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.”