A Hockey Night in Canada: The Link Between NHL Playoff Stars and Everyday Heroes

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A Hockey Night in Canada: The Link Between NHL Playoff Stars and Everyday Heroes

Flame Cory Sarich shifts momentum in Calgary's favour with a hit on San Jose Sharks captain Patrick Marleau in the opening round of the 2008 Stanley Cup Playoffs 

The NHL post-season is barely upon us, and already the action has given the fans fits. The Ottawa Senators, an early-season favourite to repeat a visit to the Finals, were swept out of contention by the Pittsburgh Penguins in a four-game rout. The Nashville Predators - ultra-underdogs with the fewest regular season points in the playoffs - are giving the President’s Trophy-winning Detroit Red Wings a solid run with a 2-2 series split thus far. And look no further than the San Jose Sharks/Calgary Flames series to find surprise performances, good and bad, as the star-studded lineups battle their own demons to overcome the opposition.

Over the coming weeks hockey fans shall be treated to skill, heart, and humility from those lucky players involved in the 2008 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs. Sixteen teams will become eight, then four,  finally two, and on the way the clubs and players therein will expose the grit and identity it will take to challenge for the mug. Only a few days into this year’s tournament there have been illustrations of the type of performance required to make even the smallest dent in the world’s toughest championship.

As some stand tall in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, talented favourites fall unceremoniously by the wayside, and I find myself wondering about character and where it comes from.

I recently began - and shall continue as the playoffs progress - a series of player profiles from this year’s Cup run, and as I look through the names and faces, the areas of origin widely differ, but they all tend to have one thing in common: cold. Arctic winds, icy climates, long, grey winters. Canada, the Northern United States, Finland, Russia, Sweden, Latvia, etc, etc, the list of nippy nations from which hockey heroes hail circles the globe. Having lived much of my life in the Canadian Rockies, seasonally surrounded by snow and daily ice-strife, I realised that even the most unassuming of us have the same steadfast roots that built the game’s best athletes.

Hockey is just one of many diversions created specifically for these icy habitats, and those who choose to play, even casually, commit absurd amounts of energy and time to the sport. Luckily the game is generally well loved by populations in these places, and so no one need feel left out; hockey is everywhere and for everyone, and all varieties of people find a way to be involved. Most join in and, while incredibly passionate about the game, never really pursue it professionally. These unsung legends are the heart that keeps hockey such a community event.

The men we watch in the NHL and various other leagues are a different sort. They dedicated themselves to learning to play the game over years with heaps of hard graft, an endeavour which the average person would see as daft. But it is the culmination of these extraordinary efforts that we are following so earnestly through the post-season, and as I look at the common bonds that brought each man to the world stage I see where hockey’s typically intense spirit and sportsmanship can come from.

When skaters become adults, hockey becomes their own game to make of it what they will, but since so many start off from the moment they can walk, young NHL-wannabes involve the whole family in their quest.

For those unfamiliar with the realities of ice-hockey training, here’s a glimpse of features common to even the youngest and most basic levels of competition.

Early morning practices tend to yank parents out of bed at 4am, getting the car warm and gear ready as boiled oats go down the gullet of a tiny star-in-the-making. He or she - both genders find equal opportunities in hockey - will be carted around and cheered on by a personal support squad as they play and practice at all hours and travel hundreds of miles for contests against similarly dedicated folk.

Learning to be a proficient hockey player requires a lot of encouragement, because even though the emphasis is usually on fun, it takes hard work and perseverance to hone even the most basic skill. As children grow into young, skilled athletes, training intensifies. Hours of seemingly pointless drills give players the ability to compete competently in the endless variety of situations hockey presents. Technique is developed as skaters practice moving puck to stick to skate and back again, over and over. Strength and stamina are cultivated with intense endurance tests on-and-off the ice, and there is no excuse good enough to forgive a half-hearted effort.

So why do so many people in such variety put themselves through ridiculous trials in bone-chilling weather? I realised I had thought about that earlier this year, but I had recognised the cause via an experience of my own in January. Though I found my mid-winter’s episode reminiscent of a Canadian upbringing, it was easy to see how it applies to so many people and places.

~~

As we trudged along the snow-buried street at half-past midnight, I asked myself “why?“. Why was I out in 30-below weather hauling a 20-pound hockey bag through my old neighbourhood, hushed as everyone with a brain was sleeping snug in the warmth? I had been sitting at the computer in my pyjamas thinking about cocoa and bed when the suggestion came to go and skate. I didn’t glam onto the idea right away. I knew how cold it was, and by 6pm I am generally bone-idle. But it was a Saturday night, and there really was no real reason to say no.

Grudgingly bowing to peer pressure, I spent as long as possible putting on layers of long-johns and thermal vests, which I topped with my Flames sweater, hoping that the notion would pass and we could just stay in and play hockey on the Xbox. Twenty minutes later however, I found myself crunching through freshly fallen snow, hauling between the two of us our skates, sticks, and my goalie equipment.

We walked most of the way in silence, enjoying the atmosphere of a quiet winter scene. I developed a routine for the half-hour trek: shift weight of gear to other side, yawn, blink sleepiness away, shake my head awake, and walk on for another minute or so before repeating. I resolved very early on in the journey that I would get to the rink, dig a hole in a snow bank, and use my goal pads for pillows until daybreak.

My limbs were just warming up as we arrived at the outdoor community rink, stark sheets of ice quiet and empty at this early hour. The area lights were turned off, but the light of a full moon reflected well off the ice and snow creating its own dramatic illumination. After scraping the benches free of frost we set about strapping up, prepping the skate laces before taking off a shoe to avoid cold feet as much as possible. It seemed to take forever, with each second sitting sapping more and more heat away from our bones. Eventually I forced my feet into the stiff old skate boots before turning my attention to the goal-gear, full of straps and buckles and finicky things that required me to remove my gloves.

