Crying and Sport

The Athletic is a fairly new website which follows the stories of professional sports teams in several North American cities. I love the Toronto news. Gifted writers analyze the play of the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey team with a level of insight that I haven’t seen before. And then there are the human interest stories about the players – some famous athletes and others recently uncovered. Bottom line: I click on The Athletic and find myself nodding or smiling or ah-hahing. It makes me happy.

Then there was today, and a masterpiece of writing from James Mirtle. The Leafs are on their annual Florida swing, with games Thursday in Tampa and Saturday near Fort Lauderdale. The history is that the players’ dads come on down but this time it’s the moms. James writes about the tender relationship between superstar Auston Matthews and his mother Ema. She talks about her parents in Mexico:

He started watching. They can see (Maple Leafs games) in Mexico. I would buy it (on satellite) for them, and they can see it. He kind of understands the game better than my mom. Mom only wants to go to see where Auston is. She’s always asking “Where is Auston?” She just wants to see her grandson, not the sport.

Woh. The tone is set, and it’s called love. Here’s more from Ema:

I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to seeing what Auston actually does. Because usually when you ask Auston – everything is cool, it’s fun. But he doesn’t tell you details. Guys don’t explain to moms what they do. I’m looking forward to seeing what goes behind all the work the team does before the game. And to spend some time with the team, with the moms, and of course with my boy.

Well … this is worlds away from how many goals and how many assists, how well Auston gets his wrist shot off, and whether he has what it takes to be a good backchecker. There’s something else, something big, going on.

I admire Auston so much. You’re going to make me cry because it’s hard for me to talk about Auston. He knew what he wanted since he was little. He always knew. Even myself, now looking back, all the things he used to tell me – he knew what he wanted. And to get in this market (in Toronto), who would have thought, right?

We’ve always asked our kids to be humble. It doesn’t matter if you have money or if you don’t. You always be humble. Don’t get things into your head. We always loved people like that. We wanted to raise our kids like that. We always saw kids that were spoiled, and they didn’t appreciate what they had. We didn’t want that for our kids. Auston, we tell him just to enjoy what you have. Be grateful.

I’m sure you feel it … Ema Matthews is a full human being. And you and I aren’t the only ones with brimming eyes. Here’s a sample of the comments that readers sent in:

I’m not crying. It’s just been raining … on my face.

For many years my wife sacrificed for our 19-year-old but even without the NHL, it was worth it. Auston’s mom is the real star. As are hockey moms everywhere that just want the game to be fun for their boys and girls.

I have to go call my mother and tell her I love her.

My next jersey is going to be Matthews. Ema Matthews.

Greatest story I’ve read on The Athletic so far. Thank you Ema for raising such a good young man. It’s both a pleasure and a thrill to watch him play for the team I’ve loved since I was a little boy.

Is any athlete’s mother as beloved by their fanbase as Ema Matthews is by Leaf fans?

***

We touch each other

Nylander

If you’re a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey fan, you probably know all about the saga of William Nylander. He’s a flashy skater and scorer who’s refused to sign a new contract, wanting more money than the team is willing to give him. If he doesn’t sign or get traded by 5:00 pm Eastern Time today, he sits out the rest of the season.

Thousands of words have been written about Nylander by professional sports journalists … and now it’s my turn.

I love the Leafs like I loved them in the 60’s. “Willie, come back!” sings in my soul. For the first time in years, there’s a “my team”. Part of me thinks I should always elevate my consciousness above “us versus them” but there are times when cheering on the Leafs makes me so very happy.

I remember how much I enjoyed players who spent their entire National Hockey League career with one team. There was Henri Richard in Montreal and Steve Yzerman in Detroit. I’m hoping that Willie wants to be one of those players. There’s a sense of place, of being part of a long hockey tradition, of loving the home fans and being loved right back. Willie, would you like that?

I fear that money is more important to Nylander than being a Leaf. The potential for Toronto winning the Stanley Cup multiple times in the next decade is right before our eyes. But perhaps dollar signs shine brighter. If that’s true, it makes me sad. Yes, we need enough money to get along in life, plus to have some neat experiences. But surely the difference between $8 million and $7 million a year doesn’t guarantee larger happiness. I know that hockey players retire around age 35, and they need to plan for their future after being a professional athlete. But Willie … come back.

Think of being revered by countless Torontonians and Canadians. Think of lifelong friendships with your teammates. Think about being a part of Stanley Cup history.

Please …

Lucan

I’m sipping coffee in Ilderton, a stone’s throw or two from Lucan, Ontario, where tonight there’s a hockey game. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Ottawa Senators face off in the community centre, in front of perhaps 1300 souls.

The tickets were divvied up through a lottery and I’m excited to reveal that I …

Don’t have one

So why have I headed up here, you ask. I just want to be a part of the vibe on Main Street. Maybe I’ll hug the outside walls of the arena. Or sit down with 1000 other fans in front of a giant TV screen to watch the game.

I love seeing Mitch Marner skate, pass and score. Perhaps he’ll see me in the parking lot and invite me inside … the building, the dressing room, his heart. Oh, Bruce, you are so strange.

