Friday, December 3, 2010

How Sport Lasts

I was at a bar over Thanksgiving weekend with my friends from home, (Lewiston, ME for those keeping track) as Thanksgiving weekend, for whatever reason, has always been a big homecoming for my set of Lewiston friends. The day after Thanksgiving we play (or enact a reasonable approximation of) a game of touch football at the field at the middle school and many of us go to the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League game that same night and head out to the bars to catch up afterward. There is a way this essay could go that really focuses on that touch football game, exploring how little the game itself, or at least, how “a game of football” is usually understood, matters to the event, but that's not what I'm going to talk about, though, in a way, (sorry for all the commas,,,,) that's all I'm going to talk about.

After the football game, after the hockey game, and for me and a few others anyway, at the second bar of the night, I ran into a couple of people I hadn't seen in years, perhaps in over a decade. They were cousins to each other, were both married, and had children. One was living in Hinesburg, VT near Burlington so we were able to chat about that for awhile, and one was living not too far from where he grew up, in Bowdoin, ME. There was a new beard involved. We all had jobs. Wives were introduced. The conversation broke up when I had to get a beer. One of them left before I made my way back (which took awhile, given the other people I ran into) and one of them I was able to properly wish good-night and good luck when I was on my way out. The story here isn't in how the night as a whole went, how my conversation went with these two friends, or how the night ended. The story here is how I was greeted, how we greeted each other.

There was a moment of recognition, an offered handshake that turned into a hug and then I was embraced by both of them and we were jumping up and down in the bar and they were shouting “Cook! Cook! Cook!” Despite the askance looks of a couple of wives and a few of the other patrons within earshot, and despite the obviously ridiculous visual the whole event produced, I knew exactly why what was happening was happening.

It made sense because, the three of us played youth hockey together. In Lewiston, youth hockey used to be organized by the various parishes in the city and even when the league became it's own entity, it preserved certain aspects of the old parish system; the team you played on was determined by where you lived, which meant that most kids played with the same kids year after year. So Johnny, JP and I played for Holy Family, mascot the Bears, from when we were about 6 or 7 until when were about 12 or 13. This means that we haven't been teammates for almost eighteen years and yet, whatever connection we had was still strong enough to produce a jumping, chanting, public display of man-love. The question, of course, is why did the emotion of that very old connection stay that strong?

I'm sure there's a developmental psychology answer about formative years and early social tribes, but, frankly, I don't find that answer particularly interesting. Here's my answer; we played hockey together when we still believed we could play in the NHL.

Looking back now, I know there was no time in my life, when I had a chance to play professional hockey. I never had even a fraction of the raw talent necessary. But what do you know at 10 and 11? We were getting up at ungodly hours in the morning on weekends to go to practices at an outdoor rink where we needed to wear nylons under our pads and put tape over the ear holes in our helmets to fend off frostbite. Our parents were paying ridiculous fees, buying expensive equipment, and driving us all over the state. We were playing in tournaments, winning them, losing them, getting trophies, having end of the season parties, getting injured, crying over losses, and dreaming of a life where we got to play hockey forever.

Of course, there are ways to undercut the general conclusion I'm coming to; Johnny and JP are cousins who have always been as much friends as relatives; Johnny was always the top goalie on our team and I was always the top defenseman; we won the Lion's Tournament together, which was the Lewiston league's championship; we won a youth state title together; but I still think the universal in this situation outweighs the particular.

We were participants in each others' dreams as children. When we didn't know anything about the world, when all we knew of hockey was what happened when we played and the fantasy we created by interpreting what we watched on TV, when we were without the scale of worldiness, when we hadn't learned that not everything was possible, we were teammates.

Of course none of us ended up in the NHL. I was good enough to make a pretty good high school hockey team and Johnny was good enough to give Juniors at least a try. I managed to scrape together a few pond hockey games here and there and now live near a roller hockey rink where I occasionally shoot around by myself. JP found some guys to play with in Vermont and Johnny left before I could see if he still strapped the pads on every now and again.

At one point Johnny suggested a reunion game with the old Holy Family guys we played with. I live in Somerville, JP in Vermont, Johnny in Maine and who knows where all those others guys are. The logistics would be challenging even if we all didn't have the rest of our lives to manage (did I mention that both of them are fathers) even in the world of Facebook. I'd be shocked and overjoyed if something like that were ever organized. At the same time, I know exactly what Johnny said when he said that, and even though I can't explain the real meaning behind the statement, I completely agree with it.

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