Joy To the World

I saw a kid throwing a snowball the other day. Good thing the fun police weren’t in the vicinity. The only thing considered worse in the Year of Our Lord, 2014 (oops – we don’t say that now either) would be to sing Christmas carols in public.

Which is exactly what happened later that evening. A group of four Filipinos appeared on our doorstep, singing Christmas carols in exchange for a small donation to the Pentecostal Missionary Church of Christ. I thought I’d been caught in a time warp. I was so happy with what I was seeing and hearing that I uncharacteristically handed over a rather large donation. Without even asking for a tax receipt.

So there’s hope for our world yet. Maybe it’s the season. I used to love the Christmas preparations: the decorations, the anticipation and the presents; especially anticipating my presents. Adulthood and three children cured that. Now it’s my wife and her begrudging spouse putting up the lights, tree and decorations, going shopping, buying a lot of what I consider unneeded gifts, and cooking Christmas dinner.
“Since when do you help with the tree and the decorations?” asked my wife. She was reading this over my shoulder.

“You’re not going to ruin Christmas for me again this year, are you Daddy ?” my daughter Rachelle asked me the other afternoon as I hauled in another dozen bags of groceries which would probably last us until the next afternoon, when I would be out doing the same thing again. As usual the activity had left me in a fine mood. “This whole business of the grocery stores going green is a big crock of crap,” I complained to my daughter as I unhooked a couple of cloth bags from my shoulders and let them drop to the kitchen floor. I wanted my misery to have company. “Call your brothers down here to help put away the groceries,” I continued. “Now they can charge for every bag they provide and they don’t even want to help pack them up. They just stand there like a cigar store Indian when I’m fumbling around for my credit card.”
“Dad… we don’t say Indian anymore and what’s a cigar store?” Rachelle was always both aghast and curious about my expressions of speech. I rolled on, ignoring her. “They used to even have people whose job it was to pack your bags. A lot of them didn’t look too bright but they sure made our lives easier. And at gas stations you didn’t even have to get out of your car. Someone would pump your gas and even clean the windshield. Some places advertised that if they didn’t offer to do your windshield then you would get your gas for free…” I was just warming up. “I should write a letter to someone complaining about all this.”
“No one will listen to you, Daddy,” replied Rachelle.
“Who does ?” I answered, gesturing to one son not to put the potatoes in the fridge.
“They’ll think you’re crazy.”
“Who doesn’t?”
Rachelle exhaled loudly, reminding me of my late father’s signal to me that I was now skating on thin ice. “Have you even looked at my Christmas list? You know that I need a new phone this year.” I chose to ignore that.
“I bought that tin of chocolates that they had on special at Metro to give to that girl who helped you with your Chemistry unit,” I said. Despite my bluster, I am really a kind soul.
“I’m just writing out the card now, but I don’t know whether to say ‘Merry Christmas’ or ‘Happy Holidays’.” Rachelle had always been more sensitive than her father to the feelings of others.
My blood pressure began to rise again. I heard my son Adam start to snicker. He knew what was coming. I have never met anyone from another faith who was the slightest bit offended about hearing the words ‘Merry Christmas’ uttered within their hearing space. It was always someone from the politically correct police, who felt the need to feel offended on the part of someone else.
“Just write ‘Merry Christmas’ and if her feelings are hurt she can always return the chocolates to us.” I am always ready to compromise. “I don’t think she’ll mind. Kids seem to be a lot more sensible about that stuff than my generation. That’s why half the people I know are on some kind of medication.”

Actually talking about Christmas with my daughter and a quick glance at the dining room table to remind me that we had once again received some Christmas cards started me feeling a bit less like Ebenezer Scrooge and more like Tiny Tim. Maybe I wouldn’t need a nocturnal visit from the three spirits this Christmas Eve after all. But I really do need to head out to Future Shop to see about that new phone. How’s my daughter supposed to keep her self-respect in the Glebe unless she can stroll across Bank Street on a red light, with her head down, either texting or scrolling through whatever they put out on InstaGram ?

As Tiny Tim once said, “God bless us everyone.” And let me quote his uncle as well: Merry Christmas, everyone!”

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Don’t Call Me Coach

Coach Paul McLean of the Ottawa Senators was fired the other day. According to his boss, Bryan Murray, it’s McLean’s fault that the Senators suck so bad.

As an ex-coach myself, of a list of different teams in a lot of different sports, I took more than just a passing interest. Good players make good coaches. You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear my mother used to say. I always hoped that she wasn’t referring to me and my prospects in life.

