The wind whipped snow was parting in front of us. A massive tongue had licked a stripe through to the frozen river. We had scrambled over the crusty berms and into its wake, and we gradually lengthened our strides. It was marvelous that the city of Winnipeg had paid a Zamboni driver to do this for the benefit of just two insane tourists stupid enough to be out here today. The river’s skin was shimmering shades of golden white as the cold sun tried in vain to have any effect other than a blinding reflected glow. We were wraiths on steel blades, under balaclavas and auto shop coveralls, on the way into this wall of light and beyond, to deliverance at the forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers. I knew they had cleared a rink, and we would pass the puck around until we had guaranteed that on that day and at that time, we were the two most Canadian people on the planet.
Blasting from a dark band below the first low bridge I caught spots of darkness streaking through my peripheral vision along the ice. We stopped and tried to figure it out. The dark spots were the back ends of pigeons sticking out of the frozen snow. Tails and wing tips out like oversized gray-black tulip tops. Wings tucked in tight and tiny, clawed feet pointed skyward. This perfectly aerodynamic form had helped them penetrate the snow bank enough to bury them halfway. It was as if a crop of pigeons was growing there for harvest. At nightfall they had huddled under the bridge on the final rail. When the ether of subzero air had stopped their little hearts they tipped forward and dropped headfirst like weighted lawn darts into the moonlit foam below. Migrate goddamn it! Migrate! These were true Canadian pigeons, pigeons as homesteaders clinging to the frozen prairie beyond all reason. Somehow they held hard to the notion that in the end this would all help future generations. Maybe they had given all to prove a point in another lifetime. They knew a secret.
It was, though, no secret that we looked like idiots to the locals. When the cabbie dropped us off by the river he said, “you want me to send a fuckin’ hearse to pick you up?” Neil Young had fled Winnipeg for Thunder Bay in an old hearse. Later he bolted from Toronto to L.A. to gain the creature comforts of wealth and a yearlong mild climate. He still has his Canadian passport as a reminder that he carries “the secret”. Children see the positives in situations where the parents grumble under hardship. Summer is playtime and winter is also playtime. Here I am as a musician raised on the mild wet west coast. A grown man behaving like a boy on a tour through the coldest Canada on record. I am rockin’ in my free world. I am turning the bleak and inhospitable into glorious playtime. I am trying every day, every way, to be in on “the secret”.
Somehow I knew that the only way to etch this Canadian secret into my soul was to play hockey outdoors as much as possible and in as many places as possible. There was so much catching up to do. There was something missing in me. Outdoor ice was rare in a Vancouver winter. Gordie Howe skating to school along a creek bed on a crisp Floral, Saskatchewan morning; Walter Gretzky hosing down that Brantford backyard year after year, to provide unlimited ice time for the chosen one. Pure fable.
At the time of the pigeon discovery I was in a somewhat notorious rock band called Odds. Our historical Canadian rock star status, ensured by our mere “cult status” in the U.S. of A., meant we crisscrossed our home and native land innumerable times preaching to the converted. I’m happy to still be on that mission. The singular focus of rock band life had long ago left me without a hobby. When the stress built up I had no place to go but to suckle the ass end of a joint or climb over the rim of a glass. I chose hockey as an additional coping mechanism.
At 30 years of age I was really noticing the effects of more than a decade of barroom second hand smoke, sleep deprivation, road food and collateral imbibing. I stumbled forward into the long distance runner phase. My health improved and running provided a brilliant distraction from the slow interpersonal root canal of the rock band dynamic. It wasn’t enough. My deep love of the game of hockey, as a fan, seemed unrequited. I wanted the game to love me back. The running had brought out my sense memory of the Trudeau “Participaction” era and when I stumbled upon a national underground network of hockey playing musicians I was swallowed whole. At the current rate of expansion my pals Barney Bentall and Keith Scott (Bryan Adams’ longtime henchman) were already on their way to making the NHL. On borrowed gear and pencil thin quads I began my journey. Like any born again convert I read from the hockey bible more enthusiastically than any seasoned minister. I accelerated the learning curve as all “mature students” do; you know, the old farts who pissed you off in university or college with their frequent intelligent and informed questions. Once I was out on the road the real learning began.
Our stalwart bass player Doug Elliott had enjoyed a youth full of hockey in Jasper, Alberta getting his ass kicked by the big Edmonton boys. He jumped on the bandwagon in search of his own slightly damaged “boy inside the man” and off we went with our guitars, amps, drums and hockey bags soaking up the diesel fumes in the bay of the tour bus. Our guitar tech and stage manager Bob Kemmis (now graduated to the pantheon of the country’s most talented singer/songwriters) played the Jack Palance role as if in a Nordic version of City Slickers. He is somewhat of a hockey sage, poet and informed voice of reason and was made to suffer for his talents. In an early game of “no raisies” shinny in a residential Regina neighbourhood I connected a clearing pass with his kneecap and the fall broke his wrist. Being Jack Palance it was obvious he would silently continue to lift heavy things for the rest of the two month tour, a clue that he was in on “the secret”. I still maintain that it was an irregularity in the outdoor ice that deflected the puck upward.
The dawn of ‘95 blessed the Odds with a “breakthrough” tour and the coldest temperatures in decades. Our friends the Tragically Hip had invited Odds and Change of Heart to support them on a sold out arena run across the country. The bands scouted outdoor ice and organized games of shinny in just about every town.
Within this beautiful situation lay the experiential base of “the secret”.
Smiling on the inside but not being able to move your face on the outside. Icicles connecting your top eyelid to your bottom. Checking hard the local skinny shinny hustler with the dangling smoke and the poor work ethic, just to prove a point. Throwing your sticks in a pile at centre ice with the motley crew of hard done-bys and layabouts on a noon hour mission to regress and carve and swerve and feel our bodies come alive. Savouring the shortest days. Leaning on the boards instead of coming off the ice because there are 12 people on the ice fighting for your side anyway. Following the leader with a six pack of snow shovels just to get the pond cleared. Skates dropping deep into the perimetre snow banks as you trudge to retrieve the puck. Drafting a speed skater down the Rideau Canal to Parliament Hill while dodging the Day-Glo rings of marked potholes meant for measuring the depth of the ice. Jumping the thin ice at the edge of a melting pond in Kingston when play veers too far out and the winter has begun to fade into spring. Freezing your jeans into cardboard and the boots of your skates solid after falling through into the marsh, and heading back into the game. Tying up skates and huddling for warmth in that little hut beside any community rink. Playing keep away on the patch outside the Saskatoon elementary school as the children crowd the window of the classroom to laugh at the foolhardy frostbitten gang of black-dressed interlopers. Moonlight out on virgin natural ice and the puck literally running away seemingly under its own steam.
So. Here we are skating upstream though the land of Riel and arriving at the junction of two great prairie rivers. The rivers that carried the York Boats of the fur trade to Hudson’s Bay. The ones we see flooding the farms on the late night news almost every year. A train on the Canadian national railroad crosses overhead on a trestle that spans these forks and I wonder how long it will take to get to my little town of Port Moody. From the WHA home of the Golden Jet to the home of the last golden spike laid on that railroad. Standing here in the frozen hard centre of the country, it’s a sickeningly sweet daydream. Isn’t it? It really is. Music has taken the inside of me outside and sent it around the world but hockey had placed something inside me that I never had. I know it is there down at my molecular level. “The secret”. Through it I have been able to go back and grow up all over the country one little game at a time. In this way I may live forever. Natural selection will one day create a resolute and hardy pigeon that scoffs at the thought of migration and lives to tell the tale.