STRATFORD, Ont. - About 50-odd years ago, Peter Mansbridge had a choice to make.
The son of a man in the British Foreign Service, he had arrived in Canada as a seven-year-old from his native England, by way of Kuala Lumpur, “a young English kid with a sawed-off cricket bat in his hand who didn’t know anything about anything else.”
The choice was one many Canadians had made for them, either by birthright or birthplace; a choice not of life or death, but much more important than that.
Leafs or Habs?
“I got hooked on hockey early and growing up in Ottawa in the ’50s, you were either a Habs fan or a Leafs fan and you had to choose. To my peril, I chose the Leafs and it’s been a long 50 years since,” said the face and voice of CBC News, who finds his worlds colliding this week as Stratford, which he calls home, hosts CBC’s Hockey Day in Canada tomorrow.
“As for (choosing) the Leafs – I just chose them because Dick Duff had become my favourite player. Ironically, he got traded to Montreal a few years later.”
Mansbridge, who divides his time between here and Toronto where he anchors The National weeknights, saved a commute last night as he did The National from here as a prelude to tomorrow’s marathon celebration of hockey in our country.
Hockey – the NHL kind, specifically – and The National haven’t played nice over the years, the playoffs often forcing The National to play peek-a-boo with viewers.
“People tend to think I don’t like hockey because it screws up our schedule in the spring every year. That is a battle, but it’s a separate one. I love hockey. I am still a died-in-the-wool Leafs fan. I suffered through watching another game on a monitor in my office while I was working the other night,” said Mansbridge.
His perspective of the game has evolved since son Will, 10, started playing hockey. Like millions of other dads across Canada, Mansbridge takes his place behind the bench to help coach Will’s team along with Stratford mayor Dan Mathieson.
“Dan knows something about hockey. He was a referee who could have made it to the NHL,” said Mansbridge. “I open the door.”
“A lot of times he can’t be there because he’ll be somewhere in the world doing a news story, but he always will take a minute to either call or drop a BlackBerry message to say, ‘How did we do? What was today’s game like? How did practice go?’” said Mathieson. “He really is not just about doing it for the sake of doing it, but being a part of seeing the kids blossom as hockey players and young adults.”
“I have great memories,” said Mansbridge, “and this has brought a new wave for me watching him play and coaching the team.”
As dads are likely to do, Mansbridge likes to wax poetic to the kids about his days playing as a kid, taking to the outdoor rinks on Fourth Ave., in the Glebe neighbourhood of Ottawa.
“I must have been about 10 when I figured out how to skate and there was a shack there were you would go in to try and warm up and burn your initials into the end of your stick by holding it on the hot stove...and that smell that can only come out of a shack like that,” said Mansbridge.
“There are a lot of great memories there and I try to explain it to my son or the other kids on the team, but they look at you like you’re a dinosaur.”
Mansbridge, our country’s preeminent journalist, has a knack for sensing which way a story might turn, which way the wind is blowing. That hasn’t helped him this week as he has been anxiously monitoring the weather, rooting, along with everybody else in Stratford, for a fine chill to make for prime conditions on the Avon River and create another memorable Canadian tableau.
“When (Hockey Day) first started, I thought this is a noble experiment for (CBC) Sports and good for them. But it’s not going to work that way in terms of big numbers. Boy, was a I wrong,” said Mansbridge. “It took off immediately and it just gets bigger every year. Everybody has bought into it. It’s not just a CBC thing. It’s a national thing.”