Yawning my head off, I finally skated onto the ice.

I did a couple of laps to shake the cobwebs off and headed for one of the metal goal nets at the end of the rink. The puck we had brought, a cheap plastic road-hockey number, shattered from the cold on the very first shot. We looked at each other sharing the same thought: what are we doing out here? It was freezing cold, we had no lighting, no puck, no warmth in our extremities, and here we were stood out on a sheet of ice at 1am in the middle of January. But we continued to skate, using clumps of ice to take shots at the net, doing lengths up and down the rink as we remembered what it was like to pretend to be Orr and Gretzky as kids. The bottom of my hockey sweater hung below the waist of my down jacket, a lone strip of red gliding three feet above the iced surface. Our feet were frozen, only 1/8” of enforced fabric between flesh and icy wind as we carved furrows and blew ice shavings against the back boards under a clear night sky.

The air crystallised our breath onto our toques and eerie haloes of ice appeared around our faces, gleaming in the moonlight as we skated towards the benches where our shoes lay. Earlier we had discovered my skates were without footbeds, so I had nicked a pair from Dave’s shoes at the rink, and while we struggled to get out of our skates without touching sock to snow we had to juggle insoles as well. We sat on our street shoes as we performed these delicate procedures in an effort to warm them up a bit before our feet went in. Finally extricated and re-clothed, we packed our gear in the hockey bag and tied up our skates for the walk home.

Retracing our steps again in silence, I thought about my earlier question and found I had an answer. I was no longer yawning, and I noticed I could feel my toes properly for the first time that night. Walking away from the rink I found myself wanting to go back and skate some more, all the while knowing it was too cold and it was best to go home. I felt better then than I had all week, there in the wee hours of what was now Sunday morning, all because a casual whim had lured me away from a warm hearth and out into the frozen night. And as I carried the cumbersome equipment over my shoulder, I realised why.

Ice skating and hockey on a midwinter’s eve for it’s own sake and no other characterises what it is to be Canadian. Every Winter, each of us battles blizzards or freezing rain or dangerous wind-chill factors going to work or school, our daily lives ever affected by the Canadian climate. The nature of the people here is stronger than mere weather though, and no amount of cold has ever stopped this country making the most of what’s on offer, even if it is ice and snow. People must brave the elements to keep their jobs and earn their diplomas, but they choose to go back out again and toboggan, ski, snowball fight, skate, play hockey, build snowmen… the list goes on and on. We feel passion for these things because they prove to us that we can face the odds and win.

To take the challenge squarely and relish every moment of it, despite the cold, despite the time, and come what may is a quality great men aspire to.

Every time someone snowshoes out to a cabin, jumps into a polar dip, or shovels the neighbour’s walk they embody that same spirit. I realised that no other activity could have compelled me into such conditions as we had just played. We were only out on the ice for maybe half an hour that night, less time than it took to get there, and we left just as feeling came back to my toes. But the worth of that night and nights like it carries on into who I am, as it does to each of us through work and play, ever impacting ourselves and the world around us. And every time I see a puck go ‘round or watch kids in the snow, it’s evocative of what we have gained through games such as hockey; in Canada, it’s mostly a sense of self.

~~

Not just Canada, I’m sure. I would never dare compare mere weather to a world filled with obscene struggle, so I simply state that each region, every demographic faces their own unique yet mutual strain which in turn builds character distinct to the area.

Countries that foster winter athletes have common bonds which are often forgotten, and it starts, of all places, with months of ice-cold weather. Hockey players who have come from these frost-bitten counties have shared the experience of three feet of snow on an early Winter’s morning as they sought to make the best of the difficult environment. The same goes for their comrades in cold who cheer them on from the stands and streets, the rest of the permafrosted population who wage their own battles day to day.

 

The art, sport and various cultural influences in such places reflect the resolve of a quietly courageous and diverse citizenry often overlooked by the world at large.

We force ourselves to go further and have found fun challenges along the way. 

After answering a few of my own questions, I have one more for the remaining playoff participants: what lesson is it they are forgetting? Why do some men step up against unendurable prospects and find a hidden reserve of spirit, while others lack the fortitude to live up to even the most reasonable expectations? Some have an ingrained mettle that helps them past apparently insurmountable chances, and some boast an A-grade arsenal but can’t find the trigger due to a lack of effort.

How can some stars apparently forget the sacrifices their parents made over all those years, or deny any responsibility to their team mates, coaches and fans?

I myself shall keep an eye on what kind of inspiration or lack thereof the remaining teams exhibit as each bid for the Cup with different coffers. In my experience, solid team identity creates character performances - heart-and-soul hockey - and it is these types of intangibles that make underdogs capable of toppling giants. Those who can draw on the personality-building experiences they underwent learning to have fun with a challenge will succeed. Those who forget what got them to such a prodigious venue as the NHL will inevitably falter on a weak foundation.

Once a team is eliminated from a series, they are gone, invisible, irrelevant.

...Such is the pitilessness of the NHL playoffs.

The few and only ghosts even slightly mourned are those that took their chance as far as humanly possible, cheated from a rightful place in a contest in which second best counts for nothing. If they must go, they will go out fighting tooth and nail, showing the Fates that even the most unfathomable odds will be challenged.

...Such is the relentlessness of the human spirit.

“Set my compass North, I got Winter in my blood… they call my home the Land of Snow. Canadian cold front, moving in. What a way to ride, oh what a way to go!”  -The Band, Acadian Driftwood

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