Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ufa, then Omsk

Gripe #465: Kenya Airways over-booked my daughter’s flight and made her spend another night in Nairobi. NOW where is she?

Gripe #466: A huge bloated grey squirrel is snatching plums off my tree, skittering along the veggie patch snake fence, up the arbutus, and then in through the attic window above my office.

Gripe #467: Read almost any book on hockey from the last 50 years, and you’ll be told that a) we all grew up wanting to play in the NHL; b) hockey matters because we’re a nation of ice-dwellers in a land of non-stop winter; c) Leafs and Habs matter most.

By 6 a.m. yesterday morning, I sat puffy-eyed on the couch with a pot of Murchie’s Library tea, multigrain (organic) toast heaped with blackberry jam (my berries), two dogs, two cats (zero daughters). Later, I’d mow lawns, harvest basil, hang wet towels on the line, but for a couple of hours while the sun got high, I was in Ufa, Russia with the boys and their Super Series.

Not a moment too soon. Sure: go Mariners! (someone please help Ichiro get underpants that fit). Sure: woo-hoo! to a Federer-Djokovic final (see p. 631 of Sept. Vogue Magazine). Sure: will Dave Dickenson ever get his brain back? But I can’t tell you how relieved, happy and calm I felt settling in to watch hockey yesterday morning. And listen: I didn’t dream of the NHL growing up in Vancouver; in Victoria, primroses bloom in February, Matt Pettinger trains on the beach, and the Courtnalls still hold court; here, we’re not that into Leafs, Habs, or Sens.

There’s little that’s more pleasurable, even at 6 a.m. at the end of summer, than panicking when a Canadian hockey team blows the first ten minutes of a game (or the first game of a tournament), then watching the coaches tinker with systems and combos, and the players adjust their hearts and minds to turn it around.

If yesterday’s kind of win is thanks to the backyard rink, then explain my pride when Milan Lucic was named captain of Team Canada, a boy whose Serbian parents met and married in Vancouver, who after years as a Vancouver Giants punisher will captain the Memorial Cup defenders next year.

Explain wee Kyle Turris, he who deked and kicked and head-faked his way through big-stage pressure to score on that penalty shot, who grew up near the Fraser River in temperate New Westminster, played for the Burnaby Express in the BCHL, Junior A Player of the Year, drafted 3rd overall by Wayne “Backyard” Gretzky.

Hockey doesn’t have to rely on the familiar patterns and standard storylines. It doesn’t belong to men, or easterners, or athletes, or North Americans. The game is big; we can share. Tomorrow morning, Omsk. But Sept. 9, they’ll be home to play in Vancouver.

Friday, August 17, 2007

After Toro

It gave us the world according to Toronto’s penis. It unforgivably Photoshopped Steve Nash’s acne scars. But each year Toro also gave us The Sports Issue. Now that it’s gassed, where to find magazine writers getting paid by the word to think hard and write smart about the cultures of sport?

Newspapers have stars and I admire them—Iain MacIntyre on hockey at the Vancouver Sun for his courage to take a metaphor and bend it like …um…okay, just bend it; Stephen Brunt on boxing at the Globe for knowledge that is wide and deep. But I want glossy paper, many words and a great photo. I want to make a fat mug of milky tea, wedge the good cushion at the small of my back, welcome the two dogs to lie at my feet, and know I’ve got a ways to go before I’m done reading. And I want to feel as much on that couch as I do watching the best minutes of sports (at midnight, Frank Dancevic’s first set versus Rafi’s left bicep).

See Adam Gopnick’s “Last of the Metrozoids” (originally in the New Yorker and collected in Through the Children’s Gate). Try not blubbering at the end. It’s a stunning pastiche of art history, pedagogy, and football that depicts the final year of art historian, Kirk Varnedoe. One minute he’s explaining Stella and Cezanne to SRO crowds in Washington, and the next he’s teaching the ol’ flea flicker to eight-year-old boys on a small field in New York after yet another round of chemotherapy.

