary in 2004, and even though it was the heart of enemy territory for an Oilers fan like me, experiencing a city in the throes of the final seven-game series is something otherworldly. Every car on the road flew a Flames flag, every bar on Seventh Avenue was coloured red, and every jersey in the city was purchased. Stores had nothing left.

The memory of that run is almost enough to make me forget that I was burnt by the sport I love. Am I justified, MacLean?

Maclean’s made no secret of his support for the players. “They’re Picassos, even if they’re hung by crummy owners.” At the same time, he sees fans as shareholders in the equation and taxpayers as party to the runaway stadium costs. He thinks that Gary Bettman, “who clearly shouldn’t have to apologize for doing what he thought was in the best interest for the health of the league,” chose to apologize because he realizes that there’s a problem. A huge problem.

So what’s the solution?

“There’s no smooth answer. I think all of us fans understand deep down: it’s irritating, but it happens, and there’s a reason it happens, it’s only right that they have a hard negotiation. And, absence has made the heart grow fonder.”

I thank MacLean and he tells me that it’s been an honour. Really, he says that.

As I spend the next hour waiting to speak with Don Cherry—who, in fairness, is a very busy man—I check my email. The other biggest hockey fan I know, my dad, has emailed me from a hotel room in Cuba to ask about which cities should get a team, along with another, more particular question.

The funny thing about my dad is that a decade in South East Asia didn’t dampen his love for hockey. Improbably, he coached a team in Singapore. They played tournaments in Hong Kong, and later, in the United Arab Emirates, which is home to more hockey-addled expatriates. Al Ain’s arena was half-buried in sand when the team bus pulled up.

Finally, Cherry finishes cutting a quick TV spot and sits down with me for a few minutes. I mention that he knows my uncle, Rick Foley, because it’s always good to name-drop. Cherry looks me up and down as he bellows, “Oh boy, do I ever! You’re as big as him too. Yeah, he was a good defenseman. He’d be making about two million this year.” Born in the wrong generation, I guess.

Cherry seems smaller in person, but his love for the game is infectious. I have a hard time thinking of the guy as controversial; he’s just opinionated, though I suppose that in Canada, that’s all it takes to be controversial.

He’s happy with the abbreviated season. “I’d like to have all seasons 36 games. You’re going to have four pointer games, they’re all going to be like playoff games, there’s going to be fireworks. And there won’t be that, you know, when they get around forty games halfway through the season, they float for about ten games. Well, none of that stuff now, cause if you float for five games, you’re out of the playoffs. I’m really looking forward to it—it’s going to be dynamite, eh—and the players are too.”

He knows it’ll never happen, but he’d love it if Newmarket got a team. He’s sure, absolutely sure, that Quebec’s getting a team. He’d also like to see Hamilton get a team, arguing that their arena would always be packed and “you’d never get a ticket.”

Next to his passion for the sport, I’m embarrassed to ask Cherry if he shares any of my irritation with the league. I ask anyway, though, because if hockey has a priest—an entertaining, outspoken, utterly devoted priest—it’s this man.

“It doesn’t bother me. You’d do the same thing if you were a player or an owner. Everybody’s in it for a buck, I guess. I feel sorry for all the people working at the stadiums, but aside from that, it doesn’t bother me. As long as they’re back, playing, that’s all.”

I’m about ready to go, and he’s giving me regards for Rick, when I remember my dad’s question: who was a better goalie, Johnny Bower or Gump Worsley?

Don Cherry laughs, rocking in his chair. “Holy shit. That’s a tough one because… no, that’s tough. Now Gump’s a friend of mine too, eh, but I’d say Bower. Yep. Well, he’s just a little better. I thought he could move a little better, and he was great as a stand-up goalie… played against him when he was in Cleveland, eh, and I though he was dynamite down there, I used to think ‘What the hell is he doing down here?’ I saw him play a lot more than I did Gump. And I played with Gump, too — in Springfield. Sorry, Gump, but I think I’ll take Bower.”

Cherry tilts his head back and shouts to the ceiling, “Sorry, Gump!”

That’s all the absolution I need.

The puck drops Saturday.

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