Like a lot of us Bryan Murray should be looking in a mirror when things go wrong in his life. This will be the fifth coach he’s hired in seven years. The Ottawa Senators made it to the Stanley Cup finals in 2007, the year before he took over as a general manager. They have won exactly one playoff round since then. He says his biggest problem is that he can’t find a coach as good as he was. A former teacher, it seems as if Murray must not have taught high school English or even a short section on Greek mythology. How many classes did I sit through where it was made plain to even the thickest pupil in the pack that too much pride, hubris, was the reason for the hero’s demise ?

A cross-country running team that I coached at Nepean High School for several years usually placed either first or second in the City Championships. This being Canada and it being a high school sport, no one paid any attention of course. Oh, that`s not true. The principal did provide us with a shawarma lunch after one championship. I would have liked to have paraded around thumping my chest and proclaiming myself some kind of wonder coach. It wasn`t true, of course. Most of my runners were members of the Nakkertock Cross-Country ski team and trained hard with that club the year round. I also had an excellent co-coach who did all the considerable paper work that the overly-regulated Ottawa-Carleton School Board demanded. I just had to show up several times a week, pretend to know what I was doing and then plod along with the slowest runners to help keep their spirits up. When I was a kid my grandfather used to keep a few pigs around his barnyard. My pet pig Percy could have coached those teams to a championship.

Someone once said, “I’ve been rich and I`ve been poor, and believe me, it`s a lot better being rich.” I`ve had good players and I`ve had bad players and it`s a lot easier winning with good players. You can make a mule run from sunup to sundown but he ain`t ever gonna win the Kentucky Derby.

A couple of springs ago the Senators defeated the Montreal Canadiens in the opening round of the playoffs, mainly because Ottawa goaltender Craig Anderson greatly outplayed his counterpart in the Habs’ net, Carey Price. I swear I saw a kid’s balloon let loose from the stands, float by Price and into the back of his net. Anyway, all of Ottawa and even Bryan Murray was trumpeting Paul McLean as a coaching genius; Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman combined. Even when he was insulted by the Habs’ Brandon Prust as a “fat, bug-eyed walrus,” McLean handled the situation with humour and suave aplomb. He’s unemployed now but he has more than two-and-a-half years left on his contract, getting paid to do nothing.

That’s almost as good a deal as my teacher’s pension !

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Requiem For A Role Model

Jean Beliveau died yesterday; December 2, 2014.

A year ago my son Adam and I were watching an NHL game together. He turned to me and asked, “Who’s your favourite player , Dad?”
I didn’t hesitate. It wasn’t even close. “Jean Beliveau.”
“Still ? But didn’t he retire in 1971 ?”

It doesn’t matter. Even though my hockey hero had retired forty three years earlier no one else had ever come close. There may have been a handful of better players throughout hockey history, but only a very small handful. But no one, absolutely not anybody, combined his hockey ability with such consummate class and integrity.

Back in the days when kids actually had to wait until Christmas and hope that they would get what they wanted, I can still remember my greatest Yuletide present ever. It was a Montreal Canadiens’ sweater; not the old-fashioned woolen variety with the turtleneck that some of the kids wore on the outdoor ice, but the more modern variety with a lace at the neckline. I put it on right away and didn’t even take it off at bedtime. It was 1965. The only thing lacking was that Santa, or my mother, had not sewn the number ‘4’ on the back.

I wore it every day playing road hockey on the deadend street beside our house where all the kids would keep their road hockey sticks leaning against our outside wall and where I kept our net when we finally did get one. It prevented a lot of arguments as to whether a shot had really scored or not, because before that we had to use stones or clumps of snow as the goalposts. Before the game started we would call out what NHL team we were, and which player we would imitate as best we could.

I usually had started the game and provided the tennis ball. I would always yell out, “We’re the Montreal Canadiens and I’m Jean Beliveau.” The other kids usually conceded me that. If they didn’t I had to fight them. Besides, a lot of the boys in the neighbourhood hated the Habs, and cheered for the new young glamour stars like Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.

Not that I ever fooled myself into thinking that I was anything like the captain of the Canadiens. He was tall and handsome, darkhaired and dignified. He never lowered himself to the level of the shenanigans that flew around him: the scrapping, swearing, pushing and shoving. I was always short and scrappy and I don’t ever remember being told I was handsome. I usually had some stitches in my face and my nose was crooked from being broken so often; I didn’t get it set until the last time it was fractured in my twenties. And I never had a fraction of his talent.

