I Hate Hockey
By François Barcelo, Peter McCambridge
Baraka Books Copyright © 2011 Baraka Books
All rights reserved.
I hate hockey!
I've played just enough of it to know I'm the worst player ever. And I've watched just enough of it to know it's the worst sport ever.
I would of course have preferred for my son Jonathan to have had nothing to do with what I consider to be the most resounding expression of our national stupidity.
But Colombe, his mother, loves hockey and insisted on signing him up at the Saint-Zéphyrin Arena as soon as he turned six. She paid a fortune to get him equipped too. Resistance was futile — she was the one footing the bill.
Was that one of the reasons why we separated almost eight years later? I'm sure it was, even though Colombe insisted it had more to do with the fact that I had cheated on her with her accounting intern in the marital bed while she was with Jonathan and a few friends in a sports bar in the next town over, to spare me another Hockey Night in Canada on the family TV as it happened.
Six months ago I moved to Saint-Camille-de-Holstein, twelve kilometres from Saint-Zéphyrin. It's a village that you almost know. It lies behind the giant sheet-metal cow that stands on a hill you can see from the highway. I live in a miserable bachelor apartment above a closed-down gas station. It's the cheapest place in the neighbourhood, and every day it makes me hate hockey a little bit more.
So imagine my reaction when a man phones one Friday afternoon and begs me to coach my son's hockey team for an evening. It's Denis Beauchemin, president of the Saint-Zéphyrin Sports Association, which includes Saint-Camille since my new village doesn't have enough kids for its own school, let alone a hockey team. I protest and I don't even have to lie:
— But I HATE hockey. There's nothing I hate more.
— Listen, Mr. Vachon. We're really stuck here. The coach died suddenly last night.
I'm sure he expects me to ask how he died, but right away I imagine a coach with a big fat gut and a scrawny ass, a heavy beer drinker and no stranger to a bag of chips, succumbing to a heart attack while watching two hockey games on TV at once, thanks to the magic of picture-in-picture technology.
— The league requires us to have an adult behind the bench, he goes on. If there's no coach, we'll forfeit tonight's game.
— I'm sure there are other parents who could help. Ask my wife. She loves hockey. And she knows the game inside out.
He gives a deep throaty laugh.
— The government's come up with a new rule. Coaches of single-sex teams have to be the same sex as the players. They did it to have more women coaches. And it worked for synchronized swimming. But you can't have women in hockey because girls aren't allowed in boys' teams from bantam on.
I was six when my dad — who dreamed of seeing me play in the NHL — signed me up for a team. After just two games, my lack of talent was there for all to see and he pulled me from the team, mumbling something about the air in the arena not being good for my asthma.
Things were never the same between us after that. He never forgave me for forcing him to give up on his dream of having a famous hockey player for a son. Although my asthma did disappear almost right away, never to return.
I hated hockey for each of the thirty-three years that followed. Although I would still regularly be subjected to a few minutes of a game, which there's no getting around if you have the misfortune of living in Quebec. Especially for the fifteen years I lived with Colombe. She loved hockey and never missed a Habs game on TV, while I would make a beeline for the nearest bar. The game was always on there too, but at least I could sit with my back to the giant screen and ask them to turn the sound down.
But in all those years I've never found the game more unbearable than the evening I spent with my son in the so-called hockey Mecca that is the Bell Centre in Montreal.
My boss at the time — the well-to-do owner of a General Motors dealership — had given me two tickets. For four months in a row I'd sold more Saturns than anyone else in our area. And since he had Habs season's tickets, he felt he should give me a pair one night when the Minnesota Wild came to Montreal and when I reckon he really didn't feel like going on a one-hundred-and-thirty-kilometre roundtrip to go watch that.
I gave the tickets to Colombe, thinking that she'd go with our Jonathan, who had laced up his skates to play on his first team that year in our little town of Saint-Zéphyrin. But Colombe put her foot down. She couldn't possibly: this was a milestone in father-son relations. I gave in. And I regretted it as soon as we walked into the hallowed arena.
The game was of no interest whatsoever. Too few goals for my liking, as is nearly always the case with hockey. And the Wild won 2-1 to boot. But I hadn't expected the sport's merchandising to have reached such loud, in-your-face proportions.
Ads sped noisily around the rink on video screens right above our heads. The pre-recorded trumpet sounds were unbearably loud, as though the shouts from the crowd weren't enough to motivate the players. And music with no apparent connection to the game blared from loudspeakers. To top it all off, every time the action stopped for a TV commercial, we were pelted from all angles by deafening ads projected at the dazed crowd from every screen and amplifier in the building.
I felt bad about exposing my six-year-old son to such an abuse of marketing. Especially since I'd sworn to Colombe that not a single beer would pass my lips. And Jonathan had promised his mom he'd tell on me if I cheated. But he was so wrapped up in the evening that he never mentioned the three beers I'd drunk for the price of a two-four from the store.
