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Hockey

by Andy J. Semotiuk
He's got the puck, he's over the blue line, he's got a break away, he shoots he scores! It's the excitement of the Stanley Cup playoffs on T.V. But I'm not talking about hockey today - I'm talking about hockey back in the Golden Years of the National Hockey League - the N.H.L. in the 1960s. Back then there were only six teams: the Montreal Canadians, the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Chicago Blackhawks, the Detroit Red Wings, the Boston Bruins, and the New York Rangers. I loved watching hockey then and idolized players like Bernie "Boom Boom" Gefreon, a left winger for the Montreal Canadians, Johnny Bower the goalie for the Toronto Maple Leafs and Gordie Howe, center for the Detroit Red Wings. And I remember how much I detested the "bad guys" back then, players like Stan Makita of the Chicago Black Hawks and Eddie Shack of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

You know, sometimes it's a valuable to reflect on memories like these. Not only do they bring back some of the thrills from those days, but if you reflect on such memories, they can point you in the direction of where you can find joy in your life even today. So I hope by sharing a few these memories, about the exciting times I enjoyed in my childhood related to the great game of hockey, that I might spark a few memories from your childhood. Maybe you didn't like hockey, maybe you enjoyed baseball or basketball or some other activity. That's not important. What is important are the memories from your childhood that this reflection might stir up from your past.

The play-by-play description of hockey games on television by Danny Gallivan from the Montreal Forum made hockey something special for us in the old days. The Stanley Cup playoffs, especially between the Montreal Canadians and the Toronto Maple Leafs, were indescribably exciting for every kid that tuned in on television in my town. But beside televising the games, they also had other ways to bring the excitement and joy of hockey down to our level as kids.

One way was through packages of bubble gum with hockey player cards. For 10¢ you could buy a package that included a slab of gum and two or three cards with color pictures of N.H.L. hockey players in their uniforms. I remember that slab of bubble gum, it was a light pink color and had a white powdery texture to it. It was so sweet and pliable. I remember the vivid colors of the players uniforms - the deep red of the Montreal Canadians, the dark blue of the Toronto Maple Leafs. You could trade your cards with friends at school and tried to get your favorite players. I remember smelling some of those cards long after they were traded with friends and finding that they still smelled of the bubble gum from the package they came from.

The other way they brought hockey home to us kids was through hockey board games that we played on the kitchen table. I remember when I got my game, pulling it out of the box and seeing that white colored board and the tin players - the Montreal Canadians and the Toronto to Maple Leafs. By moving knobs on the side of the game you could turn the players around on the ice and score goals. Or you could manipulate your goalie to block shots from your opponent. We spent hours playing those games pretending that we were actually in the Stanley cup playoffs.

But we also wanted to play hockey. So after school, all the kids in the neighborhood would come out onto the road with hockey sticks play hockey with a puck or a tennis ball until we had to go home. Occasionally, when a car wanted to pass, we would move our goal posts so the car could go by. Then we would restore them to where they were so we could go right on playing.

My friend John Di Toppa and I decided that we would practice together and become better at the game. Every night after school I would go over to John's house and we would play. John would shoot a wooden puck at me while I played goal. We spent hours playing together in this way.

Then later, John told me that he was getting a pair of skates and said I should get some as well so we could learn how to play hockey on the ice. So I did. Then, that night, we went over to the Inglewood school yard where there was an outdoor hockey skating rink. It was still early in the winter and the ice had not yet completely formed. But the arena caretaker did water the ice that night and then left for home. So in the reflection of street lights we learned how to skate and play hockey on the ice.

Then one day at school they announced they were forming a hockey team and that anyone who was interested should come out for tryouts. I remember being out on the ice and looking around at the other players the first night of try outs. I wasn't a very good skater. But that didn't matter because I wanted to play goalie and there was only one other kid competing against me.

After a few practices the coach called all the boys together at center ice and announced the names of the players who made the team. Don Bogash first string center, Norm Unger left wing, Chris Pappas right wing and so on. After a few minutes he finally came to goalie - "Goalie...Andy Semotiuk". Andy Semotiuk goalie - I couldn't believe it! I made the team! Then they distributed our uniforms - a light gray color with red and white trim. And then every member of the team got a brand new hockey stick!

I remember going into the change rooms, just before a game. I recall the pungent smell the clanging noise of the furnace warming up the room. I remember the coach calling me over, laying the goalie pads in front of me and telling me to lie down on top of them. Then he would begin strapping the pads around my legs. That signaled a serious moment for all of us because it meant we were about to play our first game.

I remember the excitement of playing the game, the joy of making the team, the exhilaration when our team scored a goal, the thrill of earning a shut out, the fear of facing a player on a break away skating towards me and the humiliation of a puck trickling through my legs into the net. These were magic moments - good and not so good - indelibly engraved in my memory.

In the years that followed I played Bantam and ultimately tried out for Pee Wee hockey. At the Pee Wee level when I was on a break away going down the left wing one night I was slammed into the boards by a defenceman. I remember seeing stars in my eyes and that is when I decided that it was time to hang up my skates. But my interest for hockey continued.

My attention turned to the Edmonton Oil Kings, a Junior A team that played every Sunday afternoon at the old Edmonton gardens. I remember all most every Sunday after church I would take the bus to go to the hockey game. They had rush seats back then for kids who would paid a reduced rate and were allowed to rush in at the last moment once all the other fans were already seated to watch the game from any seat they could find. I remember eating my Pep Chew chocolate bar, a chewy mint flavored chocolate bar you can't even find any more. They were so delicious and took about a half hour to eat. I remember the beautiful sleek white colored ice left behind by the Zamboni when it cleaned between periods, the vivid colors of the uniforms of the players, the crack of a slap shot and the boom of the puck against the boards, the roar of the crowd when we scored a goal, and my signaling to the Edmonton Oil King players as they skated by thinking that by signaling to them they would play better.

Then after the game we would all stream out of the Edmonton Garden's headed for the busses waiting for us to go home for supper. There would always be about 50 kids on the number five bus headed downtown with me. On 95th street and 111th avenue, I would transfer to the number three bus. There was always a whole flock of other kids transferring with me. As we stood there waiting right across the street we saw a big sing - "Chicken on the Way". You could smell that chicken all the way across the road. None of us have enough money to buy some. Yet in every crowd, there were always a few adults who would cross the street buy some chicken and french fries and then walk back over to stand with us while they ate their meals. Now if you have ever smelled freshly fired chicken and French fries with salt and vinegar, you'll know how much we dreamed of sharing those meals with those guys. Finally the boss would arrive and take us home.

Then later, the Edmonton Flyers and the Western Hockey League came to Edmonton - and you probably know the story after that. The N.H.L. expanded, the Edmonton Oilers came to town then came Wayne Gretzky and the Oilers Stanley Cup dynasty. Finally, there was that day of infamy…August 9th, 1988 when the owner of the Edmonton Oilers announced he was trading Wayne Gretzky, a Canadian national treasure, to the Los Angeles Kings. I know that every hockey fan will rememeber hearing that announcement and what they were doing on that day.

Today, when I turn on the TV and hear the announcer say he shoots he scores, somehow it just doesn't mean the same to me anymore. The memories I have from back then are so much more important to me as time goes on. They are memories that I know must be similar to memories that you've had as a child. They are precious memories - ones that are worth reflecting on because they bring great joy to our lives.
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