But in my heart and soul we were kindred spirits. I was born in 1956 and that was the year that ‘Big Jean’ won both the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP and the Art Ross as the leading scorer. I still swear that it was no coincidence. And in 1965 he was the first winner of the Conn Smythe Trophy as the Most Valuable Player in the Stanley Cup playoffs; that was the year I received my first Montreal Canadiens’ sweater. I also attended the seventh game of the finals that year when the captain of the Canadiens scored on Chicago Black Hawk goalie Glenn Hall after seven seconds of play. Hall picked up the puck from the back of the net and threw it into the crowd in disgust. Some lucky guy just two seats over from me was lucky enough to catch it. But I know Jean would have wanted me to have it.

Throughout the years I was lucky enough to meet a lot of my hockey heroes in my hometown of Montreal. Yvan Cournoyer and Jacques Lemaire bought houses on the West Island’s Lac St. Louis and during the winter would sometimes come out of what we considered their mansions and join us for a game of shinny on the frozen lake. Pete Mahovlich, outgoing character that he was, would sometimes pick me up when I was hitchhiking on Highway 2 and 20. Scotty Bowman lived in Dorval during his first days of coaching the Montreal Canadiens in the early 1970s and on Friday nights could sometimes be seen up in the stands, watching the Dorval Jets Junior ‘B’ team for which I played. John Ferguson, the Habs tough guy also could be seen at the suburban arenas. I played for Jimmy Moore at Bishop’s University and he often had me over to his house. There I met his brother Dickie, another Canadien Hall of Famer who later made his fortune after starting up his own rental equipment company.

But I never met my ultimate idol. I don’t know if that’s what I really wanted; it would be like being ushered into the presence of God. Ten years ago at Christmas my kids gave me a painting of Beliveau, in action. Of course he was wearing that famous Canadiens’ sweater with the ‘C’ for captain. I have it hanging on the wall where I watch all the Habs games these days.

It’s the second-greatest Christmas present I ever received.

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A Jury of His Peers

Neither the young father nor neither of his two children seemed to have a chance. The car swerved off of Main Street at close to ninety kilometres an hour, separating the two young children from their father’s grip but somehow avoiding their protector altogether. Neither the car nor the driver were harmed much at all. The father was not physically injured either, but no one who saw him lying comatose, hugging the lifeless bodies of his two young children, believed that he would ever recover from his wounds of a different nature.

The police reports had been filed, the accident site had been cleaned up, bail had been posted for the drunken driver and he was back on the street, literally. He was in a vehicle borrowed from a friend, parked on a deserted laneway in downtown Houston, smoking a cigarette and wondering how the previous day’s events would alter his carefully laid-out plans for his future. His driver-side window was fully open, both to let out his own cigarette smoke and also to let in a cooling nighttime breeze.

Lost in his own thoughts he probably never heard a sound from the approaching pedestrian nor saw a glimpse of the handgun pulled silently from a vest pocket. There must have been a silencer on the fatal weapon as no one ever came forward nor could be found who ever claimed to have heard, let alone seen anything untoward happen on that empty cul-de-sac.

There was little doubt as to who the primary suspect would be. The father was arrested that night, the police pounding on his door as he lay asleep, passed out from the sedatives his doctor had prescribed.

The investigation was thorough, but any evidence produced was only circumstantial. The coincidence, however, was too great to be ignored. No gun of any kind could be traced to the father, no weapon being found on his premises nor had any firearm ever been registered under his name. No residue of gunpowder could be traced to his person. However, the father was charged with first-degree murder and so of course his fate would be decided in a court of law by a jury of his peers.

The jury foreman’s voice was clear, steady and definitive after being called on by the judge for the decision. He declared before the court that the jury found the accused not guilty of the charges of first-degree murder.

From the files of the Houston Chronicle.

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No Retreat, No Surrender

Picking up the white flag and placing it on the end of my weapon, I started to wave it slowly. It meant total surrender. I wasn’t a soldier on the frontlines giving in to the ignominy of defeat. I was sitting on the bench during a hockey game in Ottawa’s R.A. Centre (Recreation Association) and the white flag was a towel draped over the blade of my hockey stick.

Are you confused enough already ? Let me backtrack a tad. I was playing in an 0ver-35 R.A. hockey game and my team had just been assessed our seventh penalty in a row. I know it was seven because I went to the official stats after the game on the website and counted them. I know you’re thinking… this guy has too much time on his hands. He also shouldn’t be taking a beer league hockey game so seriously. All true. But puppy love isn’t very important either… unless you’re one of the puppies.

Just about all that I know in life I’ve learned from the classroom of hockey. From my love of exercise to the French I used to make my living; it’s all due to my abiding passion of the pursuit of the puck. But in the heat of the moment and during the stress of a game my mind often moves into mush mode and any life lessons are as dimly remembered as an Alzheimer’s patient trying to recall the morning’s breakfast menu.