— And I suppose my son plays bantam.
— Nothing gets by you.
The president of the Saint-Zéphyrin Sports Association says it in such a way as to heap shame upon any father who has no idea to what level his son has progressed, if the concept of progress even comes into play in a sport like hockey. He goes on before I can find another reason to wriggle out of it.
— Half the players in Saint-Zéphyrin are Vietnamese. Their parents don't know the first thing about hockey. I managed to talk to a couple of dads who were actually born in Quebec, but Friday nights they work until six at the steel mill. And the bus needs to leave at four o'clock since the game is at eight in Morinville. They earn thirty-six dollars an hour; it's not like they're going to leave early. There's a policeman too, but he's on overtime this evening. For more than thirty-six dollars an hour, I bet. And all the other parents are single moms. You're my last hope. And Jonathan said you were between jobs.
Jonathan wasn't wrong. I lost my job when General Motors decided to get rid of Saturns. My boss, Gaston Germain, had promised I'd move on to Pontiacs if ever that happened because it had been coming for a while. Nurses and retired teachers drove Saturns and with my communications degree I was the only one who could talk to them, which was just as well since I was useless at selling trucks to farmers and the people who worked at the steel mill. Gaston Germain had promised me that when it was all over for Saturns I'd move on to Pontiacs. But GM got rid of Pontiacs too. Then they closed down a ton of dealers completely two days after I was sacked. I knocked on the door of every dealer between here and Montreal but nobody was hiring. So I told my son that I was between jobs. But that would only be entirely true if there were actually any prospects.
I protest again, hoping that my reluctance will at least get him to pay me for my evening's work:
— But I don't know anything about hockey. Line changes ... the rules ... anything!
— No problem! You have the best team in the league. The guys know the rules better than the refs. And your assistant can do the line changes. He has it all written down. All you have to do is stand behind the bench. If you can wear a tie, even better, but don't worry if you don't have one.
— Why doesn't the assistant coach fill in?
— He's aphasic. And he doesn't look like a coach.
I could point out that he's never seen me, but I have a better idea:
— Why don't you do it?
— I'm in a wheelchair and the school bus can't take me.
Talk about a great excuse. I mumble:
— I'm sorry. I didn't know.
— Listen, keep your arms folded for the whole game, if you like. Chew some gum and it'll look even better. Just look pissed every time the ref makes a call. The guys will take care of the rest.
I keep on looking for another way out of it. If he's in a wheelchair, he can't come pick me up. I look at my watch: a quarter to four. I give it a try:
— I'd love to, but I moved to Saint-Camille a couple of months back. And I don't have a car. I don't see how I'll be able to get to Saint-Zéphyrin for four o'clock.
Barely have the words left my mouth when I realize they make no sense at all. He could tell me to take a taxi and they'll pay for it when I get there. Or they'll send someone to pick me up. But he goes one better:
— Look outside.
I walk over to the window: a yellow school bus is waiting outside by the pumps, which usually only attract drivers who come from too far away to know the garage has been closed for ages.
— Your school bus is waiting for you. Call me if you have any problems.
He gives me two numbers, his home number and his cell.
I throw on a jacket and tie as fast as I can. No need for a coat: it might be late October but we're still enjoying an Indian summer. I head down the stairs.
The bus door opens in front of me. I climb in. A man in his thirties is sitting behind the wheel. My assistant for the evening. I see right away why he'll never be a coach. He's wearing Coke bottle glasses and looks like he has a mild case of Down syndrome. He flashes me a smile so crooked it seems more like a wince. I say hello and force myself to look at him like he's perfectly normal. Then I take a look at my team: twenty or so boys fill the seats. There's Jonathan in the third row. He looks away and I guess he doesn't want the others to know I'm his dad. A fourteen-year-old boy could no doubt imagine few fates more terrible than having a dad who doesn't know the first thing about hockey for a coach.
The driver opens his mouth and says:
— Thi ...
And then he goes quiet. My assistant is struggling to say something. It could be "the" or the start of any other word beginning with "thi," but I assume he wants to introduce me. I go on right away because my cousin Julie had a stroke last year and her husband told me that was the best thing to do with an aphasic.
— I'm your new coach, Antoine ...
I can see Jonathan out of the corner of my eye. He's still pretending not to know me. I stop myself from saying my last name just in time. I even add (I hated it when Gaston Germain called me that, but with young people it's best to be as down-to-earth as possible):
— Call me Tony.
My team doesn't bat an eye. I have no reason at all to think they might be happy to see me. After all, if they were such a good team, their dead coach had surely played a part. He must have been their idol. Only a profiteering bastard would ever agree to replace him. It doesn't matter that I'm not being paid: in their eyes I'm nothing but a job stealer.
