The Great Slave Invitational is a one-day hockey tournament that is serious in name and heart only. The setting is a natural rink – complete with boards and lighting maintained by a local operating only out of the goodness of his heart – in front of a row of houseboats on the lake in Yellowknife Bay. Six teams were in the running this year for the coveted “Houseboat Cup”, a toilet-paper roll and duct tape mock-up that resembles a potential Lord Stanley and Red Green love child. Of the motley crews vying to have their names etched – er, magic markered – on the trophy, the proudest must have been Team Trailer Trash, straight out of Trail’s End Park where yours truly lays his head at night. Representing the trailer park was not something my fellow diplomats and I took lightly, as was attested to by our rather distinct uniforms: sleeveless undershirts with the numbers drawn on them in ketchup and mustard (picture at left). I inadvertently took the theme one step further, sporting loaner skates held together with packing tape.
Despite the laid-back nature of the day (both on and off the ice) scores were kept and a schedule was adhered to. Knowing when your team would be up next was crucial, as it afforded players the chance to maximize resting time in the tournament host’s houseboat while skates were warmed by the fire (picture, below). Though things warmed up by the mid-afternoon, the mercury will only rise so high when the windchill is sub-minus forty at the beginning of the first game, so time inside the houseboat was cherished.
After a spirited and undefeated romp through our exhausting (?) two-game round-robin schedule, Team Trailer Trash lost an overtime heartbreaker in the semi-finals. The winning goal was scored by a high-flying kayaking Frenchman from Fort Smith with an anomalous competitive streak and dreadlocks to his waist. The overtime loss was a tough pill to swallow, but after three games and a subsistence of potato chips and water over the previous eight hours, I wasn’t sad about setting out across the lake in the direction of my warm trailer just as the final game was starting and the evening winds were picking up.
Any experience like Saturday’s will lead one to contemplate the game in a broader national context. Personally, I’ve grown increasingly weary in recent years of the Canadian hockey myths perpetuated by the good folks at our country’s macro breweries. I do not know that hockey is quite the national unifier that we would like it to be, and I do know that there are a whole lot of natural-born, passport-carrying Canadians who aren’t terribly concerned with five men dressed in garters and stockings looking to score. This is, of course, despite the fact that we are supposedly a nation of 30 million hockey lovers.
I do remain among the throngs who get annually swept up by the playoff march of my hometown NHLers (sorry to those of you in Toronto who have forgotten what this feels like) and pay close attention to all the right international tournaments. Despite my enthusiasm towards these events, however, I am often left feeling like there are certain elements of the contrived and predictable within them, and that we’re all just buying in to exactly what we’re supposed to buy in to. Pardon me for not welling up with patriotic tears when a different fan every year gets on CBC’s coverage brandishing a homemade “Cup Belongs in Canada” poster. (Lest I receive a flood of comments charging heresy, I should point out in my defense that I slid The Hip’s Phantom Power into the rotation inside the warm-up houseboat, thinking that Gord and the boys would make the day that much more complete.)
The doubts mentioned above notwithstanding, I couldn’t help but feel a very organic sense of authentic territorial pride (note the small “t”) swell up inside me as the afternoon wore on. The scene surrounding me – natural rink on a massive lake with a backdrop of cozily inhabited houseboats - was not one that could be easily duplicated in many other populated parts of the world, nor is it one that felt scripted by a ninety-second potato chip ad. And if following the fake Cold War that is the NHL can feel contrived and predictable, then Saturday afternoon felt authentic and spontaneous. There was no forced sense of Canadian-ness among the thirty-odd players (or thirty odd players, depending on your perspective) who took part in the tournament. Rather, the climatic and social circumstances that brought us out to the rink are very legitimate and inescapable byproducts of living in the true North strong and free (I'll leave it to you to delineate that territory however you see fit).
The author and activist Winona LaDuke has said that she feels patriotic to a land but not to a flag. On a similar note, I walked away from Saturday feeling patriotic toward a land and a game, not a flag and a beer commercial.
The troops are rallied at the official pre-tournament meeting: