For Love of the Game

For Love of the Game
That sharp chill in the air means winter, and with it, the start of hockey season. But what it doesn't bring with it is a sense of pride in our national game. While hockey is, of course, Canadian, it no longer feels Canadian in its every incarnation; the professional game is like any other - corporate sports entertainment, nothing more. I shouldn't be surprised at this absence. After all, our defining moment as a hockey nation was probably Paul Henderson's Summit Series goal defeating the Russians with 34 seconds left, salvaging our pride from the jaws of the communist monster. It was 1972. I was two years old.

Dave Bidini - Rheostatics guitarist and songwriter, author of excellent band memoir On A Cold Road, and amateur hockey player - has experienced similar ennui about professional hockey. He too had lost a sense of hockey's personal connection beyond contracts and hockey/rock videos and corporate sponsorship. But he found it again, and with his help, I have too, in his new book Tropic of Hockey: My Search for the Game in Unlikely Places.

Bidini's book chronicles his travels to various unlikely sources of hockey pride - nations that don't import hundreds of players into the NHL or even dream of doing so; in cases like Hong Kong or the United Arab Emirates, where a snowbound winter seems as far away as Santa Claus. In his travels, he finds amateur teams with broken down equipment and self-taught skills, reliving the rink dreams that many Canadian kids experienced, and discarded. He finds a history that in the big picture is reassuringly familiar, in its details absolutely unique to each nation, province, village, arena, player. Often sparked by an expatriate North American lover of the game, each community has its heroes and boosters, its competitive fire and aspirations of hockey greatness.

It begins with the least surprising. Hong Kong is such a Westernised city that its repatriation by communist China can't suppress that overnight. There, Bidini plays in the Hong Kong Fives tournament, on rinks half the size of NHL ice surfaces, sometimes with players whose skills are in their infancy (one goalie is so unsure on his skates, a team-mate must scrape out his crease). But he also finds expats who've picked up their sticks again to enjoy the game in a new context.

But when he travels to the UAE, then on to Transylvania, hockey is far removed from Western influence. With only a couple of minutes of NHL highlights on satellite television, here the game has evolved because of, but largely independent of North America; in Transylvania he finds the fascinating story of Vakar Lajos. Part Babe Ruth, part AJ Spalding, Lajos is the godfather of Transylvanian hockey, a man whose influence on the game has barely reached beyond its borders, but who created a hockey culture that defines his community. He played in the 1920s, and fascinatingly, Bidini discovers evidence that Lajos's wife, a goalie, may have invented the blocker nearly a decade before it made its first North American appearance. Which brings us to another interesting, seemingly incongruous aspect of Bidini's book that elevates it above a sports memoir - his wife and travel companion, Janet, to whom the book is dedicated.

More than just a travelogue, Tropic of Hockey chronicles a personal journey for Bidini, as he faces his own demons about the game he loved as a child, abandoned as a teenager, and has returned to, in recreational leagues and in his writing, as an adult - demons of violence, of competitive fire, of maleness. But he doesn't make this journey alone, and Janet's presence is subtly felt in many moments of the book, providing a sense of perspective men sometimes lose between game and life, between what seems most important, and what actually is.

That perspective comes in funny forms, sometimes. At about the halfway point in the book's journey, discovering scribbles of NHL statistics in an international paper, like ancient runes, a secret code, Bidini discovers that he's no longer tied to the daily workings of the NHL; he's escaped his addiction to sports page updates. And yet throughout the book, he misses his own rec league team back home. By travelling the world, playing with enthusiastic beginners who, at times, could barely be called hockey players, Bidini renews his faith in this Canadian game. And with it, ours.