“I asked God to send me, right away, a hundred million moths that would eat up my Toronto Maple Leafs sweater.” – Roch Carrier, The Hockey Sweater
On her very first day of kindergarten, my eldest sister boarded the school bus and waved to my parents who stood curbside. The doors closed but the bus didn’t move. The doors re-opened. My sister came running out crying into my father’s arms. When he asked her what happened, she said, “He called me Paki.” My father drove her to school that day.
My eldest sister is eight years older than me. By the time I was old enough to hear that story, it made my parents laugh. Everything was changing right before their eyes. My mother worked soft labour jobs at local packing plants in and around Mississauga, Ontario. She recalls in the 1980s, having to eat after lunchtime because the smell of curry bothered the other workers. A decade later, people welcomed her strange smelling cuisine, learning to pronounce saag paneer and aloo gobi. When my eldest sister went to Streetsville High School, you could count the number of brown people on one hand. By the time I had enrolled, the Browns and Asians had quietly formed a majority. The school cafeteria remained segregated by race, remnants of my sister’s generation. But it was a non-event when someone crossed these preordained boundaries.
In my ninth-grade history class, a girl sitting at the very front put her hand up and asked our history teacher, “Is calling someone from Pakistan a ‘Paki’ the same thing as calling someone Jewish a ‘Jew?’” Mr. James went red. He looked down at the lesson plan on his desk, shaking his head the entire time as if that would make the question go away. Then, he carefully shifted his eyes toward the girl and mumbled a quiet, “No.”
In retrospect, Mr. James should have embraced the question. The girl was Jewish and was genuinely asking. She was just a kid and needed a place to learn about this stuff. My sister learned the hard way. Her fear of racism came early and shaped her friends and experiences. I, on the other hand, had always felt free growing up. It wasn’t until I started playing ice hockey at the local arena that I realized I hadn’t been properly schooled in this topic.
The reason I wanted to play ice hockey is easy to recall but impossible to justify. Nobody else in my family cared about hockey. Culturally, brown parents didn’t slap a pair of skates on their offspring on the drive home from the hospital back then. I could skate a little and played road hockey religiously. I was the best player on my street. I memorized hockey card stats and taped hockey highlights that made my spine tingle. In our basement, I practiced breakaway moves on an imaginary goalie that defended an abandoned mattress leaning against pink insulated walls. This goalie was sharp. He often knew my first and second moves, forcing me to react with deft stick handling.
My father denied my pleas to play ice hockey for years. Unless you were going to be a pro, spending that much money on a hobby didn’t make sense to him. “Play on the streets,” he would say. I was persistent.
When my father finally gave this gift to me, I had failed to anticipate that my journey to playing organized hockey would take a discount detour. Foregone were the power-skating lessons that taught kids to maneuver the way hockey players do. My equipment was purchased at a used equipment sale at the local arena, which, for one weekend every year, made the whole rink smell like a hockey bag. That’s where I got Gordie Howe’s elbow pads, Bobby Orr’s gloves and Stan Makita’s helmet. If the colour of my skin didn’t stick out in the change room, my ragtag equipment would.
I started in the Peewee division as a twelve-year-old. In that first year, the coach devoted a lot of time to me, reinforcing the basics. Keep your stick on the ice. Two hands on the stick. Hustle back on defense. He also made sure the other boys didn’t pick on me. Hey! Watch your mouth. The coach’s voice soothed my nerves. His teachings made me a legitimate part of that team. I played on a line with the coach’s son, who was one of our best players. My job was to be the immovable object in front of the opposing goalie. I got the goals that others referred to as “garbage” or “cheap.” They all count the same, son.
We won the championship that year. It certainly didn’t unfold the way I had expected, but I got everything that I could have hoped for. As mom and dad took pictures of us eating pizza and holding up our trophies, I resented my father for not giving this to me earlier.
