In September 1975 at the age of twenty-three Canada’s most prolific poet John B. Lee joined a teachers’ pickup hockey team called The Skatin’ Scolors. By the time he was in his mid-forties Lee was playing hockey seven times a week, sometimes twice a day and sometimes all day outdoors with his two young sons. Although he no longer plays summer hockey, at age sixty Lee continues to play three times a week all winter. A self-confessed pylon Lee plays for the love of the game. In a chapter on NHL Power Play tabletop hockey, Lee writes, “I was a Canadian boy in love with hockey. Ice hockey, field hockey, floor hockey, road hockey, hockey in the yard on the grass slamming an Indian rubber ball so it spanked off the back wall loosening the brickwork to score, and tabletop hockey.”
Never one content to write about obvious things, Lee’s wonderful memoir ranges from affectionate recollections of his father’s laced up hockey skates tethered together hanging from a spike like a ripening duel of shot waterfowl, to eating skater’s snow to slake his thirst, to darker memories such as the profound impression left on him as a child hearing the news of the tragic collapse of the Listowel Memorial arena, and annual bouts of pneumonia necessitating that Lee quit playing organized hockey as a sickly and disappointed child. In more recent experience Lee writes about a conversation with a Cuban friend who has never seen natural ice.
In “The Vocabulary of Water,” Lee writes a celebratory piece on the varieties of natural ice appearing just off the shores of Lake Erie. Never one to avoid unpleasant topics he quotes one fellow hockey player’s anger on the bench, “You ain’t nothin’ but an effing poet, you never broke a sweat in your life,” and another more flattering epithet, “You’re a philosophical bastard, aren’t you.” A ribald, often hilarious, sometimes profoundly moving celebration of pickup hockey, warts and all, in a final piece lamenting the end of playing for an eighty-seven year old hockey player Davey Jones, Lee closes his book with these deeply affecting lines, “You have to know that when people see what’s happening with Davey, they see themselves in a year or two,” Frank says. And he says it slow. Slow enough to sink in. As if he were saying, “You know, no matter how much we might love them, eventually we’re going to have to eat the dogs.”
Lee’s memoir joins his other popular books on hockey, The Hockey Player Sonnets: overtime edition., andThat Sign of Perfection: from bandy legs to beer legs—poems and stories on the game of hockey, and like all great sports writing it makes you care even if you aren’t a hockey enthusiast.
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