(The Hamilton Spectator – Wednesday, July 13, 2016)
SEWICKLEY, PA ✦ Gordie Howe died on the day we played hockey in front of Mario Lemieux’s house. It was one of those things.
We were in this Pittsburgh suburb for both business and the pleasure of visiting friends we’d known when they’d lived in Africa. Their boy and our boy were among the gaggle of expatriate kids who’d run through the banana patches.
You can walk from our friends’ American home to Lemieux’s house. So, why not? We – my 10-year-old, his American chum and me – grabbed a net and sticks, some baseball catcher’s gear, and went off.
It was a memory, especially for the Old Man, during a time when, as you know, no Canadian team had made the NHL playoffs.
We’d all heard why, the laments, none of which came into our game. Nobody cared about media pressure (even when my 13-year-old girl screamed the play-by-play); or salary caps (the boys played for Doritos) or the low dollar or high taxes or anything else.
Our uniforms included a Team Canada cap that’s travelled the world, a Team Uganda soccer jersey with the black and gold of the Penguins, and a yellow t-shirt with a matoke tree, a type of Ugandan banana.
There was the obligatory moving for any “CARRRRRRR!!” This was followed by the looks and smiles and waves. One local pulled over for a good word. The Penguins would win it all two days later; the driver had suggested that my son, in the Uganda jersey, could help with that last game.
Once I got on all fours to look for the ball while a dog on the other side of Mario’s fence (nice doggie) roamed close. Ball retrieved, we continued in front of that slate-roofed mansion, a 1910 brick construction of 10,000 square-feet, sitting on a patch of earth five times as big, complete with a backyard pool that had already seen Lord Stanley’s Cup dunked several times.
But the strangest moment came when we heard someone yell as clear as a cathedral bell, “Hey boys!” I looked at the boys and they looked at me. Was it Mario? Was it an angry “Hey boys!” like when you put a baseball through a window? An excited “Hey boys!” like when a party starts? Or was it more of a ghostlike “Hey boys!” like when you march off to war?
I’d like to imagine it was from Gordie himself, an echo from a time when you’d hold a door for a lady one minute and crush an opponent with your elbow the next; when business meant having a good time; when men were boys and boys were men; when a father played hockey with his sons, remarkably, professionally, because he loved them that deeply.
In Uganda, where I’ve taught Canada’s game – maybe too well – I feel something of this. There the players of summer hockey are Paul (a gardener who likes to use his head, soccer-style) and Joseph (another university groundskeeper, very fast) and Jeff (a goaltender preferring zero padding or even a glove), plus all the others.
They’re strapping young men half my age and twice as strong. Once they beat me and a couple of Albertans I’d met on a flight into Uganda. Another time an Ontarian friend flew home with a couple of broken ribs.
We’ve played hundreds of hours. Bonds have been made. Community has been built. The big smiles, with the sweat, are endless. When, like our American friends, my family inevitably returns home for good, I’ll miss that pure African joy more than anything.
They say American business now owns Canada’s game and maybe it does and maybe it always has. But, looking around at the world, there are worse problems to have.
What’s bigger and more helpful is the spirit of this game, a spirit for the boys (and girls) of anywhere, the boys (and girls) who just want to play, be it on the streets of Pittsburgh or in nowhere, Africa, or in the alleys and on the rooftops of some other world.
This is what the boys of those never-ending summers do. Then they hang their hockey hat on the lamp post of some hockey shrine, take a photo, and sure, remember it forever.