Sometimes when it's quiet the sounds from the outdoor rink over by the Catholic school carry across the snow after dark and tap on the window outside my bedroom.
This is especially so later in the evenings around Christmas when the white noise of the city softens and the temperature falls. Then, the smack of sticks on ice and the ricochet of frozen rubber discs zipping off the boards rattle around my brain like flash card memories of high school girlfriends that—unsolicited and about which we may not speak—refuse to disappear from the subconscious.
Sometimes, when he visits, my son still brings his skates and goes to the rink to take a few turns on the ice and that makes me happy. I don't skate anymore, but I remember being there when he was a little goalie wanting me to take shots on him. And of how I fought when it was -30C to flood the first rink I built in the backyard for my daughter to skate on and, later, the one in the front that lasted longer because I was better at it, it was in the shade and it was protected from the wind. I even remember putting my skates on for the first time upon arrival in Calgary and skating on an outdoor rink just like the one that taps on my window. It's not the moment, so much as the feeling of going round and round, shooting a puck off the boards by myself and reveling in a real Canadian winter that still lingers.
I like hockey for all that. It has been a single constant in a world of bewildering sociological, demographic, cultural, and technological change. Hockey is the way we are. And it's the way we were.
In that spirit, much sack cloth was torn this week after Canada's once dominant junior team went four straight years without winning a championship it once claimed routinely. I care about that but not really because followers of demographic trends will have noted that Canada's birth rate following 1988 plunged throughout the 1990s to average something like 1.49 children per woman before rebounding the past decade to something more like 1.8 (replacement level is 2.1). So, it's not the players we've got that are the issue: it's the ones we never had and therefore "don't got."
As for the NHL players and owners, the entire structure is now just a memory, too. Its greed and, most of all, pretentious self-definition as keeper of a game ultimately beyond its imagination has troubled me for years. To take the innocent joy one sees in the faces of children and defile it on a grail of unrepentant avarice . . . well, it's no longer something with which I wish to associate my loyalties. Lord Stanley deserved better.
There are other threats to the game to which people have pointed: things like rising costs, less ice time in an increasingly dense, urban Canada, a dependence on immigration from non-hockey playing cultures to sustain a domestic population that has lost its enthusiasm for its own reproduction.
It's easy to focus on the negatives. Easy to wonder about the story of the outdoor rink a man built for his community in northeast Calgary that no one skates on or to rage against Okotoks town council for passing a bylaw against skating on local ponds that darned near freeze to the ground; easier still to confuse the joys of winning with those of playing.
But I won't. I'll just try to fall asleep again tonight in the belief that the game that taps on my window these dark, cold nights is bigger than all that and, like those high school girls, just won't go away.