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The Final Game

Lacing them up one last time.

I lean back on the pockmarked and faded red crossbar of my net and look out from behind the chrome-coloured bars of my goalie mask. The play unfolds in the opposing end of McCormick Arena in downtown Toronto, affording me a brief opportunity to observe the odd, albeit cherished, drama that is Thursday night pickup hockey.

In truth, this story is not unusual or unique. It happens every night, all year round, and is played out by those of all ages from St. John’s to Victoria. The cast of characters includes men who are white collar, blue collar, and no collar; butchers and bakers and Bay Street IPO makers; the fabulously wealthy and those just scraping by.

Yet there is a sublime purity to our hockey. Out on the ivory-hued ice, we are all equals for a single hour (minus eight minutes for the flood) as our attention is focused on the pursuit of pucks. We are motivated not by contract nor trophy nor free agency nor future endorsements, but by the inherent love of the game itself.

It’s supposed to be a fun game. But sometimes, I wonder. For instance, if I have the temerity to let in a bad goal, admonishment, like a papal bull, arrives swiftly.

Daaaaave,” will come the drone from Laszlo, his tone reminiscent of an irate parent speaking to a toddler who just scribbled on the kitchen walls. Laszlo is 1) one of the better players in the group, 2) Owen Nolan’s cousin, which, I believe, makes him think that he is much better than he actually is, and 3) a really nice guy, as the cliché goes, off the ice (despite the fact that I must continually suppress a primal urge to smash a goalie stick over his condescending head).

We’ve been together for so many years that I can’t even remember when and where it all began. More to the point, I often wonder how long we can make this gig last. Already, some of us have left the building.

Jimmy, the high-flying, Porsche-driving, Hugo Boss­­–wearing real estate agent, never recovered from the double whammy of a collapsing housing market and a debilitating gambling addiction back in the early 1990s. He ran into legal problems. Money problems. Relationship problems. The Porsche is gone, the career is gone, and Jimmy is gone. I miss him.

I miss Dennis, too. Many years ago, Dennis played pro hockey on some minor-league circuit. He never had the look of a pro athlete, yet he did have a baffling breakaway move: he would pass the puck onto his skate blade and then immediately back to his stick before roofing it past the bamboozled goaltender. It worked almost every time.

Dennis always wore a tattered blue (away) New York Rangers sweater, and always managed to get picked by the captain of the “away” team. Except once. One day in 1993, he was picked by the captain of the “home” team. Dennis refused, as he would not be able to don his beloved Broadway blueshirt. After the laughter died down, Dennis was given an ultimatum: wear a white jersey or go home. Dennis pulled a Yashin. He hasn’t been heard from since.

We still have quite the cast of characters. There’s Love Daddy and Brian, two excessively laid-back defencemen who, when paired, are known as the Double Lobotomy Line. There’s the resident cheapskate, Jack, who never, ever employs his carbon-dated $14.99 hockey stick to fire a slapshot lest it shatter and need to be replaced.

Then there’s the winning-obsessed Wally, who looks upon every game as a championship final. That invariably leads to altercations, or, as wisecracking Tony likes to call them, Waltercations. If Wally perceives that a transgression has been committed against him, his typical response is to either spear the perceived offender or throw the fellow’s stick over the boards. Pity the gumper who lets in a questionable goal.

I almost quit Thursday hockey years ago because of Wally. After 10 minutes of superb play, I misjudged a long shot that resulted in the sort of goal Tommy Salo let in against Belarus in the 2002 Winter Olympics. “Dave,” said Wally, without a hint of jocularity, “if you’re going to play like that tonight, then you may as well just go home right now.” And yet Wally, too, is a really nice guy off the ice.

As much as I cherish strapping on the pads every Thursday, at the same time, I’ve always realized that Thursday night hockey will one day end. Deep down, there is an unspoken understanding that all good things must come to an end.

Undoubtedly, there will come a point in which even the diehards and iron men among us simply won’t be able to endure the rigours of the game, followed by getting up early the next morning for work.

While Thursday night McCormick hockey remains a great skate, we are all undeniably becoming less quick and more inept. The skating is missing a step, slapshots have less mustard on them, and, for the goalies, shots that were once routine saves now somehow trickle in. Our passion to play the game is still there. But we’re greyer, fatter, slower. Dinosaurs on the brink of an ice age.

But every so often, beyond the clutching and grabbing and hacking so inherent to our unique brand of pinball shinny, there is a flash of brilliance, or at least a play that whispers of how hockey is meant to be played. One happened the other night.

Ron, the smooth-skating Newfoundlander with a wickedly accurate wrist shot, zips down the boards and dekes around a defenceman as he crosses the blue line. Then, without looking, Ron feathers a pass to Alain, who’s skating hard to the net. Alain, who once upon a time played with Mario Lemieux in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League, fights off two clutch-and-grabbers and perfectly deflects the puck. My counterpart at the other end of the rink, Charlie, never stood a chance.

Sticks in the air, hugs all around, screams of “Yeah!” punctuate the air. On the bench, the substitutes bang their sticks on the boards—just as I imagine Neanderthals would have banged their spears on the ground after successfully snaring a mammoth so many millennia ago.

But now, my time has come. Tonight is my final game. Despite exercising frequently and popping vitamins, despite avoiding drugs, tobacco, and hard liquor, my body has cruelly conspired against me. I injured my back last year, and even with constant therapy it seems to worsen daily. A damaged hip flexor that has left me with a permanent limp means that playing butterfly style is out of the question. And now comes word from my physician that a hip replacement beckons.

These days, I have all the flexibility of the Tin Man, and playing with pain and popping Advils like jelly beans only goes so far when you wake up the next morning feeling like death frozen over.

The clock reads 10:59 p.m. Last minute of play. I again lean back on the pockmarked and faded red crossbar of my net, peering out from behind the chrome-coloured bars of my face mask. I quietly ponder the game’s great saves and super goals, what I did right and what I did wrong, and how professionals being paid millions to play this wondrous game occasionally have the audacity to hold out for even more.

I am placated by the welcome, honest coolness of the artificial ice that envelops me from below. My nostrils inhale that unique blend of Freon and perspiration—the smell of Canada. The rink’s ratty, decades-old boards reverberate with the echoes of vulcanized rubber hitting wood. All I can ask for is one last shot, one last save. Before the clock reads 11:00 p.m., I receive such a gift.

Then a shrill buzzer sounds: our game is over, and my time is done. The gates open and players skate off the ice. The Zamboni slowly edges its way onto our icy domain, ready to clear the surface for another group of Thursday night wannabe hockey heroes.

There is so much more to life than a weekly game of pickup hockey with the guys. But I am lost in the moment. I don’t want to forget what this feels like.