To celebrate the Toronto Maple Leafs (finally) making the playoffs, I present my short story Hockey Night on Ossington Avenue from Rebel in the Back Seat … and other short stories
Hockey Night on Ossington Avenue
by Paul Lima
Johnny Bower was my hero. He led the Leafs to victory.
In 1967, the year he turned forty-three, the craggy-faced goaltender backstopped the Toronto Maple Leafs to their third straight Stanley Cup triumph. Watching him on the CBC, I cheered as he hoisted the silver trophy above his head and I laughed when the cameras caught him in the dressing room after the game, wearing nothing but a toothless grin and champagne-soaked underwear.
Throughout the 1960s, I dreamt of being Bower, of stopping pucks for the Leafs, of being named first star on Hockey Night in Canada, of skating around Maple Leaf Gardens with Lord Stanley’s mug held high.
In 1967, the year I turned eight, I got to wear skates for the very first time …
* * *
The Leafs are playing the Canadiens tonight. “Les Pepsi de Mont-real,” Pa calls them. He hates the Frenchmen almost as much as I do. He’s asleep on the couch in the living room. His pre-game nap, he calls it. All the players nap before games, he’s explained to me. Even Bower.
Ma’s at the kitchen table patching holes in the corduroy trousers that my brother, Vito, no longer wears. Lucky me. I get to wear them next. Although I’m six years younger than Vito and a foot shorter, I weigh as much as he does. Ma’s become an expert at shortening the legs and letting out the waists of his old pants.
Vito’s out shooting pool at De Santo’s Billiards on College Street. If Pa asks where he is, I’m supposed to say he’s at the library studying, otherwise he’ll get heck when he comes home. Vito says if I scratch his back, he won’t kick my butt. But my brother’s okay. He pays me back when he can. Mostly by protecting me from my old man’s temper and the way he lashes out at whoever happens to be closest to him when something’s pissed him off. And he gets pissed off easily.
I’m in my bedroom, building a house of hockey cards on my orange-crate nightstand. The cards cost a nickel a pack. You get five player cards and a thin piece of sugar-coated gum that tastes like cardboard. I can’t afford to buy cards often because I hardly get any allowance. But I’ve got one hundred and fifty-seven cards. I won most of them playing closies, flipsies, topsies and other card games in the schoolyard. Dewson School is on Ossington Avenue, right across from our house. But there’s a lot of traffic on Ossington and I’m only in grade three, so my mom makes me walk a block south to College, cross at the lights and then walk a block north to get to school. What a drag.
My most valuable cards are my five Johnny Bowers. I don’t play games with them. I got three of them buying cards. I traded four duplicates—Keon, Howe, Hull and Beliveau—for one. And I found the other under a heap of yellowing newspapers in the laneway behind our garage while fishing for a tennis ball that Vito shot wide of my net.
I’m a pretty good laneway goalie, for a chubby kid. If you look at Bower, you’ve got to figure he was once chubby too. I flop a lot and throw my boots, arms, chest and stick in front of every shot. That’s why Vito calls me “Kamikaze.” Everybody calls Vito “Stick” because he’s almost as thin as the shaft of a hockey stick. He keeps his black hair slicked back in Brylcreem-coated waves. If I do anything dumb, like let in a soft goal, he shakes his waves and glares at me. It’s like a storm warning. I just hope he doesn’t start to thunder.
I had to play goal with a broom until Vito swiped a hockey stick for me from Danny’s Variety next to De Santo’s. I wish I could’ve seen him shove the shaft down his pants and slip the blade under his arm. Even though I have a stick, I still get stuck hacking in the laneway with the little kids whenever Vito and his buddies play pick-up on Grenadier Pond in High Park. That’s because I don’t have skates.
I’ve got the walls of my card house stacked three-high when the phone rings and wakes Pa. I hold a glass against the bedroom wall, like Vito taught me to do, so I can eavesdrop on my father.
“Bene, Antonio. E tu?”
Pa’s talking to his younger brother, Tony, who owns Capelli’s Garments on Spadina. Pa’s worked there since he got laid off from his construction job a couple of years ago. I think he cuts material for socks and underwear. Socks and underwear are the only clothes I don’t get as hand-me-downs.
“Stasera?” Pa asks as I press my ear firmly against the glass. “Con Pietro.”
