This fall, a New Westminster tradition barely anyone knows about will celebrate its 25th anniversary.
It’s one I had a hand in starting back in 1991. That’s when I rounded up a few buddies in the local media business to rekindle our childhood passion for road hockey.
We gathered on the old tennis courts in Queen’s Park, put down some spare boots and jackets for goalposts and had at it. Just like when we were kids. Because as much as ice hockey is our national obsession, the street game is our national pastime.
Pretty much every kid who grew up in Canada has played road hockey. They know the sting of the evil orange ball on a cold day. They understand the unique skill of shooting that ball with a plastic “Superblade” worn down by the hardtop to the thickness of a toothpick. They’ve scowled at insensitive drivers with the temerity to drive through their game to get home. They’ve delayed dinner just to play a little longer. They’ve played out the thrill of winning a Stanley Cup between the curbs.
It’s that spirit we wanted to renew with our little impromptu pickup game.
Our one-off game was a lot of fun. So we played again the next week. And then the week after that. Friends invited friends. Soon enough someone acquired proper nets.
Tired of always chasing balls on the expansive courts, we eventually moved the game to a lacrosse box next to Cariboo Secondary School in Burnaby.
But when the New West school district rebuilt Herbert Spencer Elementary with two enclosed hockey courts and a basketball court atop its underground parkade, we quickly repatriated the game to its hometown. We claimed the middle court and never left.
By now the founding media contingent was outnumbered by teachers, engineers, students, a social worker. Some of them shared the same first name, so we started doling out distinguishing nicknames, a tradition of old-time hockey that’s largely been lost as the game and the media that cover it has become more professional.
Every week the game started with the same routine; everyone threw their sticks into a pile at centre court and someone was designated to randomly divide it into the two teams that would compete.
Equipment was haphazard at best; one legendary goalie eschewed protective leg pads for years, relying on fearlessness and quick reflexes instead to make dazzling saves.
One spring someone showed up with a broken hockey sticked wrapped in tinfoil and declared it the prize for the season’s final game, the Stanley Stick. Eventually it became a proper trophy with a bowl for chugging champagne.
Other traditions evolved; the Shrimp Ring Bowl to welcome the new year, a midsummer game to renew acquaintances during the off-season.
The early games were chronicled in a photocopied newsletter, then a rudimentary website on Geocities, then finally a proper website with its own domain, roadhockey.net. After all, isn’t it the dream of every Canadian kid to see their hockey exploits documented in print?
Over the years generations of players have come and gone. Some succumbed to time pressures from growing family obligations. Some lost interest or invested their energy in other sports. Some moved away to pursue their education or new job opportunities: the legendary goalie is now a sports reporter for the Association Press in Buffalo; another charter player, Sweater Vest, is the communications director for the Mayor of Los Angeles; a more recent recruit was elected to Parliament in the last federal election.
Some years attendance has been better than others. When the commitment of players flags doubt creeps in about the game’s continued existence. But then a new recruit shows up; he tells a couple of friends and renewed life has been breathed back into Sunday mornings.
It’s hard to say how many people have played Sunday Morning Road Hockey over the years; some stopped by just once and moved on before they could ever be bestowed a nickname, a few have been chasing the evil orange plastic ball for two decades or more. I’d like to think all of them found at least a momentary connection back to their childhood, a brief escape from the responsibilities and expectations of adulthood.
And whether or not they ever scored a goal, made a save, got their name engraved on the Stanley Stick, they all made a contribution to one of New West’s very small, lesser known traditions.