Main Street Lucan. I parked blocks from the arena to get a feel for downtown Hockeyville. Store after store was festooned in blue and red ribbons for the two teams. Canada Post is naturally decked out in the appropriate colours but they added wraps of crepe paper to their wheelchair ramp. So cool. Hockey sweaters and sticks filled store windows. And somewhere in town, apparently there’s a church with this message on its lawn: “Love thy neighbour even if they are not Leafs fans.”

The sidewalks were full with families walking to the game, sporting Leafs and Senators jerseys, mostly Leafs. There was joy in their strolls towards town history.

At the community centre, there were TV trucks, huge buses, lots of police cars and the general milling around of folks who had little paper rectangles in their hands. Those people went inside.

I was directed to a long line behind the arena, winding its way to a huge white tent glowing in the distance. Everyone seemed to have a ticket for the giant TV showing of the game. Somebody said there were 100 tickets left an hour ago. As I joked with the locals near me, I kept an eye on a woman in the distance. She was behind a table at the gate, and kept opening and closing a small metal box. I took this to be an excellent sign that there were tickets left. When I finally reached her table, I heard these golden words: “There are twenty left, sir.” I’m in!

I never thought of bringing a lawn chair, unlike 700 other souls. Oh well. Knowing that my feet couldn’t handle three hours of standing, I went to the front left edge of the crowd and plunked myself down behind a couple in their chairs. Between them, from the vantage point of the ground, there was a perfect viewing angle. My butt hurt a lot over the next three hours but so what? I was in Lucan, two hundred metres from my team and my hero. I was roaring approval at John Tavares’ first goal as a Leaf, surrounded by the cheers of my neighbours. Otherworldly!

Smiles everywhere
Town pride everywhere
What a privilege to be immersed in such life

Hometown Hockey

I grew up in Toronto, where hockey is king.  In the 1960’s, I went to four Stanley Cup parades, all ending on the steps of City Hall, where my heroes gave speeches and held the cup high.  The huge crowd cheered.

The official Hockey Hall of Fame is downtown on Front Street.  Each year, many thousands of fans walk by the memorabilia of the National Hockey League.  But hidden in a back alley in the Weston neighbourhood of the city is a more informal shrine, featuring all things Toronto Maple Leafs.  To find this gem, walk along Weston Road to John Street.  Turn east and watch for the sign pointing to Peter’s Barber Shop.  Pantelis Kalamaris started cutting hair just around the corner in 1961.  As an immigrant from Greece, he decided to change in name to Peter and to embrace the sport of his new country.

On Saturday morning, I reached for the sliding glass door and walked into history.  Hardly a square inch of wall space was available … the rest trumpeted the Leafs in posters, pennants, newspaper articles, pucks and hockey sticks.  I stood there transfixed.  Seeing my wonder, Peter the Younger barber smiled.  He was busy putting the finishing touches on the do of an older gentleman.  The two of them were fully engaged in the merits of the Leafs’ current star – Auston Matthews.

I sat down amid a row of blue folding seats … originals from Maple Leaf Gardens, the team’s home until 1999.  As a kid, I too had occasionally sat on such seats, although we couldn’t afford the blues.

To go from waiting area to barber’s chair, you had to pass through a Gardens turnstile, again just like I had done decades ago.  The floor was covered with various hues of hair.  I asked Peter if any of that was from the Leafs’ stars of the 1960’s.  “No, but I do have some in plastic bags.”  Cool.

Here was one of Johnny Bower’s goalie sticks.  Here was a poster showing the Leafs’ 100 best players of all time, photoshopped into a team photo.  Here was a board hockey game that Peter sometimes plays with his customers.  Of course the barber always plays as the Leafs.

And here was a framed letter from Roger Neilson, a beloved coach of the Leafs and other NHL teams.  Peter the Older had invited him to come to Weston and sign the wall, alongside such luminaries as Gordie Howe, Jean Beliveau and Red Kelly.  In the letter, Roger said that his doctor wasn’t letting him travel long distances but sometime he’d get to Toronto and sign his John Henry.  But Roger died before that could happen.

It felt that my time was up at Peter’s Barber Shop.  The host and his customers were all friendly (as long as I assured them I wasn’t a fan of the hated Ottawa Senators!)  Like Roger, I vowed to return.  Hopefully unlike Roger, I will.

***

From Pantelis Kalamaris Lane, it was only a ten-minute walk to the Weston Lions Arena.  It was constructed in 1949 (just like me!) and hosted the Toronto Maple Leafs for many practices in the 50’s and 60’s.  Many of the players strolled over to the barber shop for a cut afterwards.

What I had read a few weeks ago was that the arena had the world’s best fries, and who was I to turn down an opportunity like that?  I approached a door that had a back door feel to it but it turned out to be the main entrance.  Then I was in front of the snack bar, with the ice surface beyond, full of boys skating hard and fans shouting encouragement.  I was tempted by the “Not so famous hot dogs” sign but settled for the world-renowned treat.  Pouring on the malt vinegar, I took my French fries and Diet Coke into the stands.

