“The Meaning of Hockey” by Marie-Eve Bernier

I never cared for hockey. Sure, as a Canadian (truthfully, more of a Québécoise), I was aware of hockey but failed to appreciate its beauty and never quite understood its meaning. I would continue to be oblivious about it for far too many years.

Ironically, hockey shaped some of my earliest memories. Fragments of it can be found in recollections of my grandfather, Léonce, watching Les Nordiques in the living room, or listening to overly excited commentators announcing the scores over the radio on long car rides. I watched my brother play street hockey with his friend on cold Canadian winter afternoons. I witnessed my otherwise shy uncle rave about vintage hockey cards. Not to be forgotten was my introduction to the beloved short story, “The Hockey Sweater” by Roch Carrier, which was the first time I read English Canadian literature, beginning a lifelong love of short stories. So, hockey was, in a way, always part of my life.

In those years where I was uninterested in the game, fond memories unknowingly formed around watching my brother and sister play. I was so proud of my sister whose talent stood out in this male-dominated sport.  I was yet to appreciate their games, which felt tediously long as a little girl. I can still feel the cold on my hands from the arena and the unique smell of the ice, which would often be overtaken by the pungent smell of vinegar and fries that spectators ravenously snacked on. But nothing compares to the excitement I felt  between long periods of boredom when one of my siblings’ teams would score. I timidly felt overjoyed and could not avoid the irresistible urge to join the loud cheering of the crowd, filled with proud moms, dads, and other bored siblings.

I still affectionately remember many charming characters from the arena. The hockey moms and dads who disproportionately cheered for their child and did not shy away from trash talking the young opposing team. The nice boy in the back row with oversized orthodontic headgear, who somehow always seemed to catch the puck when it flew into the crowd. The well-meaning elderly man who sold lottery tickets for charity and allowed me to purchase some unlawfully (I won a tooney twice!). And then there was ambitious Andy, who smugly held the responsibilities of self-appointed executive chief water boy, concession stand vendor, and raffle ticket salesman. He was also the unofficial mascot, the replacement Zamboni driver, and I am almost certain he also sharpened the skates. Andy’s multiple roles were comical, but through them he contributed to town spirit in a way I failed to appreciate at a young age. Andy was not a hockey player, a hockey fan, nor did he know anyone at the hockey matches. He was proudly part of the figure skating club. No one really knows why he hung out at the arena during hockey games.

The even finer details are still fresh. The weight of my siblings’ hockey bags filled with their gear, which were most likely taller and heavier than me. The sound of the skates when breaking quickly on the ice. The terrible smell of the hockey gear post games and practices that no amount of Febreze (purchased in high quantities from Costco by my mother) could improve. The satisfying sight of the Zamboni machine cleaning the ice as the driver (sometimes Andy) waved to the crowd. The long wait for my siblings to get changed after games and practices to finally go home!

As a teenager still finding my feet, I remember my father speaking highly of the women’s Olympic hockey team win of 2002. I never watched that historic match, but I heard so much of it that I get excited just thinking about it. The extraordinary leadership of Danièle Sauvageau, the unfair refereeing, the near loss but how they won with grace and dignity.

My father gave me a speech inspired by that win about time, hard work and practice: “We all have 24 hours in a day, that’s the only fair thing in this world, how will you use your time?”.

I think of those words regularly and I think of that winning match, which I have never watched, when in need of motivation.

In 2010, when I finished my university semester, I found myself living in Montréal with my brother in our parents’ townhouse. I was working as a bank teller during the weekdays, and my brother had his usual high-tech computer job that I will not attempt to explain. We would eagerly meet in the evenings where he would usually treat me to delicious meals out on the town, comedy shows, and movies at the cinema. City life was so exciting.

To connect with my brother, I half-heartedly decided to watch hockey with him and support the Habs. If anything, hockey-viewing snacks seemed so tasty! Slowly but truly, I was drawn in without realising.  

