Ontario Hockey Morning

I’m on a bus headed east across southern Ontario. The leading edge of a storm front hasn’t quite made it to the horizon, leaving room for a narrow slice of orange and purple sunrise to glow through, just enough to brighten the snow covered fields and outline the silhouettes of trees scattered along farm boundaries, roads and creeks. We have just passed a cleared plot of land carefully transformed into an outdoor hockey rink. It lays in the far reaches of a farm beyond the tillable land; the most remote portion of an already remote place. The impracticality of its windswept location reveals the depth of dedication Canadians have for their national sport and their willingness to play it wherever, whenever possible. With an ice storm predicted for tonight, it probably won’t be long before someone is out there with a broom prepping the surface for a pre-storm tilt.

This is Pat Verbeek country. An NHL player once known as “The Little Ball of Hate” during his time with the New York Rangers, Verbeek was a Canadian farm boy raised not far from the route the bus is taking this morning. How tough are the young men from this area? Verbeek used to return to help out on his family’s farm each summer. During the 1985 off season, after establishing himself with the New Jersey Devils, Verbeek suffered an accident with some farming equipment resulting in the complete severing of a thumb. His family retrieved the lost finger and doctors were able to reattach it. Verbeek returned to the Devils the next season and went on to win the Stanley Cup as a member of the Dallas Stars.

The temperature is well below zero on both the C and F scales of the thermometer as my right shoulder, frozen numb against the bus window, can testify. My left side is warm with electric heat and the sleepy glow of fifteen weary hockey families and their young players headed home to New Jersey from the Silver Stick “Atom C” finals in the Sarnia, Ontario area. No, the boys didn’t win gold. They didn’t win any medals but they made a good showing and learned something about the pride of accomplishment. That’s a different kind of win and they know it.

The head coach admonished the boys to leave no doubts during last night’s semifinals…to put it all out on the ice and accept the win or loss only as the result of giving their best effort. Before games, the kids gather on the ice in front of him while the coach stands at the bench. Like baby birds waiting for worms in the nest, their black helmeted heads bob around as they look up at him for a last minute lesson. He waves his hands, drawing diagrams of positions and passes in the air in above them, emphasizing a continuous pattern of growth and development. Beside him his assistant coach prepares to make the kids hold up their end of the bargain. Every line change signal, each encouraging prompt of “boards!” or “head’s up!” comes with the experience of having played the game since childhood. Yes, these are fathers behind the bench. Each has a son on the team, but each has also done what they are now asking their boys, and ours, to do together.

Ontario Highway 402 has taken a southerly turn, putting the rising sun squarely in the front of the bus as the windows in the back begin to frost over with the heat of sleeping passengers on one side of the pane and the chill outside on the other. As the road bends back north, my view of the landscape is now a patchwork of color blocks rendered by the ice on the window, a single yellow blur revealing the location of the morning sun. I am reflecting on the past two days.

Sarnia is a mixed bag; a working class town with a friendly smile that belies the grit of Great Lakes sailors and refinery workers who keep the economy alive along side a nascent tourism industry based upon the natural beauty of Lake Huron and the local casino. I was expecting to see some sort of tribute to the infamous coiffure of NHL veteran referee and Sarnia native son Kerry Fraser. His hair, a visual trademark of his own “brand” for decades, is the first thing most long-time NHL fans think of when they hear the name “Fraser.” While the traditional hockey mullet lands squarely at the butt end of jokes, Fraser’s legendary hairdo rises above such scorn. If I were the mayor of Sarnia, a stylized image of it would be on all of the city’s welcome signs. Yes, it might ruffle the feathers of Toronto Maple Leafs fans who still burn over a game-changing missed call by Fraser in the 1993 playoffs, but if I were the mayor I might enjoy poking at them, too.

Kerry Fraser was born in 1952, just about the same time The Chipican restaurant opened. I don’t know if the Fraser family frequented The Chipican, a steakhouse with the feel, scent and decor of a grandmother’s rustic home, but I’d like to think they did. The style was once probably tourist-chic but today the dark wood and random Native American assets feel more like a genuine roadhouse bypassed by a super highway. The honest patina of The Chipican oozes the charm that antiseptic restaurant chains try to replicate with western motifs and cheeky names evoking some fictional proprietor who goes by his initials like J.P. Funstuff”s or I.M. Cheapsteak’s and claims to have a signature “famous” or “authentic” dish on the menu. This is usually code for a breaded and deep fried version of a food already loaded with salt and fat. The Chipican needs no such marketing ploy, it is regionally famous and truly authentic. The gleaming squaw on the two-and-a-half story roadside sign is all that’s required to beckon the hungry traveler or remind the local regular of affordable soup/salad/steak/beer specials that await inside. Could a young Fraser have sat in my very same seat after an Atom game enjoying a Chipican steak with his parents? As far as I am concerned, he absolutely did.

Another tradition that remains the same since Fraser’s days playing in youth leagues is the social importance of the hockey barns in the rural towns surrounding Sarnia. Arenas in Canadian communities often serve as social centers or surrogate downtowns. The Thedford rink puts the ice under the same roof as the library and town community center: it appears to be the most modern structure in town. The nearby Watford rink is a classic no-frills temple of hockey. Each is spotless, each boasts comfortable seating with good sight lines, and each lacks the vertigo-inducing full enclosure of netting atop the glass which so familiar to us in the litigious wonderland of New Jersey.

The temperatures inside and outside the bus have equalized enough that the frost has melted from the windows. Clouds of steam are rising from the steel mills of Hamilton, Ontario. As the bus crosses high above the Welland Canal, we have a bird’s eye view of wintering ore boats and the smoking blast furnaces behind them. Amid the haze of the industrial landscape our driver finds the next exit, bringing us to a Tim Horton’s donut shop. The geographic footprint of this Canadian fast food chain spills across the US border but has yet to appear in New Jersey, which makes it something of an exotic guilty pleasure for my family and I. Stopping at a Tim Horton’s only happens when we are on a road trip. When it comes to fried balls of dough and sugar, Horton’s has the distinct taste of adventure.

The driver has decided to cross into the United States at Niagara Falls. As we get ready to bid adieu to Canada, the boys are lining up with iPhones, iPads and assorted other electronics on the south side of the bus to record our passage over the Niagara River and its namesake waterfalls. It is a sign of the times that they are taking pictures with every kind of device except a traditional camera. Only the parents have those. The windows, dirty with road salt speckled in vertical rows by the wind and crossed with rivulets from the dried morning frost, reflect the wonder in their young faces back at us all. The splendor of the falls briefly competes with the fun of the bus being in two countries at once. The falls win.

The bus has stopped at the border on the American side. It is time to disembark and proceed through customs, a process always more arduous when returning to the US than it is when entering Canada. When asked if they have anything to declare, I hope that at least one of them will say “yes” and then proceed to rattle off all the experiences he had while playing the world’s greatest team sport in its spiritual homeland.

I promise you this, if they don’t declare it today, they will in the future… perhaps in an interview with a college newspaper… maybe reminiscing with an NHL beat reporter… but most likely it will happen in a locker room as they are kneeling down in front a child of their own, lacing up skates while recalling the time when Daddy was a squirt and went to play hockey in Canada.

Passports in hand, the boys are lined up and ready to come home. They are all bringing back something much greater than what they left with.

This article was originally published in August, 2015 at http://raconteur.robertjohndavis.com/