We be needing some mood music for this one. Maybe it's not as slick as Sinatra but when it comes to 7:30 a.m. in a cold arena in a small town in northern Ontario, when the rink coffee tastes as good as dishwater but you drink it by the bucket anyway, you need yourself some Stompin' Tom:
Saturday morning in January, christly cold, the alarm goes off at six and we're headed 35 minutes north to Baysville to see eight-year-old Megan Raney play in a hockey tournament. It's a big tournament, lauded as the biggest tourney to ever hit the Huntsville area, and teams have come from all over Ontario.
The Raneys are luckier than most. They only live up the road a piece. Other parents are holed up in cheap hotels with hyper hockey playing girls and sick siblings, wiping runny noses and stocking up on Goldfish crackers, eating at McDonald's and probably willing to sell their souls if the mini-van heater would just start working better.
There's a chubby, sleepy little cutie-pie curled up on the bench in the arena lobby. He's got cupid lips and long eyelashes that won't leave his cheeks. "He's not feeling very well," says his mom. "He's usually one of those kids who's tearing around the arena all the time." She has come three hours from Oshawa for the tournament. Her daughter is on the ice, has been since the game started at 7 a.m. "I had to be up at 5:15," she says, grimacing. "My poor daughter, she wants to do all these cool things in between games but he's sick and all he wants to do is sleep. Maybe one of the other moms will take her out."
More than likely they will. Hockey moms tend to stick together - especially when their kids are out on the ice. I'm sitting with a crowd of Almaguin Gazelles' parents who are giving new meaning to the term sticking together. There's a whole arena full of empty seats but all the Gazelle fans are lumped close in the middle, yelling for all they're worth.
Dave and I sit with the Raneys, even though Richard warns us in advance that Tammy's cheering is a little on the loud side.
"You sure you want to sit with her?" he asks, laughing.
I wouldn't be anywhere else! Sure, she's loud, but so are all the other Gazelle fans and at least they're yelling positive encouragement. I'm a little nervous about cheering at first (I haven't been to a hockey game since my son Angus played 10 years ago), and for good reason. The opposing team scores first and, confused, I cheer. Dave elbows me in the ribs and hisses, "what are you DOING?"
I make up for my faux pas with extra enthusiasm and soon find myself hollering just as loudly as everybody else. How can you not cheer for kids who are just learning the game, who are giving it everything they've got? They're just little girls. The oldest are ten. The youngest are six. The small ones barely make it up to the armpit of the older players but that doesn't mean they're not go-getters. Some of the littlest players are the biggest firecrackers, chasing that puck up and down the ice like greyhounds after a rabbit.
They haven't got stick handling or passing down pat yet so they tend to chase the puck around in herds. Think of A Charlie Brown Christmas, the old cartoon, when all the kids decorate Charlie Brown's tree in a big ball. That's what these hockey players are like. It's pretty adorable watching them. When they're tired, they fall down more, and it's hard for them to remember where they're supposed to stand at face-off.
The girls on the other teams are older and bigger. They come from towns with bigger populations and have more money for training. Almaguin isn't expected win any games at all but, what they lack in age, size and experience, they make up for with enthusiasm.
They lose the first game to York, but they're not skunked. The score is 2-1
Second game, they tie against another team. (Guelph, I think.)
Third game, against Oshawa, they win.
Hysteria reigns. Everyone is hoarse from yelling. The girls are wide-eyed with excitement. Their total points have earned them a berth in the finals, the next day. Another game against York. These girls are machines. In fact, Almaguin was the only team in the whole tournament that managed to score against them. In their last game before the finals, York wins 9-0.
The final game is better than any Stanley Cup final. York scores first, then scores again. It starts to feel like they'll be steamrolling through our Gazelles. But our girls never give up and their feistiness starts putting scores up on the board. The final score is 5-3 but no one cares! The momentum belongs to Almaguin. The game belongs to Almaguin!
Parents and kids go wild, cheering the girls on as they accept their second place trophies.
And then everyone goes really beserk when it's announced that the Almaguin Gazelles have been awarded the Most Sportsmanlike Trophy, one of the highest honours in the entire tournament.
It was a Cinderella story with hockey skates instead of glass slippers and it was a weekend I won't soon forget.
|Megan - her hockey bag is bigger than she is!