He used to say things like, “It’s just like a story, it’s good to know about their backgrounds and follow them through their success”.

My favourite players (and the only ones whose names I knew) were Subban and Halak, and, slowly  I became invested. I can still hear myself say with blind faith, “It’s impossible for them to lose, we have Halak and nothing gets passed him!” or,  “We are so lucky to have Subban on our side, we can’t lose with him!”.

Aside from learning  the players’ names and enough of the hockey rules (that I no longer recall) to get by, I was, more importantly, starting to learn about a nation’s and my province’s pride and true love. My brother also helped me appreciate Québécois hockey. It is undeniable that French Canadian hockey brings its own charm and excitement. I still giggle when I remember commentators saying “des bons gars avec des bons coeurs” when the team would do well or “ils n’ont pas de coeurs” when they would play poorly. Québécois are passionate about hockey, which is half the fun.

But what I remember most and know I will carry with me for life, is how beautifully connected I felt with the community when I watched hockey. The best part was seeing people in their matching jerseys rush out of the office early to catch the game.  Attempting to find a place with a good seat and a large screen in central Montréal, I would brave the overcrowded metro as people excitedly hurried to their hockey viewing parties. I still recall the infectious happiness that would explode when the Habs scored, reminiscent of the cheers I experienced in the arena as a child. The next day, hearing everyone at work talking about the game made me feel connected to something I had never related to before. What would once have been an eye roll turned into an, “I know, right!”.

I wish I could say that I kept up with watching hockey, but I did not.  In fact, I didn’t even finish the season as I returned to Ottawa early for university. I might have gone to the sports bar once or twice with friends to watch more games, but it was not the same. Was it because my brother was missing, the fact that the games were in English, or maybe I was just over it? I do not really know. I am ashamed to say I do not even know if the Habs won or how far they made it that season. My short-lived hockey fever was gone.

However, that is not to say that the game disappeared completely from my life. Hockey continued to find ways to reach me in many forms. For example, when “playing” floor hockey to support my roommate (I never once touched the puck and was always the first to enthusiastically volunteer to be benched). Flash forward many years, taking my British husband to a Remparts game in Québec City where I witnessed his confusion about Canada’s beloved sport.  

 “It goes so quickly!” he remarked.

To add to the confusion, the dedicated weirdo fan behind us was holding a squeaky rubber chicken and the hockey coach passionately threw his water bottle on the ice rink in a last ditch attempt to persuade the referee to side with him, which only added to my husband’s uncertainty about the game.

My young nephew joining a local small-town hockey team also brings back many fond memories.  I hope he learns the same lessons from hockey as I have, and that his siblings have as much pride watching him as I did with mine.

What surprises me the most is how much those matches I watched long ago had unknowingly inspired me. I have often looked back on them for guidance when facing struggles. What was once a meaningless game became meaningful and still is to this day.

I do not know what my hockey future looks like. I might get into another season and bond with other hockey fans. I cannot imagine myself even casually playing the game, but stranger things have happened! I hope to take my prospective children to play on outdoor ice rinks, even on afternoons that are far too cold. If life throws me an unmanageable hurdle, I can always look back on those games for inspiration. The dedication I observed in those games gone by was my main take away. Many future hockey-based moments surely await me.

What I do know is that I still think of the ice rink where my siblings played hockey, I still think of my father’s unsolicited coaching strategies and I will forever remember the lessons that hockey taught me. For me, the meaning of hockey is not being a player, or watching the games regularly, or even having a great understanding of them. It is not about keeping scores or wins. It never was and never will be about trophies. The meaning of hockey is about the memories of happy gatherings, believing in something that is greater than me, and connecting to my roots.

MARIE-EVE BERNIER is a Québécoise currently living in New Zealand. She loves playing outdoors and reading books. She works in the early years and considers babies her best friends. She has many hobbies but watching hockey isn’t one of them.

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