Like most Canadian towns, the small one in New Brunswick where I lived in the '40s always had a hockey team of some sort. These teams were not always paragons of skill, to be sure, but they all seemed possessed of the competitive zeal that so far the English language has failed to designate, but that the French call élan.
Elan probably is about right, too, because the town had a mixed population of French and English Canadians, and so did the hockey teams. And, anyway, it had to be the Gallic spirit, or something like it, that furnished the desire to play hockey in open-air rinks when the temperature was in the subzero region and the wind bit to the very marrow.
Our team was called the Imperials, and for my friends and me it was purely and simply the embodiment of truth and courage, strength and rectitude. We saw the games as nothing less than microcosmic struggles of good against evil.
This image was diminished not at all when one year, in the late '40s, the sportsmen who sponsored the team decided to strengthen it with imports from Ontario. Four of these players were brought in, and I remember them all—particularly Eddie Turner. Eddie was a Canadian Indian and the greatest hockey player I had ever seen.
But while Eddie was the principal object of our affection, we also had a lot left over for his teammates, and this we demonstrated whenever the Imperials played the team from Perth, N.B., 25 miles away. There was bitter rivalry between the teams, and you always counted on a rough game. We looked forward to these games with great relish.
One occasion was a midweek evening contest when I was 12 or 13. Now, midweek games were problems for me, because my parents did not like to have me out on school nights. Therefore my usual tactic was to precede the games with a week-long campaign of best behavior, chores above and beyond the call, and hints. Usually it worked. But this time my father was having none of it. On the night of the game he refused my final plea after dinner and left for a meeting uptown. I sulked away to my room.
For the next hour I stewed and paced and brooded and watched the time get closer to the 8 o'clock opening face-off. A battle raged within me, and for a long time there was no decision. Finally, a few minutes before 8, the devil sneaked me past my mother and out the door.
I was barely a block from our house when a pair of headlights flashed into our street ahead of me. Intuitively I knew it was my father, and in a moment he was sternly peering out at me. Meekly I started toward the car.
Then a wave of irrationality struck. I straightened and began to stride—no, march—to the car, with trumpets blaring and drums rolling. I tore the door open and fairly shouted, "Well, whadda you want?"
My father apparently did not believe his ears. He looked straight at me and said nothing. I repeated my question with a slight quiver. Then he said, "O.K., my boy, if you want to go to the game I'll drive you. But we'll decide later who's still the boss."
At that my facade crumbled. If he had instructed me to stop the nonsense and get to hell in the car and come home, I'd have argued resolutely. But the awful way in which he threatened the future struck away my underpinnings, and I was reduced to a babble of apologies and pleas that I didn't want to see the game, that I was only kidding.
However, in a few silent moments I was deposited at the rink. I remember that we saw a thriller and that the Imperials won. But I also remember that I did not really enjoy it.
As I recall, though, the punishment was not overly severe, and that was probably because my parents understood how this hockey thing was with me. It would start about the middle of October, kindled by the coincidental ending of local baseball and the beginning of National Hockey League play in Toronto and Montreal, which we followed by radio.
My grade-school friends and I never missed the broadcasts, and so, soon after they began each year, we would enact the following ritual in predictable sequence: a switch from cold to hot breakfast cereal followed two boxes later by the box-top ordering of 8-by-10 glossies of Maple Leaf and Canadien players, the search for last year's hockey stick and a tennis ball to serve as a puck until the snow came. Then we would play pickup games on the frozen streets without skates, using, in the absence of a puck, a small block of wood or a shoe-polish tin. Finally, around December 1, the rink would be ready and we would begin real hockey in earnest.
My own hockey career was monumentally lackluster. However, it was not for lack of trying. I practiced with dedication and without regard for the weather, which was, in fact, so cold on some days that my skate laces would freeze. But there were always several dozen boys who were simply better than me.
Nevertheless, I continued my endeavors until one afternoon when I was about 14. My school team was playing a big game, and in the first period I had taken several ice turns and had, I thought, acquitted myself quite respectably.
But now it was a period and a half later, and the coach had apparently forgotten me. Chagrined and growing desperate, with time running out, I decided the only way to get back on the ice was to appeal to his conscience—with some subtlety, of course. So I nudged in beside him and said in a half-surly voice, "Is there any point in my staying out here in this cold any longer?"
I waited confidenty for him to say, "Yeah, just a minute and we'll get you on." He never did.
A short time later I decided I would rather be a big-league baseball player anyway and turned in my uniform.
All these circumstances considered, it may seem strange when I say that I felt a definite twinge of nostalgic sadness a while back when I read in our hometown weekly that the town was considering building an indoor arena to replace the open-air rink and that, some weeks later, I felt relief when the project was vetoed.
But I guess the intervening years have taken the chill out of my bones and blurred the unpleasantness, leaving me only with a fond memory of things like shoe-polish pucks and frozen laces, the Imperials—and the boyhood of which they were a distinct part.