What are these life lessons I’ve learned so thoroughly as to make my life as roaringly successful as it stands now ?

Don’t question anyone’s level of competence or judgement, especially in public. Particularly if they hold any kind of authority over you.
Act contrite even if you don’t mean it.
Don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
And these lessons I have learned particularly from dealing with referees.

Anyone who knows me will back up my claim that I have few opinions, foibles or prejudices in my life. Well… okay. I can concede a few. And two of them are against goalies and referees. The former have thwarted me many times in one of my most extreme pleasures in life; scoring goals.(Yes, my life is that shallow.) Also, I question the sanity of that small subset of mankind that willingly thrives on the activity of finding recreation and fulfillment in letting others fire objects of vulcanized rubber at them with no chance of returning the favour. Very perplexing.

But there is a special place reserved in hell for those in the referee’s union. I find many of them arrogant, uncommunicative, incompetent and entitled. Did I already mention that I am not one to hold strong opinions ? First of all, they are getting paid to perform their admittedly essential duties, the only ones in amateur hockey so rewarded to be on the ice. And second, along with that reward comes a certain responsibility to put up with the pettiness of those frustrated, low-skilled athletes who have never been paid to perform. Hence, it is their responsibility to take all manner of abuse with the stoic aplomb and stiff upper lip of which the English so provided the example while holding out against the German blitz- bombing attacks on London during the Second World War.

My, my, you might be saying to yourself by now. That’s a lot of vitriol even by your lofty standards. But have you never heard the old adage that hell hath no fury like a woman scorned ? At the beginning of my retirement a retired cop-turned referee mentioned to me that he was supplementing his pension quite handsomely by officiating all manner of hockey games during his now freed-up daytime hours. He suggested that I might be so inclined and gave me the referee-in-chief’s phone number.

The ensuing phone call found the boss-man less than impressed with neither my sterling credentials (I had not yet taken even the Level 1 certificate) nor my experience ( I had officiated house-league on outdoor rinks back in the 1960s in my native Montreal.) I had quit even that humble beginning when I could no longer take getting slashed across the shins while dropping the puck on faceoffs.

“I’ve got too many referees already,” he grumpily informed me, before hanging up suddenly, leaving me as forlorn as a rebuffed panhandler on Bank Street.

Maybe I can volunteer my services at some point. You know, like young people ‘happy’ to work as unpaid interns to possibly secure a pinky-hold in today’s tenuous job market. Or maybe I’ll just stay aloof and continue to curse out the wretches lucky enough to wear the striped sweaters.

After all, like Groucho Marx, I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.

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Hot Dogs and Hockey Rinks

The sign said Sugar Land Ice Arena and Sports Center and already there was a group finishing up a tailgater party as Dave G. and I circled slowly, looking for a parking space. We didn’t want to land too close to the action and be tempted into the fleshpots of ice-cold beer and foot-long sausages before our time on the ice had even begun.

“So this is your friend from Canada ?” Donnie, a Houston cop who had become interested in hockey in the early 1970s when Gordie Howe and his two sons put Houston on the hockey map with the newly-founded WHA, was sizing me up. Donnie had put away his firearms for the post-game barbeque and had armed himself only with a hotdog and a beer. “A Canadian on your hockey team… it’s like having a black guy on your basketball team.” No one had led me to believe that this southern hockey crowd would be of the politically-correct variety, so I was not surprised to hear the guffawing laughter. Actually, some of the hockey players in this tournament were imports from the Canadian kindred spirit of Texas…Alberta. I wondered if there were heated discussions in the Houston hockey dressing rooms over the merits of oil pipelines running through pristine wilderness. The American players were mostly all transplants from the 3-M collection of states: Michigan, Massachusetts and Minnesota.

It’s never been a traumatic experience for me to become accustomed to a new hockey dressing room and shinny in Houston proved to be no different. There had been a lot of New England Yankees at Bishop’s University and I had always appreciated their outgoing, boisterous and irreverent natures. A burnt-out buzzing sound signalled that the ice was ready for our upcoming tilt.
“Jeezus Murphy, even the buzzer for our games lacks testosterone,” remarked Rene, reminding me that our tournament was in the Over-50 age range. Rene was a horseman from Edmonton and he commuted between the racetracks of that city and Houston, managing and racing his stable of horses. He was missing all of his front teeth and I never got around to asking him if that was the result of a hockey stick or a horse’s hoof.

