The Best Game on the Page
The writer's life is romantically portrayed as a quiet, solitary existence. One must deliberate over every phrase, dedicate long hours to the muse and spend years perfecting the craft. Unhealthy, sedentary lifestyles are not uncommon and the pay is notoriously nominal. Occupational hazards may include loneliness, depression, alcoholism and/or insanity.
But this is Canada where winters are long and many children — even kids with literary bents — grow up playing hockey. Maybe they eschew the sport to focus on the arts in their teenage years, but here in Toronto we have a league where artists are rediscovering their inner hockey meatheads as adults: The Good Times Hockey League of the Arts.
The GTHLA is part of The Hockey Association of the Arts, an international organization of hockey clubs with a common interest in the arts and community involvement. Self-described as, "a forum for participating in hockey and sharing ideas and creativity upon which its members can collaborate in order to strengthen community and initiate positive social change," the league was founded on "the ideals of sportsmanship, fun, safety, collaboration, imagination, creative expression, community, social awareness, inclusion, diversity, equity, communication, responsibility, empathy, participation, being proactive and trust."
Athletics, art and activism! Let's pause for a minute to read the mandate again because it’s brilliant.
You might have heard of the affiliated Exclaim! Cup tournament, or seen footage of hockey-playing musicians taking on teams of NHL old-timers. Clubs are encouraged to host arts events that open up the league to the rest of the community and often raise money for charities. The league is best known for its musicians, but filmmakers, comedians, visual artists and writers play, too.
Writers seem underrepresented within the different artist groups of the GTHLA: out of approximately 575 players, I located one poet/novelist, one short story/non-fiction author, one graphic novelist and a few dozen journalists, freelancers, business and script writers. Many of these players write about music: Chart Magazine sponsors a team and many players are associated with Exclaim! In my writing communities outside of the league, I only know a few writers who play (although there are some serious Leaf fans who obsess over the game like it’s grammar).
This is the kind of question that might be asked over a few drinks after a game, but is the gap between the slow, solitary pursuit of writing and the collaborative, fast-paced nature of hockey too wide for most writers? In the spirit of the GTHLA (and Open Book: Toronto), I'll pass the puck to some of its writers to see how they reconcile the two.
Screaming Unyons winger and poet/novelist Jennifer LoveGrove says, "Playing hockey as a team is a break from being trapped in your own mind; it can be rejuvenating to leave the realm of the cerebral and focus on something primarily physical and group-oriented for a change. I need both to function properly."
Jennifer (quick stats...shoots: right, writes: right) says that even though hockey and writing seem different, there are many similarities. Though hockey is a team sport, she recognizes that a large part of it is about "developing individual skills" like skating, passing and shooting. She writes, "I might spend Tuesday focused on fixing the structural bones of my novel, and Wednesday night on the ice concentrating on covering the opposing defense player in our zone."
Jennifer LoveGrove. Photo by Sharon Harris
She notes that even though most writers work alone, their work "occurs within a community that ideally supports and encourages its members," just like a hockey club. She even writes with a writer friend, where they write "independently but in the same room together, to encourage each other."
I postulated that due to their familiarity with working alone, writers might choose to play goal. Exclaim! Magazine Editor In Chief and Parkdale Lads netminder James Keast quotes a lyric by fellow teammate Mike Frolich: "Only other goalies know how lonely being a goalie can be." James (shoots: right, writes: right) says, "I guess the goaltending/editor metaphor is that I have ultimate responsibility for the final product. Sure my defense can make mistakes but I can bail them out; other teammates can screw something up, but it's only when I’m not on the ball that the other team scores. That ultimate responsibility is similar to being an editor — I'm the last line of defense before something goes to print."
Christopher Bolton, a GTHLA journeyman who has played with the Jokers, The Gong Show, Ninja Tunes and now The Parkdale Porcupines, experiences a bit of loneliness not just in writing, but also "at the lonely end of the rink." The television writer (shoots: left, writes: right) laments, "Oh, the journeyman. That's me. Breaks my heart but it's true."
At the lonely end of the rink, you and me
Oh to join the rush
As the season builds
I hear your voice 'cross a frozen lake
A voice from the end of a leaf
Saying, ‘You won't die of a thousand fakes
Or be beaten by the sweetest of dekes'
-The Tragically Hip
Graphic novelist and La Hacienda Flying Burrito Jeff Lemire explores aloneness and hockey through his Essex County Trilogy (Top Shelf Productions). The novels are set in a farming community twenty minutes outside Windsor, Ontario, and in Toronto's Parkdale neighbourhood. The dialogue is sparse (often monologue) and his lines crack with loneliness — the artwork reminds me of Edvard Munch's screaming figure without the echo.
