4 min

Game on

Honouring the Memorial Hockey League

Credit: Xtra West files

On Sep 12, 2003, Johnny Cash passed away at the age of 71. Naturally, this deeply affected the butches of East Vancouver. How would we properly honour the Man In Black? How to celebrate his legacy? Where would we gather to mourn? We did what made the most sense, what seemed at the time to be the most heartfelt and reverent activity we could engage in.

We dressed in black and played street hockey all afternoon. It was sunny, and the leaves were turning. We toasted Johnny, raising our sticks in the air before the first face-off. We laughed, we sweated, we coughed the black from our lungs and one of us lost the skin from three knuckles on her right hand.

The goalie also worked as a locations guy in the film business, so we used his pylons and cordoned off the block, and one by one, the neighbours came out and moved their cars to avoid dings in their door panels, widening our rink as the day wore on.

We played until the sun hung too low to light up the ball anymore. We played until the pavement reminded our knees that we weren’t getting any younger. We didn’t keep score, so nobody ended up on the losing team. We had such a good time that we did it again.

That was 15 months ago, and the day Johnny Cash died now marks the birthday of the Memorial Hockey League. We play every Sunday that doesn’t rain, and before the ball drops we raise our sticks and dedicate the game to someone who has passed away. We’ve played street hockey for Nina Simone and Ray Charles, for Iraqi civilians and US soldiers too poor to avoid Bush’s war machine. We’ve raised our sticks to Aimee’s grandmother, Ange’s aunt, and my mom’s friend Claudia, who fell to cancer. Sometimes I wonder if there is indeed a heaven up there, and if souls really can look down and watch the living live, and if any of the departed can hear us from where they are, and if they can, then what do they think of us? A rather rag-tag bunch of dykes and artists and dishwashers and delinquents ranging in age from seven to 65 and covering every corner of the gender spectrum, playing road hockey to remember people most of us have never even met.

The only rules are no slapshots, and to try and avoid doing anything that might injure anyone else. When you score, you have to sub off and let someone else have a go. We have no referee or whistle or penalty box. You don’t have to pay, or sign up or show up next week. We even have extra sticks for passers-by and in case someone’s brother or girlfriend or Saturday night trick drops in and wants to play. We collected up our communal Canadian Tire money to buy goalie pads and tape and ice packs. We have only one set of shoulder pads but two goalies, so priority is given to the goalie who has breasts, because taking a direct hit to the boob can sting something terrible

One of our best defence women, the one who plays in a kilt, she took it upon herself to have a trophy engraved, so we now have a Most Valuable Player award, which is brought back next week and given away all over again. Teams are decided by piling the sticks up, and someone dividing the one pile into two with their eyes closed. The piano player donated a fun fur bag full of mostly frilly aprons that are worn by one team, in lieu of uniforms, so everybody can tell who is on which side.

As perfect a game as street hockey is, sometimes the outside world and its ways infiltrate our utopia. Sometimes the dykes and the straight boys clash cultures, I think because men are taught to win every game they play, even when nobody is keeping score, and the dykes can be less than patient when it comes to the occasionally wobbly learning curve of your average male hockey enthusiast. The heterosexual women get caught in the middle, unsure whether to side with the sisterhood, or stick up for their boyfriends. We even had one half-assed fistfight. I wasn’t there that day so I couldn’t say for sure who started it, but both the slam-poet and the guy from the Yukon have been banned for life for sullying the otherwise perfectly non-violent history of the MHL.

Some said men are biologically unable to curb their aggression; some said it was social conditioning that leads to hockey-related fisticuffs. I wasn’t quite sure, but voted against making hockey women-only, because I still can’t decide where that would leave me, and the rest of my tribe. Also, if it were girls only and another fight broke out, who could we blame it on? Besides, I figured, if we kicked all the boys out, then none of us would have the pleasure of watching a 12- year-old girl score on a full grown man wearing an apron, and let’s face it, you can’t buy that kind of bliss.

I wasn’t sure how the aprons were going to go over with the young ruffian boys who show up to play, but Gage, the oldest and coolest of them, decided right off the bat that he wanted to be on the apron team, and even traded with his brother so he got to wear a mauve frilly number over his baggy track pants, and the rest of the kids followed his lead.

Last week his brother Nigel was showing off because there was a young girl playing with us, and he exclaimed loudly that it sure was a good thing he wasn’t on the apron team, because he couldn’t wear one actually on his body, he’d have to tie it to his stick and it might get in the way of him scoring another hat trick like he did last game.

“Why’s that, Nigel?” I asked him, because he had never shown any apron sensitivity before his friend Amanda showed up. “Are you insecure about your masculinity?”

He didn’t even blink before answering me. “Well, sure,” he said, his face deadpan and serious, “Who isn’t?”