I improved steadily in the years that followed, but I was resigned to my role as the immovable object in front of the opposing team’s net. A premature growth spurt gave me lanky leverage that the other kids could only poke at. But I didn’t mind. It helped me, a mediocre hockey player, to know what my job was. Also, my role let me score goals. Win or lose, it’s really fun to score goals.
After that first championship year, none of the teams I had played on did particularly well, but I had fun anyway. We all did. Why would kids sign up for Streetsville’s bottom rung hockey league if not for the simple fun of playing hockey with friends?
The answer to that question became less obvious in my very first year in the Midget division. I began to appreciate that my father might have been trying to protect me from something all those years in his reluctance to sign me up for hockey. Midget was the all-encompassing category where skinny fifteen-year-olds like me played with fuller-bodied seventeen-year-olds. To complicate matters more, the league also accepted over-aged players with nowhere else to play. It was a shock to see pierced faces, tattooed chests and unlit cigarettes dangling from the mouths of these young adults as they made their way into the locker room for the first game of the season.
The coach took attendance as he paced back and forth with a clipboard. He handed me a baby blue jersey with navy trim. It had nothing written on the front and a number two printed on the back. Jason, our goalie, entered the room at that moment and paused to look at me. He was a pudgy older kid with a shaved head, Doc Martin boots and a bomber jacket. I made room on the bench, but he sat across from me. The coach handed him a jersey.
“We don’t have a sponsor?” Jason complained, as if the words Tim Horton’s printed on the front would have improved the situation. As Jason put on his equipment, he took out his ghetto blaster and played tunes to drown out the silence of the room. With Eye of the Tiger blaring from the speakers, Jason closed his eyes and rolled his head around in circles, as if channeling the spirit of Rocky Balboa himself. The other kids around the locker room stared at their own skates.
It was at that moment that Rich and Jeff entered. Their bloodshot eyes sized up the room.
“Thanks for joining us,” said the coach, looking at his watch. “You’ve got two minutes,” he said, leaving the room.
“I got your numbers,” said Jason, tossing Jeff jersey number nine and Rich number four. Jeff threw his bag down by my feet and motioned for me to move over, which I did immediately. I tried not to look up, but he was staring at me. His head was shaved from the sides and a long strip of black hair ran slick from his forehead all the way down past the small of his neck. His face was flat and his nose knew what a fist felt like.
Rich, a soft-spoken redhead with freckles and dimples, held up his jersey number and asked Jason what had happened to number two. My hands were sweating inside my hockey gloves. Jason answered that he didn’t know and glanced at me.
“I have number two,” I said to Rich, trying to look past Jeff, whose left arm sported a Yin-Yang tattoo that was clearly the handiwork of the lone artist in town. “Do you want it?” I offered feebly.
“You think I give a shit what number I wear?” boomed Rich.
The room was completely silent until Jeff snorted out a laugh. Jason laughed too. The other kids still weren’t looking up. It was at that moment that the coach came in and told us to hit the ice!
Ten minutes into the game, I could hear nothing above my panting. Never underestimate how much endurance is required to get through an entire hockey game. It didn’t help that we had a slim roster from all the no-shows and the fact that two of our players were still getting dressed. A speedy kid on the other team was skating circles around us, scoring goals in every imaginable way.
He streaked down the wing and wired a shot to the far low side. He stole the puck from me and hid behind our net. When I went after him he magically appeared in front, alone and unobstructed, easily scoring on Jason, who was swearing at us relentlessly by this point. We weren’t giving him any support, but the game changed once Rich and Jeff made their way onto the ice.
Jeff was a natural. When he felt like it, he would take control of the puck, weave through the other team and fire off a vicious-yet-graceful slap shot directly at the opposing goalie’s head. The word on the bench was that Jeff had been kicked off the Iroquois, an elite local rep team, for missing too many practices.
