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A Little Street Hockey
By Tim Cooper

The kitchen window of my Winnipeg home faced the street. At night, when the light was on and the curtains were open, the whole kitchen was visible to the outside. As I washed the evening dishes I saw my friends playing street hockey, the oppressive darkness of the winter sky held at bay by the soft fluorescent glow of the lone streetlight. Joey, Mze, Ravi, Petr and Jimmy were running around the snow-packed street, bundled in parkas and toques waving their hockey sticks and chasing a small green tennis ball. It was time for our weekly street hockey game and I was already late.

"Mom! I'm going outside!" There was no answer. She was downstairs in the basement doing the laundry. The hum of the washer and dryer drowned out my voice. I dried my hands with a tea towel and ran to the back door.

"Where are you going?" came my dad's booming voice from the hall around the corner. He heard my call and came to survey the situation. He was carrying the Winnipeg Free Press. The headline read, "Bush Warns of Desert Storm Risks". Dad was born in Iran, raised in the Sunni Muslim tradition and forced to flee during the revolution. He still wore his beard in the traditional way, loosely maintained the religious beliefs he was born into and followed the politics of the Middle East with great interest.
"I'll just be out front. The guys've already started." I was anxious to join them. I felt my dad gain some personal amusement from keeping me from my fun.

"Well, don't be late. Is your homework done? How about the dishes? Does your mother know you're going out? Did you remember your toque?" I thought the staccato pace of the questions would never stop.

"Yes." I wasn't sure which question I was answering. By this point my coat was on and I was lacing up my boots. My hockey stick leaned against the wall by the back door, its resting place for the winter. Sometimes I imagined that it was there to hold the entire house up. The truth was, I didn't know when a game would spontaneously break out so I was prepared. The blade and the butt-end of the stick were carefully taped, the way the pros did it, so I didn't have to remove my glove if I dropped it and had to pick it out of the snow.

After one the Jets games my dad waited by the players' locker room and had my stick signed by Doug Smail. He was our favourite player. Together we watched many games on TV and at the Winnipeg Arena, always cheering for speedy number nine.

Sufficiently bundled, I grabbed my stick and prepared to run outside. The door refused to close due to the inside pressure of our airtight house and it agonizingly meant I had to stop and ensure the inner door was latched before I could run down the sidewalk to the street. The snow crunched under my boots. Steam rose with each puff of heavy breath.

My friends and I were always on guard against the cold. We often found ourselves with small patches of white on our cheeks, ears and noses after our weekly battles. That was a sacrifice we were willing to make. Besides, after several hours the sting went away.

I saw that Mze had unzipped his parka to proudly reveal his Winnipeg Jets jersey. He was playing on a team that was a man short. I hopped over a two-foot snow bank that was formed on either side of the street by the massive snowploughs and built the walls of a small canyon that was our street hockey arena.
Mze was playing on a team with Petr. The other team had the man advantage and was beating them badly. As I jumped over the snow bank onto the street Petr cried out, "We've got Vany! Vany's on our team!"

An out of breath Mze followed, "It's about time. We're killing ourselves." I immediately took my place in goal. I always played goal. There was no other position in all of sport that thrilled me like goalie. I fantasized about crouching in net during the final game of the Stanley Cup. Time is running down as the opposing team gathers the puck and sends someone on a breakaway. The opposing player skates through centre ice, gathering speed across the blue line. His un-tucked jersey flaps in his wake. I move to the top of the crease and slowly drift backward in preparation for his next move. My eyes are fixed on the puck he's trying to hide with his stick. He shifts his weight on his skates and shoots...!

My fantasy ends with a variety of breathtaking saves, but always with the Cup in my team's hands. I love the solitude, the loneliness of the image. In the seconds it takes to play out, the whole world fades into a small patch of ice that envelops the two skaters. The black rubber disk is the only thing that matters. The noise of the screaming fans disappears. The lights of the arena fade and only a single light shines down. Every North End kid in Winnipeg had his own fantasy. For some it was about scoring the winning goal. For others it was making the big defensive stop.

A bullet-like shot brought me back to reality. A tennis ball hurts when it's frozen. The rebound skipped back in front of the net to Joey. Petr swatted at the ball but Joey had already knocked it back toward the goal. I waved at the shot with my glove hand as it knuckled over my shoulder.

"Too high! It was too high!" I called out while turning and watching the ball roll down the street. Joey grumbled. It was difficult to tell whether or not a shot was too high because our goals were crudely made of small blocks of snow marking the width of the imaginary net. Occasionally a hard shot hit the post and it would disintegrate in a cloud of white powder.
Petr ran behind the goal into the darkness to retrieve the ball. If we weren't careful we could lose the ball in the snow. That had ended many of our games. As Petr searched, the rest of us took a break.

The ball was the ultimate prize. Each week it was given to the MVP of our game. Sometimes we fought harder over the small green globe after the game as we had played during it.
Petr brought the ball back into play and ran down the right snow bank. Jimmy ran clear across the street and ploughed him over the two-foot mound. They both disappeared in the soft snow on the other side. Jimmy and Petr loved to rough it up with each other. Every game included several mock fights between the two. They dropped their gloves and grabbed at each other's parkas trying to pull them over the other's head.

Petr pinned Jimmy down and started burying him with snow. Joey leaped to his teammate's rescue with Mze close behind. Ravi and I watched them wrestle as they drenched themselves in half melted snow. Joey dumped snow down Mze's back as Jimmy and Petr gave each other a facewash. Ravi and I laughed at the war unfolding in front of us. They all came up covered in snow and laughing until the cold night air tickled their throats and they coughed. A few minutes later, the four lay exhausted in the snow. The deep breaths they took rose like smoke over their heads.

That was our routine. For a few hours each week nothing else in the world existed outside the glow of a single streetlight. We were the stars of our universe. Six friends talked and sometimes fought, but always played the game. It wasn't just a love of hockey driving us each week, it was the treasure of time wrapped in the blanket of a cold winter night.

Tim Cooper drops the gloves only when provoked.





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