Ironically, the protagonist finds some happiness late in life as the maintenance worker at McCormick Arena, where many GTHLA games are played. He sharpens skates, drives the zamboni and says, "The game is like family…It won't let you go, no matter how long you've been away." Hockey replaces his estranged family, and might as well be classified as an emotion.
In "Wendel Clark," (Safe Telepathy, Exile Editions) poet and Leafs fanatic John Barlow writes:
...because hockey is poetry hockey is
love and colour and divine inspiration
within a complex and rhythmic mode
It's all creative, really — relationships, hockey and writing. Mike Ryan, Parkdale Lad and freelance writer, says, "It's not that often that I feel truly happy with the game I played or the piece I wrote, but on those rare occasions when I'm satisfied with the result, I'm euphoric." Mike (shoots: right, writes right) adds, "When writing, I’m never 100% sure if I'm done or if I achieved what I set out to do. When I nail it though, I feel like I just scored a goal...the best feeling in the world (well...)."
You can laugh all you like, but the night I returned to hockey was one of the happiest moments of my adult life. I had no idea that I'd feel such bliss by just playing hockey again. It was pure fun. It brought me to the always familiar conclusion when I open to joy and let it in: life is simpler than I make it.
Ryan Murphy. Photo by Sarah Lavoie
Fellow Screaming Unyon and Toronto Sun Editor Ryan Murphy says that events, "happen often without thinking on the ice, like a basic instinct. Much like writing is a basic instinct. It flows from within." As an editor and centre (writes: right, shoots: right), Murph tries to "allow my writers (much like wingers, with their flair and style) to do their thing and produce great copy."
I feel like I'm writing this article like it's a hockey game! My energy is crazy high and it's flying along in unexpected ways, but I've got the general overview of what's happening everywhere on the ice. I don’t usually write this way. I edit for years.
But we can't end the game without mentioning Morningstar Dave Bidini who is both writer and musician. Dave (shoots: left, writes: right) plays defense and net, and produces writing in practically every literary form. He has even written a book about his team and its quest to win the 2004 Exclaim! Cup: The Best Game You Can Name (McClelland & Stewart). He writes, "One of the reasons…why so many artists play hockey, is because teams provide a consistency and a social security that a life in art simply cannot. Throughout all of the rich creative times and dust-sucking dry spells, a hockey team — like any good sailing crew, book club, coffee clatch, or bowling team — helps mellow the blizzard of life. We rely on the team to comfort and protect us."
Dave colours the time the Morningstars spend together as "golden" and in the song, "The Land is Wild," wonders, "Do you dream of winter in the summertime?"
Dave Bidini. Photo by Sharon Harris
Post-games, I'm exhilarated and exhausted. Sort of like now, getting to the end of this article. Hockey moves too quickly for the left brain, so intuition takes over. It feels like the space I'm in when writing and making art, or for that matter, doing anything as long as I'm in the moment. Most of my default activities involve me being quiet and alone, but hockey represents collaboration to me. For the first time, I've actually been craving artistic collaboration. This urge to work with other artists appeared after I had lots of fun creating visual responses to poems by Natalie Zina Walschots.
In the dressing room after a match, I throw out an idea for some hockey visual poems involving text on team jerseys. I've just pushed my physical limits with these people I'm getting to know, and now they're sending suggestions back…good ones. They take my concept and "skate" with it. Plus, they're making alphabet jokes and silly lists of NHL defencemen with alliterative names: Rob Ramage! Brendan Bell! Mike Martin!
The laughter peaks at Zarley Zalapsky, turning to tired giggles and plans. Jennifer LoveGrove notes that "playing in an arts-oriented hockey league seems to be a great way to enjoy both pursuits, with like-minded creative and fun people. But it can be tough on the liver...."
Barlow, John. Safe Telepathy. Toronto: Exile Editions, 1996.
Bidini, Dave. The Best Game You Can Name. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.
Bidini, Dave. Tropic of Hockey. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2000.
Hedley, Cara. Twenty Miles. Toronto: Coach House Books, 2007.
Jackson, Lorna. Cold-Cocked. Emeryville: Biblioasis, 2007.
Lemire, Jeff. Ghost Stories: Essex County Vol. 2. Atlanta: Top Shelf Productions, 2007.
LoveGrove, Jennifer. I Should Have Never Fired the Sentinel. Toronto: ECW Press, 2005.
Moore, Mark. Saving The Game. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2006.
Richards, David Adams. Hockey Dreams. Toronto: DoubleDay Canada, 2001.