Friday, January 17, 2014
Dale Hunter, Bobby Ryan, Dee Snider and Coca-Cola – How One Game Sent Me Back To The 80’s
The game last night between the Senators and the Canadiens had some kind of magic to it, a strange forgotten appeal that somehow found its way here from the 80’s when the game was wide open and a little more dangerous. The rink in Kanata was charged, the two teams getting away from their coaching systems enough that it resembled something long gone, something unpredictable and addicting.
We saw a winger, Bobby Ryan, skate over the blue line and beat Carey Price clean. That doesn’t really happen anymore except for the very few elite players with an overpowering shot. Even for them, it’s rare. We saw tragic bounces (Jared Cowen), wild rushing defensemen (Erik Karlsson), actual athletic goaltending that was at times astonishing (Price), 9 goals, lead-changes and even a wild overtime celebration from P.K. Subban who until that time was playing in the shadow of a determined Karlsson all night long. I think his histrionics had as much to do with beating Karlsson as it did with beating the Senators.
It was a hell of a game … so good in fact that it dawned on me how few of these we actually get outside of the playoffs. The consequences of the outcome didn’t seem to matter once you got caught up in it all. You just wanted to see what happened next, and you got a little nervous thinking about it. I never found myself wandering over to Twitter out of boredom. I didn’t want to see how sarcastic or angry everyone was over somebody's ice-time. I was just watching a hockey game, unable to break away.
And it reminded me of Lonny and my Old Man.
My Dad’s best friend was a guy named Lonny. We called him “Uncle Lonny” but there was no relation there. It just seemed natural to call him that and I think he liked it. They drank beers together on Saturday nights – Molson Ex in stub bottles only - and showed me my first hockey games just a couple of years after I was born ‘76. I don’t remember those early nights, of course, but eventually it kind of comes together in the early 80’s when Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier caught my attention.
Lonny had red hair and always wore a bright orange Calgary Flames jersey that was a little too tight. My old man wore a red Chicago Blackhawks sweater, and later on a white Washington Capitals. They used to order them from the ads in the back of The Hockey News and it was a big deal to them.
They’d get stinko drunk but never get a drop of anything on those sweaters. When the game was over the jerseys would go back on a hanger in the closet. Sometimes my old man would take out the Blackhawks jersey and just stare at it for a while and put it back, wordlessly. These were the most valuable things in our house, or at least it seemed that way to me. Transmissions would fall out of our cars and lamps would wobble over and smash on the floor, all replaceable. But those sweaters were handled with perfect care, sober or not.
When I was real young my Dad told me he’d once played for the Blackhawks and knew Bobby Hull and Stan Mikita. He was lying but it was a pretty good lie. When I was in Grade 3 my Mom told me he was full of it but my Dad never admitted to anything. He’d just smile when I asked him if it was really true.
“Where do you think I got the sweater? They don’t just give them to anybody. You have to be a player. You shoulda seen me out there. I cut down Marcel Dionne one night with a stick right to the back of his leg. Wap! Down he went. They didn’t mess with me after that.”
So I’d ask, “Did Uncle Lonny play for the Flames too Dad?”
“Are you kidding? He’s a shrimp”.
It was a jumble of confusing lies but I was in awe. Seeing Lonny and my Dad in those bright sweaters every Saturday night held some kind of power for me. It became a ritual – the one bottle of pop allowed during the week (in a glass bottle, kept ice cold) - the bowl of potato chips or caramel popcorn. You died all week at school thinking about Saturday night.
They’d watch the game and explain to me what was going on, things like “Now, Dale Hunter, he’s the scariest guy in hockey. Look at his eyes when he’s playing.” And I’d watch Dale Hunter’s eyes, cold and flat, his mouth a straight line across his square face. And Hunter would inevitably grab a Montreal Canadien and bury him at centre ice, causing an all-out brawl between the Nordiques and the Habs.
One of the games I remember most from that time was the one they now call the “Good Friday Massacre”. It was absolutely insane. April 20th, 1984, second round of the playoffs on CBC and all hell broke loose. A bench clearing brawl ended the 2nd period. Then when they came out for the 3rd, before the refs were even on the ice, another one broke out and they couldn’t stop it. There was blood everywhere, like you’d see on those old Saturday afternoon wrestling shows I’d watch with Abdullah The Butcher and Greg “The Hammer” Valentine. It was sort of scary but you couldn’t look away either.
Lonny would say, “Watch Gretzky. Watch where he passes the puck. Looks like nobody’s there, right? But he knows exactly where Kurri is going every time. “ And Gretzky would cross the blueline, pull up, spin and saucer a puck to open ice just in time for Kurri to arrive and whip it past Mike Vernon. I’d just stare, trying to understand it all.
Lonny would lose his mind every time Calgary lost to Edmonton. But he had this laugh exactly like Barney Rubble from The Flinstones, a kind of “hyu, hyu, hyu” laugh that I can still hear after I’d ask him “When can I play in the NHL?”
We watched it all together in those years, in front of a brand new RCA with the channel dials at our house in Dunrobin, just down the road from the Younghusbands corner store (one of the greatest store names I can even think of) where you could buy The Hockey News in the big broadsheet size. That was truly The Bible Of Hockey before it turned into a grandstand that just whines about everything they hate about the game. Not that they’re alone in that regard, but that magazine helped me love the game growing up and now I can’t even read it anymore without getting depressed. Times have changed.
I sat there and watched Wayne Gretzky lift the Stanley Cup for the first time after beating the Islanders in ’84. I remember that Mark Messier goal against Billy Smith early in the series that changed the tide. I probably got my love of Messier from Lonny always saying “That goddamned Messier!” every time he ran over Joel Otto of the Flames.
There was a hockey tournament that my team played, I can’t remember which town now, but it was a bit of a long drive, so Lonny decided to come along with me and my Dad. They wore the Flames and Blackhawks jersey and acted like two kids on their own for the first time, taking me to the arena canteen and filling me with chuckwagons and ice cream while they drank about 30 coffees out of Styrofoam cups and cheered me on from the stands.
Before our last game of the weekend, this older guy came in our dressing room wearing a Detroit Red Wings team jacket. I can’t remember his name, but he was some kind of NHL scout for the Red Wings and our coach said he wanted to say a few things to us.
This old guy got in the middle of the room with that amazing red leather jacket that had the Wings logo over his heart and proceeded to talk about how he knew Steve Yzerman when Steve was just a young kid from Nepean playing minor hockey. He said all this stuff about working hard and chasing your dreams, but all we could think about was this guy knew Steve Yzerman. This guy, standing in front of us, was once in the same room as Yzerman, NHL star. We were now in the same room as this guy. For some reason, that fact blew all our minds. We went out and trounced the other team and won the tournament. Just a hint of the NHL, just a thread of an association was enough to send us into complete reverie.
Strangely enough, it was Lonny who pointed me in a direction away from hockey on the way home from that trip.
With Lonny riding shotgun, my Dad driving and me in the middle, we stopped in Arnprior to eat and my Dad let me buy a heavy metal magazine like he always did. I was starting to get into music and really liked Kiss and Quiet Riot and all that early 80’s metal that was big at the time. I think the mag was a Hit Parader, but it definitely had Dee Snider from Twisted Sister in all his neon pink and billowing hair glory. Lonny happened to look over and see the cover of this as I started flipping through it in the truck on the way home.
Now Lonny was as nice a man as you can find, and to this day I still keep in touch when I can, even though my Dad died in 2003. But back then was the time of the PMRC – The Parents Musical Resource Centre led by Tipper Gore (Al Gore’s wife), and they were the ones calling for bans on a lot of metal music and ended up ushering in the Explicit Lyrics stickers you still see on CD’s today. Paranoia was rampant that metal was causing kids to commit suicide. Ozzy Osbourne and Judas Priest ended up in trials over it but acquitted because the charges were so ridiculous.
Lonny didn’t like the look of it. He asked my Dad why I was allowed to read that kind of filth. My old man just shrugged. He knew it wasn’t doing me any harm. But Lonny told him to pull over and took the magazine from my hands. He got out of the truck, turned his back on me, threw it on the gravel, unzipped his pants and pissed on it.
Right on Dee Snider’s face.
I can still hear the piss hitting the glossy paper in full stream as me and father sat there silently. Then he got back in the truck and we rolled on home, nobody saying a word about it. But in my head, I was suddenly a complete and utterly devoted convert to heavy metal.
Something that could cause that kind of reaction from a nice guy like Lonny surely deserved my full attention, and from then on, hockey sort of went away until many years later when I rediscovered my love of the game just as Ottawa came back to the NHL in 1992.
Now when I listen to call-in shows or go on Twitter, and I see and hear all that snide anger and smarminess, I can kind of hear my Uncle Lonny pissing on that magazine. I know that’s ridiculous, but it demonstrated an important point to me in my life.
If that many people have a problem with it – including the fights, the hits, the traditions – then it gives me a kind of satisfaction to say I still love all of it, even when it gets ugly from time to time. The more people complain about different aspects of the game, the more I embrace those same aspects. It may be a little out of spite, but it’s also a weight off your shoulders to just accept the game for what it is, not what it could be.
I’ve always wanted to go back to that headspace where you like something without any reservations. Where you believe the myth and buy in completely. I know that’s impossible once you’re older, but staying away from Twitter during games and just watching closely has moved me back enough that I can at least remember what it was like. The feeling will pass in a day or two, but I at least wanted to try and capture it while it lasted. Next week I’ll be ripping the team for something completely unimportant, just like everyone else.
Somehow this all went through my head during the game last night. Maybe it won’t make much sense to you, but I have to thank Lonny all these years later for teaching me how to love the game, and also for pissing on Dee Snider’s face on the side of the road outside Arnprior.
Believe it or not, it all connects for me.