“Morenz, Joliat, Gagnon, Jackson, Smith — the whole lot of them are about the best artists this country ever turned out.”
Hugh MacLennan, Two Solitudes
“Phil Esposito is Canada’s greatest poet.”
I saw Phil Esposito play against the Soviet team in 1972 in Vancouver. He set up a beautiful goal, drawing Tretiak out of the net and dropping a soft pass back to Dennis Hull. It was one of the best goals I’ve ever witnessed. There was virtually no applause. I saw Esposito looking up at the stands in astonishment. I knew what he was thinking: “Why are people sitting on their hands?” The goal was scored in the final minute of play. Canada was down by three. Espo’s great play couldn’t save the game. We were all numb with horror as the Soviet team racked up another victory. There had been so many bad moments; at one point Frank Mahovlich sat on Tretiak to try to hold him out of the net. “Mister Class,” muttered the guy next to me. If sport can be a source of national pride, it can also be a source of national shame. But, that was a beautiful goal. Phil Esposito was a great poet at that moment.
There are many Canadian poems about hockey. The Hockey Player Sonnets by John B. Lee (the poet-laureate of Brantford) stands out, not only because it works John Lennon, Gordie Howe, and Yoko Ono into a hockey poem, but because there is a poem about one of the more disgusting elements of the game: the hockey team owner. “When Gretzky went to L.A./ my whole nation trembled/ like hot water in a tea cup when a train goes by.” Pocklington! Right up there with Harold Ballard and Tom Scallen who ran their teams from a jail cell. But that’s the way of the world, the greatest things draw the most parasites and scavengers. (Eagleton!)
The best hockey poem ever is by Al Purdy, “Hockey Players”: “And how do the players feel about it/this combination of ballet and murder?” What is the essence of this game, Purdy asks, and comes up with the image of flight, flight across the entire breadth of the country and finally beyond: “roaring out the endboards out the city/streets and high up where laconic winds/whisper litanies…” This is an old metaphor. In 1915, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts wrote that, skating, he was “the god of the winged heel” and wrote of flying along the ice deep into the wilderness, “the white, inviolate solitude”. Perhaps the rink itself is a bounded version of our great geography that can only be realized by skaters who, for a little while, achieve something like flight.
John B. Lee’s Hockey Player Sonnets and Al Purdy’s The Cariboo Horses, are out of print. But some of the poems in these books, including Purdy’s “Hockey Players” are reprinted in:
Going Top Shelf: An Anthology of Canadian Hockey Poetry
Jeff Lemire,The Complete Essex County