Losing to the Americans at the World Cup of Hockey recently delivered a stiff body check to the integrity of our Canadian culture. To be beaten at our national game -- it's enough to make you sell the Florida mobile home.
Before we Canadians do anything so rash, here's a reassuring thought. It hit me at 8 a.m. on a Saturday morning outside Central Arena in deepest, darkest suburban Burlington, Ont., where 50 other hockey parents and I were lining up for the Burlington Lions Optimist Minor Hockey Association (BLOMHA) Used Skate and Hockey Equipment Sale.
There we were, huddling under the arena eaves to escape the tail-end lashing rains of a September hurricane, when it occurred to me: Canada's hockey prowess lies not so much in the players as in their parents. Who else would forgo a Saturday morning sleep-in to line up in the rain for used shin guards?
The Used Skate and Hockey Equipment Sale is a day of ritual for the men and women who live in and around this town of 100,000 in Toronto's western shadow. Bay Street brokers, who normally commute home to Burlington only to sleep, enter the date in their electronic Daytimers. Shift workers from the Ford plant in nearby Oakille set their alarm clocks for 6:30 a.m. on their precious day off.
Here is vintage Canadiana. Men of all sizes and types, brown Tim Horton's cups in one hand, the latest issue of Auto-Trader magazine in the other, stand patiently in line outside the arena. It's 7:30 a.m. and the doors don't open up until 9. But if you wait until 8:30 to get in line, you'll be lucky to get a pair of hockey gloves with the palms worn out.
Little has changed at this hockey sale over the four years that I've lined up to outfit my two boys. Come to think of it, little has changed since the Middle Ages. Doubtless, the errant knights, once they settled down and started families, swapped chain-mail shoulder pads and wrought-iron helmet visors to outfit the young squires for the Crusades.
Things were a bit more high-tech this year. With the advent of cellular phones, Used Equipment Day is now a lot easier on Mom. Dad arrives early for a choice spot in line and phones Mom and the kids when he's close to the door. "You can come now. I'm in the next batch."
In five years, the number of children enrolled in this hockey association has doubled to 2,200. BLOMHA has become a not-so-small business, with a budget nearing $1 million and a full-time general manager. A couple of years ago, Burlington boasted the nation's largest single order for "Future Star" hockey photos. You can get your kid's photo on everything from coffee mugs to hockey cards, with all the stats on the back: "Height: 4-foot, 1-inch."
As if getting their 9-year-olds up for 5:50 a.m. Wednesday practices weren't a great enough shock to the system, many parents will volunteer even more of their time to coach, assistant coach, convene, shuttle kids, run dances and give out free hockey sticks to parents who paid in full before June 30.
There are so many heroic parents volunteering to help out at bingos that some had to be turned away. "So if you don't hear from us, please don't be upset," said a recent newsletter. Upset? At not having the privilege of gasping out the wee hours in bingo halls blue with cigarette smoke, all so Junior can improve his wrist shot? We'll be back, Team USA.
Now it's 9:30 a.m., and we're inside. The atmosphere is more like Notre Dame Cathedral than Sears bargain basement. Parents reverently shuffle from the skate table to the elbow-pad table. This is nation-building work, remember. The chances are not so slim that a pair of these scuffed skates with neon laces will end up in the Hockey Hall of Fame, worn by a future Mario Lemieux or Eric Lindros.
Slowly, items are crossed off lists. Gloves for the 7-year-old. Elbow pads for the 9-year-old. Hockey bag, shin pads, neck guard. Gloves for Dad. The grand total is $83, about half what it would have cost in the store.
The line outside may still be there when you leave. You walk by, and a kid recognizes a familiar pair of hockey pants or a helmet that his parents had dropped off the night before: "Hey, there's my skates." Then, it's off to Canadian Tire, where you see the same parents picking up sundries such as hockey tape, skate guards and whatever they couldn't get at the sale. Better arrive a half-hour earlier next year.
Then the season is upon us. Alarms are set for 5:50 a.m. Parents pile their kids, still asleep in their hockey socks, into pre-heated minivans, and head, via Tim Horton's, for the arena. There, through videocams glued to their eye sockets, they watch their Future Stars stumble, fall and get up again, with visions of future Stanley Cup finals to warm them, as the chill of an arena in January slowly numbs their extremities.
Only in Canada, eh? Pity, for Team USA.
JOHN M. MUGGERIDGE, Burlington, Ont., hockey parent, admits he witnessed some counterparts on this side of the border at an Amherst tournament.