Like a multitude of Newfoundlanders, I’ve had an unabashed love affair with hockey forever and a day.
Admittedly, my actual playing career was nothing to write home about. Truth be known, I collected a cord of splinters in my arse while attached to the end of countless benches. I would never, ever have been mistaken, for example, for Colin Greening, athletically or academically (I would have loved to have had both his grade point average of a near-perfect 3.99, as opposed to my own mark of mediocrity — 2.70 or thereabouts in the school stuff, 4.00 in debauchery — and Colin’s current, well-deserved annual salary of $800,000).
Or, for that matter, I would never have been mistaken for even Hubert Hutton, a defenceman of very modest talents in Newfoundland senior hockey who nevertheless acquired a legion of fans in St. John’s decades ago; (legend has it that Hutton
had no idea whatsoever where his booming shot from the blue line would wind up, but always responded to fans’ screaming encouragement to “drive ’er, Hubert” by firing the puck in the direction of that picture of the Queen that hung high above the ice at Memorial Stadium).
But from the moment I clumsily tied the laces on my skates, or had them tied for me, grabbed a stick and stumbled without an ounce of grace onto a homemade rink in our backyard in Gander in the ’50s, I always had a zealot’s approach to the game of hockey.
As a matter of fact, when our family moved from Gander and began a nomadic trek through several American states, my parents always managed to find a rink to oblige my obsession, even in the countryside of Virginia in the early ’60s, not exactly a hot bed of hockey enthusiasts, a locale of high temperatures and humidity where ice was merely something Southerners put in their lemonade.
I did play a year with the University of Colorado in 1970, but that was nothing like the accomplishment it might appear to be, or as good a story of athletic success as I invariably embellished for years over beer at the Corner Tavern (confession is awfully good for the soul, as they say). The team was not recognized as officially representing the university, so it’s not as if I was playing big-time college hockey. But the team attained what was termed “club” status, allowing it to receive funding for uniforms, equipment and ice time at a local rink in Boulder. True to form, I was hardly among the team’s stars, but loved the couple of minutes of ice time a game I received whenever we were winning big, or getting clobbered, the latter, as I remember, being the more frequent occurrence, especially when we went up against full scholarship teams like Ohio State. I even scored two goals that season, garbage goals as they’re usually described, the kind that end up in the net after deflecting off a helmet or protective cup, both areas of my anatomy that seemed to operate as they saw fit back then.
I did play a few games of recreational hockey in St. John’s in the early ’70s, but by then, it was those cases of beer sitting in the corner of the dressing room, supplied free by one of the breweries, that garnered all my attention. Once, only half facetiously, I suggested to my fellow players that we should show up each week, put on our gear, and then say “f… the hockey,” and sit in the dressing room and get drunk. There were one or two takers,
but we were outvoted and had to endure a couple of hours of sweat on the ice before getting on the beer.
As one can undoubtedly conclude, my career details would never have been displayed on the back of a bubble gum card.
But it was as a fan where my true addiction to hockey was allowed
to blossom; fanaticism, of course, being something I could grasp even with that colossal lack of on-ice prowess.
As I’ve mentioned in this space once before, my father, as a member of the executive of the Gander Hockey Association for a while, as well as the NAHA, attended every home game of the senior team, and I was the immediate beneficiary, tagging along as Dad’s fellow rink rat, giving me an early exposure to the joys of watching hockey.
And in the States, I saw NHL games with regularity, watching the likes of Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull and Gordie Howe display their magnificence, and became a loyal but mostly frustrated New York Ranger fan for life.
All the above is a longish way of making the point that this current lockout of NHL players, a labour dispute that threatens to eliminate the season, is making my guts churn.
The three or four nights a week I turn on my Centre Ice package to watch the Rangers are now in peril, and, if that happens, I’ll be in mourning, like millions of other hockey fans, and in a nasty frame of mine, as well, wishing to personally string up the owners and NHL president Gary Bettman by their collective you-know-whats (if they had any, many would add).
This is about ownership greed, pure and simple.
And it’s the sort of meanness and stubbornness that’s unfathomable, given the consequences.
I’m not going to get into an analysis of the racket — I’ll leave that to the sports writers and broadcasters, those who follow the game for a living (one would have to conclude, though, after reading and watching the endless journalism on the lockout, that it’s the owners, not the players, who are wearing the black hats of the extortionists this time around).
I just speak as one dedicated hockey fan, desperately hoping my Hockey Nights in Newfoundland, in front of my giant television screen, with a fire in the wood stove warming our house on the hill in Flatrock, will still be a click away this winter.
Drive ’er, Hubert.
Bob Wakeham has spent 40 years as a
journalist in Newfoundland and Labrador. He can be reached by email at