Spectators sat on five rows of wooden benches, some sections red and some blue.  The walls of the arena were two tone blue – robin’s egg contrasted with royal.  It was a lovely assault on the eyes.

  • The kids, maybe 12, were giving ‘er on the ice.  Some flew over the blue line.  Some fell unaided on their tushes.  Goalies stretched for the save.  Forwards dipsydoodled by defensemen, with few passes to be seen.  Coached yelled.  Fans screamed.  I ate.  Gosh, those fries are yummy!

The roof was a curve of bare beams, spotted with metal plates and inch thick cables.  The same as in 1949.  I imagined my Leafs heroes doing their drills on the ice.  Maybe some of these boys in front of me knew the history and were inspired by Dave Keon and Frank Mahovlich.  More likely, the names of current Leafs heroes will adorn their backs … Matthews and Marner jerseys.

So hockey has been played here on cold Saturdays for 69 years.  Oh, how a sport can seep into our souls.  Whether the seat is a barber chair or a hard bench,  we live the game.

Johnny Bower

Johnny died yesterday at 93.  He was my hero in the 1960’s as the goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs.  I loved hockey and I loved watching this 40-year-old make spectacular saves on TV.

In those days, the first period of Saturday night hockey games wasn’t telecast.  Mom and dad let me soak in the tub with my radio nearby, cheering on Johnny and the Leafs.  I was so happy, and even more so when I got to come downstairs, all scrubbed clean, to watch the rest of the game.

For so long, I wanted to meet Johnny.  I read that he’d walk out of his house most mornings and pick up the garbage that showed up in nearby Johnny Bower Park.   I made plans to show up there sometime to thank my hero for making me a happy kid.  Sadly, I never did that.

For the past couple of years, I’ve walked past Johnny’s statue in downtown Toronto on my way to concerts on the island.  I put my hand on his forearm and say “Thank you, Johnny.”  And I’ll keep doing that.

I wonder if I’m a hero to any kid in Belmont.  It’s possible.  So I get to be the best Bruce possible when I’m in the presence of those marvelous young people.

Passing it on.

Island Thoughts

Yesterday was brunch-and-concert day on Toronto Island, at St. Andrew-by-the-Lake Church.  It’s another world, only a ten-minute ferry ride from downtown.

As I walked from the docks, I heard a familiar sound.  I’m used to the scrape of skates on ice during telecasts of Hockey Night In Canada.  Go you Maple Leafs!  But this was classic.  Up ahead, a hockey game was breaking out on the channel between islands.  I stopped and marvelled.  So deep in Canada’s roots, doing stuff outdoors.  I thought of David Francey’s song:

The music from the skating rink
Drifts across the town
The stars of heaven high above
Forever looking down
I stand here looking upward,
And I’m listening to the sound
Of the village in the lonely heart of winter

Here were ten women flowing on their blades, some very skilled, a few not so.  There was one grey hair and several teens.  Plus ten smiles.  For goals, they had laid two six-foot beams on the ice.  If you wanted to score, you couldn’t raise the puck.  And no bodychecking.  I stared some more.  It was so simple and so beautiful.

On to the church.  Pews were turned around and tables placed between.  I sat with local folks, steeped in the history of the Ward’s Island and Algonquin Island communities.  An Algonquiner praised her land as “The Heights”, clearly superior to the Ward’s accommodation.  Jabs in the ribs and more happy faces.

And then … tofu with a sweet-and-sour sauce, bok choy, exotic mushrooms, a nest of rice noodles, and cucumber.  Not to mention a dark cake drizzled with vanilla icing.  Waydago, chef.

We talked about island life.  Coming soon is a huge bonfire on Ward’s beach, reducing the island’s Christmas trees to ash.  I mentioned the meditation retreat I’m about to go on.  Beside me sat a fellow with a speech impediment.  I felt a stereotype bubble up as I struggled to understand him.  But then I got the hang of his lingo and we were off to the races.  He had many wise things to say.

Amply satisfied, we switched the pews to theatre style.  Three gentlemen began their enthrallment of us the audience.  Violin, cello, piano.  Mozart, Brahms, Tchaikovsky.  Oh my.  Melodies soared.  Harmonies filled the tones.  Brilliant runs and calm lacings of notes.

Directly in front of me sat a young woman with curly red hair stretching to the middle of her back.  I exhaled, a few times.  She was so pretty.  I longed to run my fingers through her tresses.  Showing admirable restraint, however, I returned again and again to the music.

The alignment of bodies ahead meant that I rarely saw a full performer’s head during the performance.  Occasionally just the violinist’s eyes were seen through the gap, and they were usually closed.  Sometimes an upbow rose above the crowd, or a shoulder gave way to an ear.  I decided to let it be, rather than twisting myself to see more.  I thought of how, in one telling, the moment is perfect as it presents itself.  I thought that the folks behind me would have to adjust if I made sudden moves.  And that hair was just so divine.

Ahh
Thank you, Toronto Island
and more especially the people who call it home
I’ll be back