Heavy times in hockey Babylon

Life is good, despite the Leafs

For the last handful of Maple Leafs games, I have found myself away from the hive: driving around the Maritimes doing gigs en route to what the Scotiabank and CBC potentates describe as a signature event in the Hockey Day in Canada proceedings: Stolen From a Hockey Card, a concert I have curated and played in for two years running. This year’s event took place in Charlottetown, PEI, a city that, in the winter, reccommends itself in small measures: some narrow colonial streets, an elegant shoreline, lively publicans, one great record store (Back Alley Music), and an amazing folk club, Marc’s Studio. Of course, there’s Anne of Green Gables this, Anne of Green Gables that, but if Charlottetown—at times, the sleepiest of east coast capitals—proves anything it’s that the Maritimes are the Maritimes no matter what province you’re in. Walk outside and you’ll find a good time hewn in the people, and, after three days, your holiday will be about escape rather than rest from early nights and long mornings.

We arrived on Wednesday for rehearsal in a meeting room in the corridors of Confederation Hall, a provincial theatrical monolith with Orange Crush coloured seats fanning wide to meet an enormous space. Here, we collected six performers, all commissioned to write original hockey songs for the event: the sleepy-faced Rustico balladeer and longstanding Acadian musical heavyweight Lennie Gallant; Sarah Harmer, the small giant with whom I’d played hockey two weeks earlier, at the Lake Ontario Cup on Wolfe Island; Chris Murphy, estranged for the weekend from his boyhood band, Sloan; fellow Morningstar, the Lowest of the Low’s Stephen Stanley; Maritime minor midget MVP runner up (to Sid Crosby) and songwriter Liam Corcoran; Carmen Townsend, the dynamo of Sydney, Cape Breton; and former New York Islander captain, Bryan Trottier, who vowed to play two songs with us before they soon morphed into three: Folsom Prison Blues, I Walk the Line and Truck Drivin’ Man. Halfway into the rehearsal, Lennie Gallant showed us how to play his original composition, When I Get My Name on the Cup, only to have the Hall of Fame’s Phil Pritchard appear with the Cup itself, presented on a cloth table in the middle of the room. We put down our weapons for a moment and posed for photos with the sparkling chalice, standing great and heavy in the once-noisy room.

The show itself was a Canadian pageant. Ron MacLean started it by talking about PEI, his Maritime youth, Don Cherry, and literacy. He ended by calling me “the male version of Margaret Atwood,” adding, “I hope Dave is okay with me saying this.” I told him that it was more than okay before taking the stage to play a song about Rags Ragulin, the late Russian defenceman, whom I met at the Red Army rink in 2004. Rags died a few months after, and I wanted to pay tribute to the most Canadianesque of Soviet players: hard-shouldered, gravely-determined, and thick as cinder. We played as a black and white photo of Rags loomed above the stage on an enormous scrim. Then Wendel Clark walked out and started telling stories about Harold Ballard. This was in advance of Steve Stanley’s song about Dave Keon, and his self-imposed exile from all things Maple Leaf. The song namechecks Gilbert Perrault, who we’d tried to get to Charlottetown. Big Bert said he was a little too shy to try out his Elvis for 1,000 Maritimers. We told him it was alright in hopes that he might join us sometime down the road.

Carmen Townsend sang about the the North Side Rink in Sydney, and its demise, then Lennie Gallant did his Cup song. After intermission, Liam Corcoran sang a beautiful song called “Heroes of the Sidewalk.” Later, at a post-show party, PJ Stock expressed disbelief over the beauty of Liam’s tune, repeating, a few times, as if in mantra, “the name of that song is so profound. It says it all right there.” Some have accused hockey types of being close-minded art-wise, but maybe it’s just a case of not having to hear the same Travis Tritt song over and over on buses and in rinks. Liam, who once tried out for a Junior B team in Collingwood, said that the hardest part of playing high-level amateur hockey was “pretending that I liked new country.” At Stolen From a Hockey Card, the only country music heard was Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, a responsibility that fell to Trottier, who paced nervously before the show. Months before the event, I’d had to talk him into playing after some deep trepidation, and there was no telling how the set would play out.

