The puck looked like a big, black dinner plate. It was weird. The moment I’d stepped onto the ice that night there was a prickly excitement crawling all over me.
During the pre-game skate I noted the whereabouts of my parents in the crowd. My two older sisters and younger brother would be wandering around and hanging out with friends, but Mom and Dad were seated at the top row near the press-box. Let me correct that; Mom was seated with my baby sister and Dad was standing behind them. He always stood at that railing and I never knew why.
The air was crisp. I went to my small slice of turf in front of the goal and started scratching up the fresh ice. The smell of the place was a unique blend of antifreeze and locker room mold that was somehow comforting. Our coach’s name was Butch. He had the reputation as a hell-raiser and all around tough-guy on make-do hockey rinks in Wainfleet. In the dressing room pep-talk, he’d been quietly livid. This was our game to win. He had stressed hardnosed and aggressive play all season long, always emphasizing that the crease belonged to the goalie, which was me.
The defensemen had been schooled to take out anyone who ventured into the nearly sacrosanct rectangle. I’d been taught to wield my stick like a hatchet if necessary to discourage would-be violators. It was a lesson learned well and applied often.
In the not too distant future Butch would be killed in an industrial accident at a steel mill in Welland, but on that night, he was leading a collection of young men who mirrored his elbows-up, punch-out style. If the Bruins, sponsored by the Humberstone-Wainfleet Lions Club won, we’d be Bantam-Midget Champions.
It was a Friday in March 1969. Nixon was in the White House, escalating the war in Vietnam while attempting to put the lid on battles raging on the home front. The draft and protests had exploded in 1968, and the chaotic upheaval was ripping a hole in the fabric of society that has never fully healed.
In Canada, the 1968 summer of revolution saw an unprecedented cult of personality called Trudeaumania sweep a charismatic, carnation wearing Pierre from Montreal into the office of Prime Minister. Trudeau would dominate the political scene until the early eighties, leaving an imprint that is still clearly seen.
That night none of the politics or current events mattered. On the ice of the Port Colborne Humberstone Arena on Westside Road, the outside world with all its travails and problems were faraway remnants of some distant realm.
The horn shrieked a short blast that echoed around the cavernous building. The starting five gathered around me for one final bit of yammering encouragement, and then took their positions for the opening face-off.
I adjusted my mask, which was a replica of the one worn by Terry Sawchuk, whose stand-up challenging style I sought to emulate. Sawchuk, along with Johnny Bower were the goaltenders for the Toronto Maple Leafs the last time they’d won the Stanley Cup in the spring of 1967. Both were heroes of mine.
At the instant the puck dropped to start the game, my parents hollered, and since they were both leather lunged I heard them above the crowd noise. A smile wrinkled up my face, and it was at that moment I realized that the puck appeared to be huge. A one-eyed blind man could follow it.
Of course it wasn’t a big, black dinner plate, but the intensity and anticipation had me in a zone. A sheen of perspiration beneath all the equipment felt like gooseflesh tightening to keep me on edge.
For the first few minutes the game was a back and forth tousle played between the blue-lines. Then suddenly the Rangers put together a three pass breakout and were setting up in our territory. I was crouched low and there were lots of pushing and shoving in front of me, but my eyes were fixed on the puck.
A slap-shot came wailing from the top of the circle. It disappeared behind a body then reappeared and in my eyes it was a slow motion blur. My left hand jabbed out and I watched that big, black plate get swallowed by the glove.
A gasp went around the building like a wave that crested when somebody behind me exclaimed, “Holy shit!” A defenseman hit my leg pads hard with his stick and gave his own holy utterance, which would never be heard in any church-house. A couple other teammates skated over to me.
“Great save, Kid,” the Bruins captain said. I was the youngest player on the team, so the term kid had taken on the weight of a proper name. I shrugged and flipped the puck to the referee. I seriously did not understand what the big deal was because it hadn’t been that hard of a shot . . . or had it?
The palm of my left hand stung, but I ignored it. Later it’d be a swollen and ugly purple bruise, but the high-octane fuel of adrenaline was flowing, so the tingling sensation amounted to nothing.
That night I could do no wrong. The puck was always a large disc and making saves was a breeze. Most of the game happened on our side of center ice; our team was outplayed and out-muscled. The Rangers had thirty-six shots on goal, while we managed only twenty-two, though that numerical difference was inconsequential.
When the horn blasted its final shriek the scoreboard read: Bruins 2 Rangers 0. It was my first ever shutout, which made winning the championship extra special.
In my generation we played hockey year round. The game was in our bloodstream. It was ice hockey in the fall and winter, and street hockey the rest of the time. The gang in our neighborhood was always ready for a hastily arranged tournament.
Those marathon epics were full contact affairs. We’d fashion shin guards out of newspapers and magazines. Tape was an essential; any type could be used to fasten the makeshift padding in place. Even Scotch tape would do in a pinch, but what everyone really wanted was Duct tape. Duct tape was a rare commodity to be employed as barter or blackmail depending on the needs of the moment.
There were many winter Saturdays at a pond called Wilverwild when the skating would begin in the early morning and continue with a shifting cast of teammates until suppertime. Somebody would start a campfire so we could warm up a bit on lulls in the action. More than once I went home red-faced, hungry and thoroughly exhausted. My feet would be aching sore from being nearly frozen and I’d actually cry, which resulted in a scolding from my mother, but was followed by her gentle, commonsense care.
Baseball was what we played with vigor every summer. Basketball could keep us out of trouble and pick-up games were easy to organize. Football tapped all our instincts for physical brutality and was often contested at the beach. But, for baby boomer Canadians, hockey remains the greatest game of all.