Or Bruce Grierson’s profile of squash antihero, Jonathan Power—“Court Jester”—originally in Saturday Night and collected in Brunt’s The Way it Looks from Here.

John McPhee’s in his seventies now and gets to write about anything he wants—plate tectonics and contemporary rail transport, for example. His father was physician to U.S. Olympic teams for more than a decade and for forty years treated college athletes. Some of McPhee’s most wonderful writing is about athletes. The books A Sense of Where You Are—about Bill Bradley as a college basketball player—and Levels of the Game—a deconstruction of one of Arthur Ashe’s early matches—are classics. Read Dave Bidini’s The Best Game You Can Name and certain chapters of Brunt’s Searching for Bobby Orr, and witness the McPhee model celebrated and emulated to perfection.

In the August 6 issue of the New Yorker, McPhee writes about this year’s U.S. Open golf tourney in Oakmont, Pennsylvania and all the great McPhee moves are there. The present-tense description of icons with a weird verb and a suggestive comparison—“Woods stands motionless, feet together, his gaze levelled on the fairway, his posture as perpendicular as military attention.” The bit of personal history expressed in witty restrospect—“…aged twenty-four, clearly, if not for the first time, I envisioned golf as a psychological Sing Sing in which I was an inmate.” And the lovely bits of hand-polished research—“Oakmont greens are not covered with bent grass, as greens are on most Eastern courses. Oakmont uses a Poa annua of its own creation which bears few seeds and therefore results in what golfers describe as a ‘less pebbly’ surface.”

A couple of years ago, I griped to writer Arley McNeney about how hard it is to make sports writing as interesting and artful as a good short story or a perfect pop song. Arley was working on her first novel, Post, and still soured by only a bronze medal at the Athens Olympics playing for Canada’s wheelchair basketball squad. “Somebody wins, somebody loses. That’s sports,” she simplified. “How interesting can it be?” Her novel, of course, is about much more than that: the body and its betrayals; the heart’s great short stories and stupid pop songs; about New Westminster, spirituality, determination; the brain’s connection to a body with a mind of its own.

These elements—and the wisdom, patience and cash to explore them at some length—also make for great sports writing in magazines.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

In which Markus the Swede encounters Juan de Fuca the Greek and concerning Max the dog

When I moved to Metchosin on the southern tip of Vancouver Island fourteen years ago, we—there are five—were called the Western Communities. I like the sound of that: a hint of cowboys and agrarians, of gentler enterprise and neighbourliness. Enter big-box everything, then 1200-acre Westin Bear Mountain golf resort—“a true lifestyle experience”—and now we are called West Shore.

The shore belongs to Juan de Fuca Strait. From where I’m sitting—well, if I stand tall and the wind blows from the south—I can glimpse across the strait to where Raymond Carver wrote “Cathedral” late in life. Turn around and look past the trunk of the balsam that crushed my car in December (demon wind from the west), there’s where Emily Carr set up late in life to escape the city and paint forest. Metchosin is still pretty rural. For weeks I’ve been trying to outsmart a huge and clever white-tailed buck that sleeps on my septic field, rises to dismantle my gate, and clearcuts the romano bean plants. Bats hang in the attic above my office. Rats, mink, owls, turkey vultures.

Cold-cocked: On Hockey is mostly a meditation on the game and a recap of the Big Line seasons of the Vancouver Canucks. By writing it, I wanted to answer the hockey questions, “Why me, why now, why them?” and figure out why many were so drawn to the game again after the Salt Lake Olympics. In part, too, the book is about the difference between Vancouver, where I grew up, and Metchosin where I grow now. While I wanted to know why a man like Todd Bertuzzi could turn so violent and ruin the fun we were having, the book also says this is simply a violent world: from the cougar that killed my sheep, to the wind that wrecked my car, to citizens who deny the dignity of their neighbours. A violent and also beautiful world thanks to its violence.

