In Ontario, especially in rural communities, many boys dream of playing in the National Hockey League (NHL). To many a surprise, Lacrosse is Canada’s national sport, but hockey is its most populated. There’s a national pride that consumes the country at all levels of competitive hockey. The Summit Series of 1972 was Russia versus Canada, two foes squaring off that would be akin, in a sports-sense, to the Cold War between Russia and the United States in a similar time period. The World Junior Hockey Championships which happen annually, when being played out overseas, will see countless Canadians up in the wee hours of the morning watching Team Canada, a group of rising teenage stars, play their hearts out for Canadian pride on television. And there is pressure too with anything less than a Championship victory considered an absolute failure not only for Canadians watching, but the players themselves. The country brings the same level of expectations to the Olympics every four years where Canada is expected to bring home gold. The Canadian players themselves, usually all of which are in the NHL, take time off from the season to represent the Great North, not for money, but for dignity, both personally and more importantly nationally.
Starting hockey when young, playing lots, and being in the great Canadian hockey system helps many youth eventually make it to the NHL, but these factors are usually not enough for many.
In Wingham, Ontario there once lived a star hockey player in high school. He was tall for his age, had an overly developed muscular system due to bailing thousands of bundles of hay on his family’s farm growing up. He would score 4-6 goals per game, and was fast too, and strong too, and tough too.
Word of this star got to an NHL team and a scout was assigned to visit the Wingham Hockey Arena to watch this boy play. When word got back to the star, he decided he’d go to the local foundry that evening to work and would miss the game. He was the best player Wingham ever had. A scout never did see him play.
In Owen Sound, a 17 year old played in Junior B hockey. He was a fast player, faster than anyone he knew in the league. He would combine his speed with intuition of where the puck was going to be before it got there. This made him a great defenseman but in reality, he could have been an offensive or defensive player. He had a drinking problem too. Him and a few friends on the team would get drunk very often, everyday actually. And when he tried out for Junior A hockey in Owen Sound for the Owen Sound Attack, he was cut because he kept throwing up on the ice. He couldn’t keep his liquor down. And neither could two of his buddies. He became an insurance broker to farmers, made decent money, had five kids and remained a drunk.
In St. Mary’s there was an offense player who played in Junior A. He had raw torque like few others in the league, or that had been seen in years. He was tall and large like a reasonable human resemblance to a freight train. This strength made him formidable that few would dare mess with on the ice. Why bother? Players thought. He would match this strength with a serene articulation when shooting the puck, being able to pinpoint within an inch and a half where towards the net the puck would go. His big day came – the Annual NHL Draft. That day, he went in the 7th round and would be drafted onto the same NHL team with another player who would go on to become an NHL All-Star, hall of famer and club owner. This young man from St. Mary’s never did play in the NHL though. The night after the After Party, he would collide his car, inebriated from all the celebratory beers after the lifetime accomplishment, into the trunk of a maple leaf tree and fracture his vertebrae.
It’s true. Sometimes starting a sport early, working hard and being in a great system isn’t enough.