Rich was quiet during his first couple of shifts. He played defense and stayed out of the way early on. The speedy kid on the other team came streaking down the boards and appeared to have a leg up on Rich, who looked rusty turning his body to skate backwards. But speed was irrelevant when Rich directed all of his momentum towards the kid, annihilating him with a board-rattling hip check. Unfortunately for us, body checking was prohibited in house league hockey. Rich went to the penalty box where he flicked snow from his skates at some girls behind the glass. The girls’ hysterical laughter echoed in the empty arena.
Jeff scored our lone goal in the loss. After several shots at the other goalie’s head, he put one on a line at the goalie’s feet. The goalie, for fear of losing his head, completely froze and watched it go right by his foot and into the net. Jeff laughed to himself. I said, “nice goal,” from a distance. He just stared at me, puzzled.
Jason, Jeff and Rich all skipped the team’s first practice. The coach made us do laps, suicides and two-on-one drills with on empty net. We went through the motions, but we knew that executing a game plan would be impossible without our three most talented and volatile players.
I made several excuses to get out of playing the second game of the season. I told my father multiple times that I couldn’t play without a new stick, but he told me to just tape up the old one. Feeling sorry for me, we went to Canadian Tire and he bought me a bundle of sticks from the discount bin. They had the word Dynamo written on them, were branded with Russian letters and were painted bright safety orange. Now I dreaded playing and I was wasting my father’s money. I didn’t really need a new stick – especially a florescent Russian one.
I wish I could have told him the truth: I didn’t want to play anymore. It wasn’t fun being around these kids. They made me anxious and fearful. The coach was the only one who spoke to me. Our uniforms were supposed to connect us to each other. But each time I wore that plain blue jersey, I felt naked out there.
How could I explain to my father that the atmosphere was entirely different in Midget? With the fifteen-year-olds, it was your basic high school protocol in the hockey change room. Have your parents drop you off and leave immediately; form a clique; don’t try too hard. Throwing the sixteen and seventeen year olds into the mix complicated things further. They lounged in their beat-up cars before and after the game, listening to rock music with smoke seeping through their cracked windows. They invited girls to the games, girls that knew me from school. All else being equal, these boys would have emerged as the leaders in the dressing room and on the ice.
But things weren’t equal. On our team, three fully-grown men, Jason, Jeff and Rich, changed everything. They smoked cigarettes only when they weren’t smoking other things. They reminisced about their history in Juvenile Hall. Their girlfriends brought them beer to drink after the games. Our coach never told them what to do. They enjoyed absolute freedom from the team, the coach, the rules of the game, their parents – basically every source of authority that I knew of.
It was an impressionable age group in that change room. Whether they knew it or not, Jason, Jeff and Rich were responsible for setting the tone for our team. The fact that they played with disregard for the score rubbed off on the others quickly. The way they mockingly repeated the coach’s encouragements took the steam out of Go get ‘em. The other boys became more concerned with impressing their girlfriends in the stands than playing as a team. Increasingly, I worried about embarrassing myself in front of their girlfriends.
But admitting all of that to my father would have led to a long and angry “I told you so,” lecture. He would have pointed out that it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that brown people didn’t belong on the ice. Besides, we had passed the point where we could have gotten a refund, which was the true deciding factor in determining whether or not I would complete the remainder of the season. There was no such thing as sunk costs in our family. If you paid for it, you were going to have fun whether you liked it or not. My bed was made.
My stomach churned during the warm-up skate of our second game. Ryan, a senior from my high school playing on the opposing team, had recognized me. At school, this big-eared, ginger shrimp was known to act horribly toward a lot of helpless kids. On game day he stood at centre ice and watched our team warm up before the puck dropped. As I skated by he said, “Look at this one.” I pretended not to hear. I knew exactly how my sister had felt all those years ago at her very first day of school.
Once the puck dropped, I stuck to what I knew. I skated as hard as I could, and mostly just put myself in front of the opposing goalie to screen his vision and pounce on any loose rebounds that might come my way. Even though most of the kids outweighed me, they still couldn’t move me. I kept my stick on the ice knowing that if the puck was remotely close to me, I was going to score. That fleeting moment of happiness that follows a goal was all I had now. Nothing else about the game made sense to me.