For one season, I travelled a dozen times to games in Vancouver and weathered the undignified half-hour interview window the NHL allows media after practices and games. A few weeks from now, it was announced yesterday, many of those players will arrive on Vancouver Island’s West Shore, check into their swank suites at Langford’s Bear Mountain resort (thanks to former NHLer and now-CEO land developer/philanthropist, Len Barrie, and a bunch of co-investors including Rob Niedermayer and Ryan Smith), and then shuttle down to Colwood to Bear Mountain arena for training camp.

Cold-cocked is also about my right knee and how its rehabbing—and the muscley renaissance of my sporty self—became symbolic of the reasons I left and came back to hockey. My gym is at the Juan de Fuca Rec centre, a short hike up the hill from Bear Mountain Arena where the team will attempt to re-gel after last season’s surprising successes and chemistry.

I spent so much time and energy and brain cells trying to enter and understand their turf. It seems apt that just as Cold-cocked comes out, the lads will skate on mine.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

O Brothers

Pro basketball has point spread manipulation by a gambling referee. The highest-paid player in the NFL is implicated in a dog-fighting ring that reportedly executed passive pit bulls by hanging, drowning, shooting, slamming, and electrocuting. There’s the Tour de France and whatever those skinny dudes take to get so oxygenated. And the big batters of baseball: who’s born with a neck like that (besides pit bulls)?

Hockey scandal: a couple of naughty redheaded brothers—Eric and Jordan Staal—get busted for noisiness after a bachelor party at a swank resort in Minnesota. We’re not appalled. We feel for the nice parents (turf farmers). Male fans chortle, shake their summer-shaggy heads, and skyhook another t-bone onto the grill. Women just know bachelor parties are stupid, but still: their poor mother.

Brother stories tickle and delight us (maybe not Hamlet/The Lion King). In hockey, brothers make for great characters in a story that can be light on subplot. But real brothers don’t interest me. The Sedin twins are amazing, sure, and I’m glad they play on my team. But they’re more circus act than brother act. It’s shocking when a Henrik slap pass through the crease doesn’t find a millimeter of Daniel’s stick and scoot behind the whiplashed goalie. They lived inside the same person together for almost a year; of course they think alike. And the Staal brothers—all 4 of them—might as well be twins, given their hairdos and chin cleavage. Skill City, but Dullsville.

Players who develop bro-chem and rip it up a deux make for great stories in hockey. With Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis, you get the brotherly hijinx, the circus, and also ironies and incongruities that make a better story: Vinnie’s the long lean slickster, the Swimsuit Edition hunk whom supermodels covet, the first overall. Marty’s the monster-thighed family man, the college boy who did gymnastics, the small forward no team would draft. On different lines, they seem distracted. Put them together on the power play and the dance gets smoother, fancier. Yes, they score plenty at key moments. But it’s more than that: the embrace when they do, the brotherly bliss, a bunk beds and GI Joe camaraderie that’s unexpected and familiar.

Joe Thornton and Jonathan Cheechoo, same thing. Consider the NHL’s last TV ad campaign: Ontario Joe, the GQ-handsome needle-voiced city boy, burns toast in his little kitchen; Moose Factory’s black-eyed and smirking Jonathan paddles a surfboard on calm open water, a sexy nature boy in the great outdoors. They’re such different characters, and yet their rapport—their mutual ribbing off-ice and their Thornton-to-Cheechoo-shoot-score on it—could only be described as fraternal. The goals are the product of brotherly love and Sedinian prescience. How can that be?

It still hurts to remember the glory days of Bert and Nazzie. The dark-haired naughty outlaw Todd and the golden-haired Nordic god Markus: best friends, brilliant line mates, excitement personified on the ice and adolescent glee off it. And more compelling because these brothers were undone by a loyalty so scandalous and Shakespearean it could only happen to brothers.