This evening? With Peter. Peter’s my pain-in-the-ass cousin who’s only twelve but thinks he’s a grown-up and acts just as dumb. Vito only lets our stuck-up cousin hang around us because he always has money for smokes and Cokes. He has skates too and he plays hockey on Grenadier Pond. Vito says Peter’s pretty good, but he hardly ever scores on me when we play in the laneway.
“Va bene, Antonio. Un minuto,” Pa says, then calls my mother.
Turns out a supplier is taking Tony and Peter to the hockey game; Tony has two extra tickets—for the freaking ballet. He wants me and Ma to go to the ballet with his wife, Emilia. To the ballet. Not to the hockey game!
“Nicky!” Ma bursts into my room like a tornado. Shirts, pants, socks and underwear fly everywhere as she scrounges through my closet. “We’re going to The Nutcracker. What a treat. Put on your Sunday best. Clean underwear too.”
I turn my back on her and knock over my house of cards. It’s Saturday night. Hockey Night in Canada is on tonight. Leafs versus Montreal. And I’m going to be at the ballet. Not if I can help it.
While Ma’s in the bathroom getting all powdered up, I plead with Pa to let me stay home. I even speak Italian to him.
“Per favore, Papà.”
He shakes his head and cracks open a beer.
“But Pa …”
He chops air with his free hand and says “Nicky!” in the deep voice he usually reserves for when Vito gets home late. I’m not brave like Vito, who would just stand there without blinking. I’m not stupid either. I scramble out of the living room.
In the taxi, I ask Ma why we have to go to the ballet.
“It’s a Christmas tradition here,” she says. “In Italy, when I was your age, I went to ballet and opera whenever I could. How I miss Figaro.”
I don’t ask who Figaro is.
The taxi pulls into a driveway where my aunt is waiting, wearing her long fur coat. Ma straightens my polka-dot bow tie as Emilia squeezes in beside me and almost knocks me out with her perfume.
The Nutcracker is held at the O’Keefe Centre, a huge auditorium named after the beer Pa drinks. The ballet is as dull as I figured it would be, although the Mouse King is neat, especially when he fights the Nutcracker.
Things really get boring when a ton of frilly snowflakes start to prance around, so I close my eyes and pretend that I’m at Maple Leaf Gardens watching Bower take on the Canadiens.
Beliveau shoots. Bower’s gloved hand flicks out, catches the puck quick as a cat captures a mouse. Richard’s in on a breakaway. Poke check—Bower’s master move—leaves the Pocket Rocket shaking his head and cussing the maskless wonder. Toe save. Chest save. Splits. Bower’s ballet gives the Canadiens fits …
I hear applause and open my eyes. The dancers take their final bows and we head for the exit.
“What did you think, Nicky?” Ma asks.
“I wonder who won the game?”
“Hockey.” She sighs.
That night, as she tucks me into bed, she says, “At church tomorrow, remember to thank Uncle Tony for the ballet tickets.”
I thank Tony but keep my fingers crossed behind my back because I’m not feeling thankful. After all, the Leafs beat the Canadiens two to one, even though they were outshot by the Canadiens forty-two to twenty-one. First star? Bower, of course. And guess who brings an official Maple Leafs hockey program to church? Peter. On the cover, making a perfect poke check, is Johnny Bower. And scribbled across the cover is Bower’s real-life autograph.
On Christmas morning, Uncle Tony almost makes up for stiffing me with the ballet ticket. He gives me a pair of black skates with steel toes, ankle supports and smooth laces with plastic-tipped ends for easy threading. My folks give me hockey socks they bought at Honest Ed’s on Bloor. And Vito gives me—I don’t believe it—a Toronto Maple Leafs hockey sweater. It’s so new it smells like a warehouse full of fresh underwear. On the back of the sweater, there’s a big number one. Bower’s number.
As I slip my new sweater over my head Vito says, “You got skates just in time, Kamikaze. We need a goalie tomorrow.”
“You want me to play? At High Park?”
“I’m on any team you’re not on,” Peter says, “so I can whip your butt.”
I shove a fist in his face.
“Hey,” Vito says, making like a referee and separating us. “Save it for the game.”
I sleep in my Maple Leafs hockey sweater and dream of poke checking the Canadiens at Maple Leaf Gardens while Bower sits in the stands, a huge grin on his face, watching over me. In the morning, Vito, Peter and I ride the College streetcar to High Park. The ice covering Grenadier Pond gleams in the sunshine like our kitchen floor shines right after Ma has waxed it. Clustered around a picnic table near the pond are some familiar faces from laneway hockey and a few older guys I don’t recognize.