It didn’t hurt that, moments before his appearance, Chris Murphy sang about local legend and former Maritime NHLer Forbes Kennedy, who was in attendance along with his sons, cousins, nephews and aunts and uncles: a geneological GNP of the small coastal island. Ron MacLean coaxed Forbie out of the crowd, and, after the tune, we stood on stage as the great forward talked about his life with the Bruins, Flyers, Leafs and others at a time–the 50s and 60s–when merely a half-dozen PEI  natives played in the NHL. Forbes has a great wan, thoughtful face, and it was lit like the moon under the low stage lights; watching him shuffle on the spot as he rummaged through his memory was one of the lasting images of the night. On the heels of his walk-on, another image transpired: Sarah Harmer singing a song she’d written that morning about playing hockey outdoors on Wolfe Island and St Peter’s Bay. At the previous week’s tourney, I’d resisted asking her whether she’d already written her song, but it didn’t matter. Such is the nature of her songwriting gift that she could pull together something so exact and beautiful in such short a time.

Then it was time for Trotts, the pride of Val Marie, Saskatchewan. I’d first heard about the centreman and six-time Stanley Cup champion’s musical nature after listening to an epic poem read by Ted Johns during a reading in Bayfield, Ontario arranged by my friend Paul Quarrington (MacLeabn had also mentioned Paul in his opening remarks: more kharma; more magic). I learned, through the poet’s work, that Bryan had been on stage as a child with his family band, and carried with him an infinite knowledge of classic songs. Still, riding shotgun to Mike Bossy and Mario Lemieux is one thing, while standing in front of strangers spilling your guts through song is something else altogether (“I’m one notch below panic,” he told Ron Maclean). Backstage, he ran his pre-song banter by me. It consisted of a few lines, well-told. I told him that he could do whatever he wanted, and when he took the stage in a fine shirt and cowboy boots, he greeted the crowd and told them that he was nervous. An islander shouted from the darkness: “You’ll be fine!” And so he was. We roared train-like through the tunes and he ended the first number by turning towards us and fanning out his arms, Christ-like in the middle of the stage. In Canada, Gods come in crazy forms, although, in the moment, it seemed only partly surreal. Somehow, we all felt that we were exactly where we were supposed to be.

After the show, I met Dick Irvin, who’d introduced Trottier, a lone small silver figure wandering across the footlights of the theatre. He remembered the time we’d met twelve years ago, and I appreciated the thought. I asked if he wanted to join us for our post-show show–a rock and roll set at nearby Baba’s Lounge–but he demurred, wanting to get back at the hotel. When we eventually got to Baba’s—a small upstairs club on University Road—it was swarming with people. We fought our way to the stage and collapsed into four songs, but it wasn’t until our second number that I noticed the wildly-moustached fellow in the Team Canada sweater taking photos of us playing: Lanny MacDonald the old Leaf and Calgary Flame Cup champion. The moment grabbed me: Lanny MacDonald was taking pictures of us. After a few songs, he came up to the stage and shook each of our hands: “It’s great to see people who love to do what they’re doing.” A parade of the Stolen From a Hockey Card musicians followed: Chris sang Roll Over Beethoven, Sarah did Dreams by Fleetwood Mac, and Liam sang Walking on Sunshine. Later in the night, former Tampa Bay enforcer and PEI Rocket coach Gordie Dwyer asked, and was delivered, the accompaniement to the Hip’s New Orleans is Sinking, which he sang using Gordon Downie’s hand and hip twitches, a living Madame Tusseau wax figure. Nearing the end of the song, he shouted “Blow at High Dough! Blow at High Dough!” but we’d exhausted our compliment of covers. The youthful, and remarkably smooth-faced pugilist seemed crestfallen as he left the stage. But fellow knuckle-thrower and retired NHLer Troy Crowder met him with a tall drink and the evening carried on.

Later, I found myself at the back of the club alongside Wendel Clark. It had been a remarkable day and because things had gone so smoothly, I decided to tell him, straight-up, that I was the dude who’d written the song about him, 1986’s The Ballad of Wendel Clark, Parts 1 and 2 (I’d only had short conversations with him before, and this had never come up). He looked at me and said, “Oh, ya, I know. I’ve got that record on my wall at home.” Once upon a time, someone told me that Stompin’ Tom had framed a story I’d written and put it in his basement above his wet bar, and now this. Rock and roll in Canada may not ride the same latitude of success and popularity that it does in other countries, yet it spits out this kind of thing. Cats can talk to kings and hockey is the divining thread in our culture.

The following evening, we went to the Sportsman’s Bar, where we watched the Leafs lose badly 5-0 to Montreal. A perfect weekend it was not. But at least you can count on something in this crazy life.