It was a long time ago! I was just an anglophone kid from rural Quebec south of Montreal, in la ville de Mont. St. Hilaire growing up with dreams of playing for Team Canada in the Olympics and in the National Hockey League for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Why Toronto you might ask? Because my older brother had the Montreal Canadiens as his team and dad was from Toronto. My two younger brothers chose the Chicago Black Hawks and the Detroit Red Wings as their teams. All good choices in the day!
I learned to skate on the frozen Richelieu River and on our side street when it was covered in ice. I slept, dreamt, and lived for ice hockey in the winter. I spent hours skating on the river and would come into our home and rest my ‘buns’ on the big bronze grate furnace vent to thaw out until it seemed my butt cheeks were on fire. Mom would always say to me with a knowing smile, “Stop hogging the heat!”
I can remember walking along Richelieu Boulevard (now Rue des Patriotes) to the Otterburn Park ice rink all proudly dressed in my Maple Leaf uniform with my hockey stick and skates over my shoulder. Years later when they built the Otterburn Swimming Pool (where I was a lifeguard as a teenager) they built two ice rinks beside it and we dressed in the warmth of the pool changing rooms.
When I first started playing ice hockey I literally ran on my skates and because I was the fastest kid in the area I out raced the other boys most of the time to the net. I can remember scoring eight, nine, ten goals a game and being pushed up to an age group above me to get more competition at nine years of age. At first I didn’t like it because I wasn’t playing with my friends but as time wore on I learned to like the challenge of playing with the bigger, stronger boys.
I can remember listening on the radio to the Olympics and World Championships cheering Canada on against the professional Russian players, and dreaming of beating them. Fran Huck and Ceasar Maniago I especially remember from that era playing for Canada.
Playing on outdoor ice was the best feeling I ever had as a kid; so hard and fast compared to indoor ice. I loved it! One day the coach of my midget hockey team for Otterburn informed me that I was being scouted by National Hockey League teams. Shortly thereafter my parents got a phone call from the Chief Scout for Eastern Canada for the Boston Bruins of the National Hockey League. Mom and Dad sat me down to tell me that they wanted me to go to their Fall training camp in Shawinigan. Shawinigan was their team in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (now called the Shawinigan Cataracts). I remember being surprised and nervous about travelling so far from home without my family there to support me in a very french region of Quebec.
My experience was not a good one! Back then the major junior teams across Canada were owned by the National Hockey League teams and there was no real support for the kids or at least not that I experienced. I was billeted with a nice french family in Shawinigan who spoke english and went off to my first practice. I’ll never forget standing high up in the stands in the arena and looking down at the Boston emblem at centre ice. I was in awe! The dressing room that first practice was filled with chatter in french and I quietly got dressed for the practice with my teammates. Then we hit the ice for drills for a good hour or so before being assigned teams to scrimmage against each other. I was in my sixteenth year (an underage junior) playing against twenty-one years olds. I was buzzing the net when the team enforcer from the previous season took a dislike to this young whipper snapper and swung his stick at me like a baseball bat, and sent me ass over tea kettle sprawling across the ice. The Head Coach frantically blew the whistle and chewed the guy out en francais. Meanwhile, the Chief Scout for Eastern Canada who had been watching the scrimmage from the stands came onto the ice and asked me to join him in the stands. He sat me down; I was trembling, and calmly told me I had a great future in ice hockey and not to let this incident bother me. That teammate he explained wouldn’t do that again and in fact, he’d be there to protect me in the future during league play. It was quite a shock for this young, innocent kid who loved the game but had never experienced any kind of brutality before. Right then and there I decided I didn’t want to play ice hockey if it meant learning to accept hockey’s other dark side. I stayed for a few more days of training camp but finally left to return home.
For months afterwards I received phone calls from the Chief Scout telling me and my parents of my bright future in ice hockey and that they wanted to send me to Estevan, Saskatchewan to play for their affiliate in the Western Hockey League-the Estevan Bruins which became the New Westminster Bruins which later became the Kamloops Blazers. I said, “No!” I didn’t play much ice hockey after that, my confidence and joy for the game had been stolen from me.
A few years later while at the University of New Brunswick Dr. John Meagher saw me play an inter-mural game (I only played that once and in my shrunken kangaroo leather CCM Tacks-it was painful) and asked me why I wasn’t playing for the varsity team. I didn’t have an answer for him.
The skates in the studio still life photograph are my skates the Bruins gave me for training camp all those years ago and the Bruins folk art figure was a surprise gift from my ex brother-in-law, Michael. On the back of the Bruins folk art player is my weathered Shawinigan Bruins business card with my name on it which I gather is somewhat symbolic of my ice hockey career.
I’ll never know if I could have played professional hockey or played for Canada’s National Team but the fire is still to this day inside me when I’m cheering on Canada at the World’s and the Olympics. Go Canada Go!