Ryan took it upon himself to shadow me wherever I went, a completely unnecessary tactic. He whispered rhetorical questions in my ear, asking me if I belonged here. He eventually got louder and started chanting “Punjabi-Punjabi-Punjabi.” When I stood my ground in front of the net, he tried to move me from my spot using jabs and slashes with his stick. I could hear my coach yelling for a penalty across the ice, but no call. It wasn’t really a penalty, but everyone in the arena understood what was going on. After that long shift I returned to my bench, gasping. Ryan skated by our bench and said to me, “Aw…tired already? You were really on a roll there!” I stood at the end of the bench and glanced at our coach. I was embarrassed that my problem had just become his. The coach didn’t look at me. He did the right thing. He couldn’t say anything to make the situation better. It was best for everyone involved to just pretend like nothing was going on.
By the third period we were losing by a couple of goals. Ryan’s team had shot the puck down the length of the ice and I went back to chase it. The whistle blew for an icing call. It was quiet. Then, I heard powerful strides approaching me from behind. I turned around and it was Ryan bearing down on me. My back was against the boards. I closed my eyes and braced myself for the hit. I thanked God my father wasn’t watching.
He didn’t hit me. He sprayed me with snow, laughing like a hyena. Jason, our goalie, swore at Ryan, calling him a loser. They swore at each other for a moment but the refs settled them down. As I took off my helmet and mask to wipe the snow from my face, I heard a huge crash against the boards. It was Jeff. He checked Ryan so hard that Ryan flew into the boards, his arms and legs flailing like the rag doll that he was. Jeff voluntarily made his way to the penalty box. Now Jason was laughing.
On the next play, Ryan lined up against me on the wing. He was embarrassed, angry, and anxious for the puck to drop. My instinct was to run. But before the puck could drop, Rich pulled me back to play defense and switched places with me, lining up against Ryan. The ref dropped the puck. What happened next was rare in house league hockey.
Rich and Ryan said something to each other and dropped their sticks. They began to punch each other’s fully protected facemasks with their hockey gloves. The pretty girls behind the box were screaming with jubilation. Jeff was banging the boards from the penalty box. Rich took off his gloves and began to grapple with Ryan, jerking him around and throwing him down to the ice. The ref kicked Rich and Ryan out of the game. The girls behind the penalty box left too.
By season’s end, nobody laid a hand on me. If anyone slashed me, poked me, tripped me, bumped me, or looked at me the wrong way, Rich, Jason or Jeff went after him. Their form of retaliation was subtle. Unsuspecting body checks, errant slap shots, crosschecks from our goalie, or perhaps just a good ole stare down. We didn’t win a single game that year. At the same time, I had never scored so many goals in my life. When I looked at the nothingness on the front of my hockey sweater, it occurred to me that maybe we did stand for something.
Before games, Jason blasted grunge tunes in the parking lot and once my father had driven away he would offer me a cigarette, mostly just to see me struggle to smoke it. During practices, Jeff taught me how to lean into my slap shot for more power. Rich made fun of my Russian hockey sticks, which broke frequently when I tried to lean into my slap shots. “They’re on sale for a reason,” he would say.
We never openly talked about what happened that year. I know that I was an excuse for these three young men to do things they were no longer allowed to. My existence made their actions just and noble. Despite their violence, nobody addressed them beyond putting them in the penalty box. It would seem that the cruelty of youth persists, but the target of that cruelty is subject to cultural change. But whether it was for my benefit or at my expense, it remained the type of thing you kept to yourself.
There’s a shoebox in my parent’s basement where I keep two jerseys. One is from the very first year I played hockey, where I learned about perseverance, teamwork and winning. The second jersey is from this, my final year in hockey, when team nothing saved me from my own skin.