Luckily for me, I would not be stuck with Rene on my line anyway, as he skated like a lame gelding just before being sent to the glue factory. To be honest I probably didn’t look much better. The ice was showing the effects of its eight month shutdown due to off-ice insurance battles. I was having as little success getting the puck under control as I did with any other aspect of my life. “It’s like skating on the Rideau Canal after a thaw,” I remarked to my winger with the unlikely-sounding hockey name of Raoul, another Texas oil financier. He looked at me blankly, never having had the experience. We lost the first game by a goal, putting us behind the 8-Ball as far as moving onto the finals was concerned. So much for the Canadian ringer being brought to the southern hockey rinks. But, I comforted myself with the thought that not all was yet lost.

I had never lost my skill at handling beer and hot dogs, still being served in the parking lot.

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Texas Landing

Checking a hockey bag with the Ottawa Airport luggage guy was a conversation starter. “Marc Messier just went through,” he said, assuming that I would recognize the name of the five-time Stanley Cup winner. I looked at him doubtfully. They say everyone has a double somewhere and this probably was just my hockey-playing lawyer buddy Rob. “Did anyone ever say that you look exactly like Marc Messier?” I asked him, making conversation as I soaped myself (not him !) down in the shower.
“All the time,” he answered. “Even when I insist I’m not they still always say… “Come on, dude, you’re Messier.” But then it hit me that airport security would be checking passports and Marc Messier probably hadn’t handed his off to Rob. Maybe I’d be able to catch Messier before he headed off to the frequent-flyer Business Class lounge to have breakfast. I wanted to question him about a dirty move he had pulled on Larry Robinson one time when the Edmonton Oilers had knocked off the Montreal Canadiens. He had raised his stick as if to take off my idol’s head. It was during the 1980 playoffs. It still bugged me.
I had to content myself with a watery concession stand coffee as we waited for our United Airlines flight. After being led back to the window seat in the plane’s last aisle, I waited for almost one-and-a-half hours before a flight attendant came by and asked me if I wanted something to drink. I felt like a Coke, and then asked if they were also distributing little packages of peanuts or crackers or anything at all. She looked down on me as if she had caught me holding a lit cigarette, frowned slightly and answered, “No.”
I’ll bet Marc Messier was getting better service up in the Business Class section.

The Old-Timers’ hockey team with whom I would be playing did not have a limo service to greet us at the Houston Airport but Dave G. had arranged for Mike, his longtime cabbie, to pick us up. Mike was a personable laidback black man who filled us in with some news from the night before, an incident in which hit-and-run drivers got into a shoot-out with the cops who had been pursuing them. I listened intently to the story, but also couldn’t help but be distracted by the neon billboards along the route. One advertised the upcoming gun sales that would be forthcoming until Christmas, while others offered the services of bail bondsmen, who would, for only a reasonable rate of interest, put up the money for you to stay out of jail until your trial. I was happy to be in a Texas cab and not a jail cell. It was October 2nd, and the afternoon thermometer registered 93 degrees Fahrenheit.

Dave’s house in Houston proved to be as welcome as an oasis in the Gobi Desert. “What are the names of those trees?” I asked, pointing out the species that lined both sides of the street of his fashionable, not-far-from-downtown neighbourhood.
“I honestly don’t know,” Dave admitted. He had lived here for eighteen years, but then I silently excused him when I thought of Dave’s line of work as a Texas oil financier. His latest project was gathering investors for an oil-fracking adventure. In Dave’s list of priorities, the name of a species of tree was far down the list.

“We play tonight at 9 o’clock,” Dave told me as he showed me around his place. His side lawn seemed to be about half the size of a soccer field, and he had indeed provided a soccer net for his three sons to practice their free kicks. His backyard, in between his house and his office, contained a basketball court. Dave seemed to have been using his time wisely, even if it hadn’t been for memorizing the names of neighbourhood trees. “The rink has been closed down for eight months, however. Some sort of insurance battle over who was responsible for the upkeep. You know how Americans love to spend time in court. The ice might not be the greatest.”

The temperature must still have been in the high 80s as we pulled out of the driveway that night on our way to the rink. “Make sure you check out that bookstore before leaving.” Dave pointed out a funky-looking building with a ‘Kaboom Books’ sign on it. The bookseller shared space with another merchant, only his establishment was entitled ‘Set ‘Em Free Bail Bondsman.’ It didn’t take long until we were on the highway and once again my eyes were drawn to an anti-littering billboard warning everyone, “Don’t Mess With Texas.”
“We’re on the I-20,” Dave informed me. “On this freeway you can go all the way to L.A.”
In case I jumped the gun, I was soon reminded that we weren’t in L.A. yet. One more billboard advertised :
“Country Music that you love.”
Well, I thought, at least Gordie Howe and I have something in common. Playing hockey in Houston. I can compare myself to Gordie now… well, without the talent,wealth and fame, of course.

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