WHITEHORSE — And so it’s over now: The magnificent Hockey Day in Canada in this cold northern town where Canada’s game knows no higher love and purity, where its essence is no more clearly defined.
It has ended. The day-long games of children’s teams with former hockey greats coaching, and when not coaching, putting on clinics, and when not coaching and putting on clinics, mingling in their toques and parkas among the people: Adults, children, most who’ve never seen a live NHL star, and were grateful for a benediction they shall never forget.
In the night Yukon skies there are a trillion stars to be seen, but during this week of spectacular hockey graces, they didn’t stand a chance: Their eyes-lifting magnetism was kicked into oblivion, replaced by the seductive potency of earthly stars, and like the stars in the heavens, they, too, had names — names like Dryden and McDonald and Quinn and Napier and Leach and Hrudey and Cherry and MacLean. And on. And on.
In the game of hockey, they are called “heroes” in a society where there are those who could more truly wear that insignia; but there are no children and no adults lined up outside military camps, or doctors’ offices, or police stations, or fire halls, or universities, clamouring for autographs.
Ah, but here is the sweet thing: The true heroes who don’t get asked for autographs, they, too, go looking for autographs from the “heroes” who play our game; it is the human condition that forever was.
Hockey Days in Canada will come, and they will go, the games are played and the games are over, the earthly stars will come, and they will go, memories will fade — but there has always been one constant, and it is the great unifier between the stars and the people, and it was the tao of all that is Hockey Day in Canada, no less so than there.
That treasure of ever-lasting life.
Hockey Day in Canada was games and clinics and banquets and speeches and singers and bands; but pens, pencils, notebooks, and pieces of paper were the dominating imperative.
And just as the stars gave autographs to those for whom it would be their first autograph from a hockey star, unsurpassably precious for that reason alone, let it be remembered that those wide-eyed, awestruck, with pens, pencils, notebooks, and pieces of paper were once upon a time these very same stars.
Reggie Leach, 60, right wing, Philadelphia Flyers, Stanley Cup ring: “I lived in Riverton, population 750, in Manitoba. I was the youngest of 14 kids. The town paid my hockey fee because we were very poor, we were on welfare.
“I had to wear my older brother’s skates. They were size 11 and I was size 7. I had to stuff them with paper so they wouldn’t fall off. The first autograph I ever got was Ted Green’s. He played for Boston. I was about 12. He came to speak at our team’s end-of-season banquet. It was the first NHL player I ever saw.”
Lanny McDonald, 57, right winger, Toronto, Colorado, Calgary. Stanley Cup ring. Hall of Famer. “Johnny Bower and Frank Mahovlich. I was about 12, 13. My dad said ‘Go ahead, ask them for their autographs.’ I was so terrified, I couldn’t even talk. When I got them I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
“When I began signing autographs, I remembered one thing my dad told me because a lot of players don’t do it. He told me to always sign my name so people can read it. ‘It’s your name,’ he said. ‘Be proud of it.’ ”
Ken Dryden, 63, goalie, Montreal Canadiens. Six Stanley Cup rings. Hall of Famer. “Frank Mahovlich came to my school, Islington Public School in Toronto. He was a star with the Leafs. I’d be about 11. I got one from him and then I’d wait a bit and get another. I got five from him. I still have them, too. They’re very special.”
Ron MacLean, 50, Hockey Night in Canada host. “I remember it well. I was 10 years old. My family was visiting friends in Glace Bay and we went to a community softball game and Pat Stapleton of the Blackhawks was there for some reason. That was my first autograph. I went to a wrestling match, too. The villain was a guy called The Stomper. I asked for his autograph, and he tore my piece of paper to shreds. I thought that was neat.”
In Whitehorse this week, where no pieces of paper were torn to shreds, the stars made the people twinkle and shine.