“Hey,” Vito calls out.
“Did you find us a goalie?” somebody asks.
“Kamikaze,” Vito says.
He pats the back of my Johnny Bower sweater and I shiver. Holy crap, I’m going to play goal on the ice of Grenadier Pond.
Vito and Ernst, an older guy who is smoking a cigarette, are chosen as team captains. “I get Charlie,” Ernst says. “You keep your brother and pick first.” Charlie is the other goalie. His stocky build is exaggerated by the shoulder pads under his New York Rangers’ sweater.
Vito picks Alex, a guy who lives a few doors up from us. Ernst points to Peter. I’m shocked that anybody would pick my idiot cousin first. As Vito and Ernst continue to pick, I take off my rubber boots, untangle my skate laces and force my feet into my new skates. I tie my laces as best I can and stand up. My ankles buckle and I almost fall.
“It’s Johnny Bow-legged,” Peter says as he skates to shore and breaks, sending a shower of ice shavings in my direction. Of course he’s wearing a Canadien’s sweater. I think he does it just to piss me off.
Once he’s through selecting his team, Vito sits me down, pulls my laces tighter and ties them in a double-bow. I stand, keeping my knees stiff, and take a hesitant step forward. My ankles hold. I shuffle closer to the edge of the pond and stare at the frozen surface.
“Go for a skate,” Vito says. “We’ll build your posts.”
With an effortless push, he glides away while I take my first step on ice. I wobble like a ballerina with a sprained ankle. Thud! I hit the ice. Vito swoops around me like a hawk.
“You gotta stay on your feet, Kamikaze.”
“I’ll be great, Stick.”
Ignoring my bravado, Vito guides me to what feels like the centre of the universe. As teammates drop boots on either side of me to mark my posts, I try to glide forward. Thud. My teammates snicker and skate away.
Peter cuts through my crease. “No fair,” he says. “You’re fat enough to block anything.” He takes off and I stick out my tongue at the back of his Canadiens’ sweater.
Down ice, Charlie dances between his posts as players pepper him with shots. He catches pucks with his webbed glove, knocks them away with his blocker and kicks them out with his shin pads. I pluck woollen mittens from my coat pockets and slip them on over cold, red hands.
As I get up, Peter stick-handles towards me and takes a shot. I tumble back and land on my seat as the puck dribbles just wide of my net.
“I’m gonna have a field day,” Peter says.
“Calm down, Nicky,” Vito says as Peter streaks away. “It’s just a game.”
Just a game? How can my brother say that? It’s Hockey Night in Canada. I’m on skates. I’ve got a goalie stick and I’m wearing my Maple Leafs sweater with Johnny Bower’s number on my back. It’s not just a game. It’s the Stanley Cup finals. It’s life and sudden-death. It’s everything I’ve always wanted, and now all I want to do is throw up.
I get up without help and slap my stick on the ice just like Bower does. The game begins.
Vito wins the face-off and passes the puck to Alex, who feeds a player breaking down left wing. Vito cuts for the slot and receives the return pass. He shoots. Charlie makes the save, robbing Vito point-blank, and smothers the rebound. I manage to stay on my feet as the play remains in the opposition zone.
I haven’t faced a shot on net and already goaltending on skates is a heck of a lot tougher than Bower makes it look.
Peter gets the puck and doodles around several of our players before passing it to Ernst, who breaks in on right wing. I step out to cut down the angle and fall to my knees. Ernst laughs so hard he fans on his shot. The puck dribbles by me.
Please dear God let it be wide.
“He shoots. He scores!” Peter’s voice rings in my ears. “Beliveau on a picture-perfect pass from Richard.”
Vito helps me up. “Do you want to wear your boots instead?”
“No,” I spit through clenched teeth.
“Be cool. I’ll play back.”
Except in goal, the teams are even. We score next—Alex on a wrist shot on a pinpoint pass from Vito. By accident, I belly-flop on a loose puck during a scramble in front of my net. When I get up, Vito smiles and taps my shins with his stick just like in the big leagues.
On the next play, a long shot hits my stick and knocks me off bal-ance. As I spin around like an awkward ballerina, Peter snaps the rebound at my net but the puck hits my ass. I topple over and land on the puck.
“All right,” Vito says. “We’ve got ourselves a goalie.” My teammates cheer.
