LATELY — 7 June 2011

Junior Hockey in Canada's Heartland

One of my favourite ever “long reads” is a piece by Guy Lawson in the January 1998 Harper’s: “Hockey nights: The tough skate through junior-league life.”

It’s an account of ice-hockey as played in the rural Cana­dian town of Flin Flon, Man­i­toba by an under-20 team called the Bombers. Hockey there is pretty tough. (This might not be a surprise.) There’s a fairly casual at­ti­tude toward on-rink punch-ups, but vi­o­lence is also de­ployed sur­pris­ingly dis­pas­sion­ately in other situations, like eval­u­at­ing po­ten­tial recruits.

Here’s a sampling:

“Meeks isn’t the right guy. He’s too good a fighter,” Razor said to me. “We’ll send someone else, and if the kid [Sides, a prospec­tive recruit] answers the bell and stands up for himself, he’ll be ac­cepted by the team. If he doesn’t, we’ll go from there.” Sides scored three goals that session. The next af­ter­noon he fought Ferlie, a man-child six inches shorter than Sides but an ab­surdly eager and able fighter. Skate-to-skate, lefts and rights were thrown in flurries. Sides’s head bounced off the Plex­i­glas as he and Ferlie wres­tled each other to the ice. The players on the benches stood and slapped their sticks against the boards in applause. Sides and Ferlie checked their lips for blood, shook hands, ex­changed a grin.

Now Razor ad­dressed the topic of fighting. Because of the SJHL’s penalty of com­pul­sory ejec­tion from the rest of the game for fighting, Razor said, other teams would send mediocre players out to try and goad Flin Flon’s best players into scraps. “I know things are going to happen out on the ice. It’s the nature of the game,” Razor said as he paced the room. “But Rodge, Lester, Schultzie, the goal scorers, you can’t fight unless you take an equally tal­ented player with you. If we lose one of our best, we need them to lose one of their best.” “You told Ferlie to fight against Dauphin,” Rodge said. “No,” Razor explained, “I didn’t tell Ferlie to fight. We were getting beaten and I said, ‘If you want to start something, now would be a good time.’” The Bombers all laughed.

A few of the Bombers had told me about the present that Meeks’s older brother—a giant of a man and an ex-Bomber, with 30 points and 390 penalty minutes in one season—had given Meeks for his eigh­teenth birthday: a beating. “Yeah, he did, Scoop,” Meeks said sheepishly. “My brother would say, ‘I can’t wait until you turn eighteen, because I’m going to lay a licking on you.’ The day of my birth­day he saw me and started coming after me. I grabbed a hockey stick and started swinging, nailing him in the back, just crack­ing him. It didn’t even faze him. Next thing you know, my jersey’s over my head and he’s beating the crap out of me. My mom and one of my brother’s friends hopped in and broke her up.” “Why did your brother do that?” I asked. Meeks shrugged. “I turned eighteen.”

“I hate rye,” Holly announced. “I get into fights when I drink rye.” She told me about the Boxing Day social last year. “This girl pissed me off, so me and a friend tag-teamed her. My friend slapped her and I threw my drink on her and she started blab­bing at me so I grabbed her and kicked her in the head and ripped all her hair out. She was bald when I was done.” The girl had to go to the hos­pi­tal to have her broken nose set, Holly said, now speak­ing in quiet tones because she had noticed the girl’s aunt a few tables down from us. “And then she went to the cop shop and filed charges, even though she was four years older than me.”

Meeks had ex­plained his fight­ing tech­nique to me back in Flin Flon: “I can’t punch the other guy first,” he said. “That’s why I’ve got a lot of stitches. The other guy always gets the first punch and then I get mad.” Meeks took the first punch from Sev­en­teen square in the jaw. Meeks’s head jerked back. He grabbed Sev­en­teen by the collar and threw a long, looping, over­hand right. He pulled Seventeen’s jersey over his head. Another shot, a right jab, an uppercut; switched hands, a com­bi­na­tion of lefts. A strange sound came from the audience, a mounting, fever­ish cry: Sev­en­teen was crumpling, arms flailing, as the lines­men stepped in and sep­a­rated the two. Meeks waved to his team­mates as he was led off the ice by the of­fi­cials to the screams of the Weyburn fans. The Bombers scored four minutes later. Between periods in the dress­ing room Razor shook Meeks’s hand. “Great job.”

Meeks couldn’t play and wasn’t sure when he would be able to play again. “I called Meghan and told her I broke my hand,” he said. “She said, ‘You did not.’ I said I did, I had to fight. She said I shouldn’t fight. She said that I always have a choice.”