I walk down the bus to sit at the back, without so much as a look at Jonathan, who's still doing his best to ignore me, while the guy sitting next to him gives me a shy smile. He's Asian, like half the team.
A Vietnamese family came to live in Saint-Zéphyrin over thirty years ago when the farms and stores began to be left behind by the sons of the farmers and storekeepers gone to study to become doctors, teachers, and police officers in Montreal. The boat people opened a restaurant. The eldest boy bought a farm where to this day he still grows bok choy and any number of exotic vegetables I couldn't name if you paid me. Other Vietnamese — brothers, sisters, cousins, and distant relatives from the same village — followed them over, growing the same vegetables and opening Vietnamese, Cambodian, Chinese, and more recently Thai restaurants (because Thai food costs more, even when it's made by Vietnamese). Even more recently they launched a string of busy sushi restaurants, again making the most of Quebecers not being able to tell Southeast Asians and the Japanese apart. It's got to the point now that when you drive into town there is a big sign proudly proclaiming Saint-Zéphyrin "Quebec's Capital of Exotic Cooking."
They had more kids than we did and, thanks to Bill 101, their children and then their children's children are all perfectly integrated, which makes me hate hockey even more now that these foreigners — whether they were born here or not — have taken over our local teams. But don't tell anyone. My dislike of foreigners is just a venial sin compared to my hatred of hockey.
The school bus gets going, turning onto the road to Saint-Zéphyrin and then east along the highway.
When I was young, if there were twenty of us on a bus, we loved nothing more than a good singalong. And not just "Hail to the Bus Driver." We were also into more risqué songs like "Stop the Bus, I Need a Wee-Wee." But my team doesn't seem in the mood for singing or even talking for that matter. Maybe their dead coach didn't let them do either.
What am I meant to do for three hours on a bus? I don't know anything about my players. Time to find out more. As soon as the highway is straight enough for it to be safe to distract the driver, I get up to go talk to him:
— Beauchemin told me we have player records?
— H ...
Here they are, pulled from his shirt pocket. I go back to my seat. There are five cards. Three forward lines (it's not written out but I guess as much because each line has three players: I don't know much about hockey but I know that much). And two lines of two defensemen. Each line has a number — 1 to 3 for the forwards, 4 and 5 for the defensemen. The goalie doesn't have a line. It looks like he'll be playing the whole game.
To pass the time, I try to memorize the names. First line: K. Nguyen, Vachon, Latendresse-Provençal. Second line: Tremblay-Giroux, G. Nguyen, S. Nguyen. And so on. After half an hour, I can rattle off each line by heart without looking at it. The third line, for example: L'Heureux, R. Nguyen, Nguyen-Tremblay.
I'm not ready at all. But at least I know the players' names and what line they're on. Tremblay-Giroux? Line 2, left wing since the names must be in order: left wing, centre, right wing.
You can't say I'm not taking my job seriously. My son plays centre on the first line, which you'll have noticed if I didn't forget to tell you my name's Antoine Vachon. And I bet the kid sitting next to him is on the same line. Left or right? Left, I'd say, because judging by his eyes he had more chance of being an Nguyen than a Latendresse-Provençal. But he's not super slanty eyed: Eurasian, or rather Quebecasian. The men of Saint-Zéphyrin have to marry Vietnamese if they want to get married. Our women would rather work for minimum wage in Montreal than become slaves to two hundred cows or marry steel workers who come home with grubby hands.
Three hours and two hundred and thirty clicks later, here we are outside the Jean Dicaire Arena in Morinville. I suppose Jean Dicaire played in the NHL and that he came from this neck of the woods.
Sitting at the back, I wait until it's my turn to get off, amazed at the discipline of my players, who file out of the bus like passengers on an Airbus in Fort Lauderdale.
I follow them round to the back. Each takes his equipment bag, which has a Meteor logo on it. Is it the trademark of a canvas bag manufacturer or the team name: the Saint-Zéphyrin Meteors? I don't dare ask because it's unthinkable that the coach wouldn't know the name of his own team. I should have asked Beauchemin. Too late now. If the name has more than one syllable, my assistant will never be able to spit it out in anything like a reasonable amount of time. And there's no way I can let my players see I still don't know what their team's called — what my team's called. I'll find out soon enough when I see the jerseys.
Everybody has a bag, apart from me. All I have is a handful of papers in a jacket pocket. We follow the driver into the arena. He takes the hallway to his right, pushes open a door marked "Visitors," and we walk into our home for the evening. (Continues...)
Excerpted from I Hate Hockey by François Barcelo, Peter McCambridge. Copyright © 2011 Baraka Books. Excerpted by permission of Baraka Books.
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