Still the best game you can name, even on Sunday morning

Players suit up to play the game they love early on a Sunday morning.
Players suit up to play the game they love early on a Sunday morning.
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If you should happen to wander into Jock Harty Arena at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning this semester, you’ll see a group of people—most of them Queen’s students—playing hockey. Sometimes, when the temperature inside and outside the rink is just right, a fog hangs over the ice, lending an almost dream-like quality to the game.

It doesn’t sound remarkable, but the more I show up to play my weekly game in this Sunday morning hockey league, the more astounding and emblematic it seems. This is a small manifestation of Canadian history, one of thousands like it which take place every day across the country.

To get Queen’s students in any significant number out of bed around 7 a.m. on a Sunday is a Herculean task. Sleep is at a premium in university life—Saturday night is traditionally a night of revelry, and Sunday is reserved for piecing one’s body back together for the week ahead.

Each time I walk in at 7:30 a.m., or even 8:30 or 9:30 (the games begin at 8, 9, 10 and 11 respectively), I am amazed to see bleary-eyed and frequently hung-over young men slumped on a bench in a chilly dressing room, struggling to pry their equipment (which is often thoroughly worn out and still wet from the week before) onto their tired and stiff limbs. I’m one of these people every week, hangover and all.

Now, make no mistake, attendance at the earliest games isn’t stellar, but teams always manage to cobble together enough bodies that the show goes on. It gets really interesting when a team boasts only five skaters (and no subs) who skate themselves until they’re sick to their stomachs to maintain the integrity of the game, and perhaps a certain pride. This is a long way from the Windsor Spitfires hazing scandal. This is pure.

It’s a brilliant thing to see what hockey means to Canadians. Why do millions of people crowd around televisions each year on Boxing Day to watch a bunch of kids, none of whom are 20 years old yet, play in the World Junior Hockey Championships? Why do we scream and shout over the accomplishments of toothless farm-boys with mullets? Because it is the culmination of the everyday experiences of so many people.

Twenty-one kids assemble and put the maple leaf on their chests for two weeks, and in doing so they represent every child who has ever done suicide drills in practice because the team took too many penalties in the previous game. They pay homage to every parent who has climbed out of bed at 5 a.m. on their day off to drive their kid to a 6 a.m. practice on the outskirts of nowhere. They remind us of kids on backyard ponds, as cliché as it sounds. And they remind us why we students crawl out of a warm bed to go play a meaningless game in cold Jock Harty each Sunday morning.

The league itself is as bush-league as one would expect. Team names include the Guilty Pleasures, the Golden Girls, the Squished Mitts and the Continental Drifters. Middle-aged men mingle with the University crowd. Also, pre-game preparation or planning of any sort is completely non-existent.

“Oh man, I’m so drunk,” one of my opponents groaned to me when I lined up next to him to start an eight o’clock game. The game was less than ten seconds old the first time he fell, but he ended up playing surprisingly well. In another match, I saw a player hop the boards to get off the ice, vomit in a nearby garbage can, and hop right back on.

I love this. I love that so much of what I have described resonates with so many people. This is a unifying experience, and that’s part of why we keep coming back, be it morning, noon or night, even when our bodies tell us not to.

That, and it’s fun. Hockey Canada has been running ads on television for some time, trying to ease the fanaticism of hockey parents, saying “Relax, it’s just a game.” Within this context, they’re right: hockey is just a game, and the fun shouldn’t be ruined by overbearing parents.

In another sense, however, it’s not just a game. Nobody rolls out of bed at 7 a.m. after four hours of sleep, sporting a raging hangover, to trudge through the snow to a cold arena for “just a game.”

We do it because it’s part of us all. We do it because we can’t let go.

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