“Dumb luck,” says Peter. “Dumb, fat-assed luck.”
Because of my two saves, Stick gets daring and doesn’t play back as much. He gets caught up ice as Ernst feeds Peter a long pass. Breakaway!
Peter’s eyes are as black as two tiny pucks as he moves in on me. I’m frozen in place. How close is he going to skate before he puts me out of my misery? He dekes right. What would Johnny Bower do?
I dive forward and thrust out my stick—poke check—as Peter shoots. The puck ricochets up off the blade of my stick and strikes me in one of the places a goalie really does not want to get hit. I groan and sprawl face-first on the ice.
“Nutcracker,” Peter shouts as I writhe in pain.
Where am I? My face is pressed against something cold and smooth. The Mouse King has my head gripped in his claws and is trying to twist it off. I can’t breathe.
A distant voice calls. “Get up. Skate it off.”
“Protect my net, Stick.”
“He’s delirious,” Peter says.
“He doesn’t have a cup,” Vito says.
“Who won the Stanley Cup?”
“You gotta skate it off.” Vito rubs snow across my forehead. “Help him up,” he says.
Strong arms help me to my feet. But standing only intensifies the pain in the place where—evidently—I should be wearing something called a cup. The arms move me towards the shore. I sit in a snow bank and let the cold dampness seep through my corduroys. It relieves some of the pain.
Vito removes one of my mittens and wipes icicle tears off my cheeks and snot from my nose. He could desert me on the shore and go back to the game, but he doesn’t. He waits for my sobs to subside, helps me remove my skates and put on my boots, then takes me home and helps me into bed.
“Vito? Vieni quì.” My father’s deep voice rumbles in from the living room.
I look at Stick who shrugs. “Sleep it off,” he says. Then he leaves to answer my father’s call.
Although the pain makes it difficult for me to move, I grab my list-ening glass and place it against the bedroom wall. I don’t hear my father speak. Instead, I hear Uncle Tony.
“Vito,” he says, “the Maple Leafs hockey sweater you gave to Nicky. Where’d you get it?”
Stick doesn’t answer.
“An expensive hockey sweater was stolen from Danny’s Variety,” Tony continues. “Danny è il mio amico, Vito. And he’s very upset.”
My brother says nothing. I imagine him standing before the men, staring them down.
Then Pa’s voice erupts in my glass. “Stupido! Bastardo!” I hear a loud smack, like the sound of a Frank Mahovlich slapshot bruising the backboards.
My head throbs. I can barely keep my eyes open. The glass slips from my hand and I crawl back into bed.
I am naked, playing goal at Maple Leaf Gardens. The Canadiens, in tights and ballet slippers, score and score at will. Johnny Bower, seated in the stands, scowls and pulls his sweater over his face.
“Nicky?” Vito’s whisper rouses me from my dream. I crack open my eyes. “Are you okay?” he asks.
I nod. My head hurts. The rest of me doesn’t feel so hot either. “How ’bout you?”
Pa’s hand print, blazing red, is branded on his cheek. He sits on the bed beside me. “I’m grounded and banned from Danny’s.”
“You’re grounded? For how long, Stick?”
“Two months. Tony’s pissed off at me and that means Pa’s mad too. He wanted to call the cops, the son-of-a-bitch. But Tony talked him down. He’s gonna let you keep the sweater too. I’m gonna pay for it by working at his factory after school and on weekends for the next couple of months.”
“But you gotta play hockey, Stick. And you gotta teach me how to skate.” I tug at the sleeve of my sweater. “Will they let you out if we give it back?”
Vito holds a finger to his lips. “You don’t ever gotta give it back.” My brother fishes my hockey cards off my night stand and shuffles them.
I grab the collar of my Maple Leafs jersey and jerk it over my head. “Tell ’em you gotta play, Stick.” I shove my Johnny Bower sweater at my brother. “I don’t want it if you can’t play.”
He folds it neatly on his lap.
“Sorry I was such a lousy goalie,” I say.
“Are you kidding?” he says. “It was a great save you made. You left Peter shaking his head in disbelief.”
I giggle, which hurts like hell.
Vito tosses the sweater back at me. “It’s yours,” he says. “I’m paying for it. And then we’re gonna play hockey.”
“Poke check,” I say. “I poke checked the snot outta Peter.”
“Poke check,” he says. “A Johnny Bower poke check all the way.”