Wagamese, Tootoo, and Bringing the Humanity Back to Hockey


By Amy Attas

The sun won’t let us skate outside anymore. The ground is too hot for ice, the rivers too full. By this point in spring the shiny plastic trophies have all been distributed to teams grinning or crying on the blue line, and the best and most obsessed are jockeying for positions in summer leagues. My feet are still recovering from this season, averaging a personal record twenty hours a week cramped in skates. I played from age seven to seventeen in rural Manitoba, I competed for five years against southern Ontario’s finest in university, I took an extended break while I travelled the globe, and now I’ve returned to freeze my fingers as a referee.

The game is not the same as I remember it. When I left six years ago, hockey was a rare joy, not a year-long grind. Everyone was welcome, regardless of skill level or genealogy. I remember both teams cheering when the goalie made a great save, and penny candies from a volunteer-run canteen. I don’t remember red Timmie’s cups being requisite attire.

I read Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse as the season began. The protagonist yearns to play hockey as soon as he sees it in residential school, just like I yearned for skates while watching my older brother play. Saul Indian Horse sneaks down to the ice at dawn and stickhandles frozen horse turds until he gets his hands on a puck. I doubt Sidney Crosby ever did that, but I imagine it’s excellent training. A horse turd is fragile, so Saul develops soft hands. A turd is also much lighter than a puck, so Saul must work harder to feel its weight through his stick. Saul isn’t training, just playing, but once he learns to handle a horse turd without looking, he can spin the puck around opponents like a dancer on the ballroom floor. The game he learns isn’t about corporate sponsorship, it’s art.

I started the year in Novice and Atom, where many kids still wobble in their skates. My first task as a referee was to master positioning. As a player I’m excellent at anticipating the game so the puck comes to me. A referee needs to anticipate the same but move to different places, because the goal is to stay out of the way. The young players liked to rim the puck around the boards right into my feet. Before I could move there were ten munchkins huddled at my waist, swiping at the puck, falling over, making others fall over, losing the puck under somebody’s bottom, and a charming little girl singing, “What’s happening?” The fun of the game seemed intact, and the referee’s positioning challenge was like Saul’s frozen turds, turning a familiar game on its side, letting me apprentice anew.

Right around the time players started hacking and slashing Saul in the book, I reffed my first tournament and the yelling began. I heard it in nearly every game. Coaches angry when I waved off an icing. Parents angry when I blew my whistle too early or too late. Players didn’t yell much, but they got yelled at when they made mistakes. When did this game come to mean so much? An eighteen-year old colleague asked a police officer coach of twelve-year-olds to take it down a notch. The cop shouted back, “come over here and explain that to me!” My colleague again asked him to calm down. He didn’t.

I don’t remember winning being so important when I was a kid, or even when I was York University’s varsity women’s hockey captain. Executing the game plan? Yes. Winning? No. For me, the joy of hockey has always been in connecting a perfect pass, in battling the puck from the defensive zone to the red line for a dump-and-change. How can these coaches and parents care so much about child’s play that they’d belittle a referee still sporting his baby fat?

I was expecting to get yelled at. I was surprised it didn’t often hurt. I’d spent enough years away from the rink to believe the game didn’t matter, and that anyone who howled was deluded about the importance of sport. But my fresh perspective wasn’t the main reason the screaming didn’t sting. There was simply too much of it for me to absorb. Practically every game, whether I was head ref or linesman, whether it was Novice or Peewee AA, whether it was exhibition or a tournament semi-final, people spat insults at the officials. Most of it was a Pavlovian response to my whistle, spilling from the autonomic nervous system without a thought. But why do people stop thinking when they enter an arena? Some days it truly felt like the adults checked their brains at the door.

We talk about this game as if it defines us. We tell immigrants to step in the arena if they want to understand us. Is this really what we want them to know? That we’ll burn barrels of oil dragging our children to artificial ice? That the veins will pop in our heads when the ref misses an offside? That we think the best thing for seven year olds after seven hours at school is twenty minutes in a dressing room arguing about every piece of equipment so they can spend fifty minutes lined up for drills? Maybe there’s a correlation between the growing spite in our national winter sport and the transition in our foreign policy from peacekeeping to airstrikes.

In my adopted winter home of Thunder Bay there are twelve arenas to serve 110,000 people, and yet teams reserve outdoor rinks to get more ice time. League play had me busy two or three weeknights. For tournaments I regularly worked eight hours Friday and Saturday, and there were tournaments most weekends. One Friday I was inside a rink from 9 am to 9 pm, then back inside Saturday from 8:15 am to 9:30 pm. This obsession isn’t unique to Thunder Bay, that’s just where I happened to be. Saul Indian Horse found the air in artificial rinks stifling, and the fans drove him to take up fighting. Maybe it’s the volume of organized hockey that makes everyone so angry.

“That’s the second time he’s done that!” a coach shouted. It was the first time I’d seen #18 push another player down. But #18 was in the age eight and under league, and kids at that age did so much accidental pushing that I needed to see a repeat offence before I called a penalty. Most of the young teams had one kid who’d watched too much NHL and thought the point of the game was bruising, but I needed more evidence.

“That’s the second time he’s done that!” the coach shouted again. I didn’t react. His voice was echoing off the walls, so he didn’t need confirmation that I’d heard.

At the next whistle he called over my officiating partner, a kid in his first year wearing the stripes.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“That’s the second time he’s done that.”

At the next whistle the coach called me over.

“That’s the second time #14’s done that!”

“It’s the third time you’ve told us. And it’s #18.”

“That’s the second time he’s done that!”

These conversations were more bizarre than dreams. As a writer, they enchanted me. As a ref they were exasperating. An angry coach will shout statements and questions without pausing to hear the referee’s response. I usually prefer listening to talking, but in these situations my only choice was to speak over them. I couldn’t be sure they’d understood me until they twisted my words against me.

“I hear you, and I need you to calm down.”

“That’s the second time he’s done that!”

My hope was that the other coaches would take it upon themselves to pacify #18, but the next time he stepped on the ice he crosschecked a kid away from the play. To the penalty box he went.

Near the end of the season my supervisors gave me a chance at Bantam and Midget – teens up to age seventeen, where body checking is allowed. I also started reading NHL player Jordin Tootoo’s autobiography All the Way: My Life on Ice. As a player I switched to girls-only hockey as soon as body checking came in, and never understood the allure of a big hit. I’ve followed Tootoo’s career with mild interest because he was the first Inuk in the NHL, his upbringing in Rankin Inlet a stark contrast to the structured training of athletes in the south, but I didn’t care for his style of play. He’s nicknamed Choochoo for smashing players like a freight train, and he’s made his biggest impact in the NHL starting fights.

Like Saul Indian Horse, Tootoo came to the game in fun. Hockey meant getting the hunk of rubber in the net, not delayed offsides and coincidental double-minors. He wasn’t playing in tournaments every other weekend. Most of the time he played against members of his own team. They hit each other hard, but they never went too far because word got around in a small town. They stuck to a moral code that seems to have been lost in the populous south. Maybe it’s my presence as referee; maybe at the ponds and parks of this nation the honest version of the game is still being played.

It was thrilling to watch full contact hockey at ice-level, from behind my ref’s whistle. It’s a different game, requiring more upper body strength than the no-checking version. The young men and women on the ice were gladiators battling for dominance with every protein and synapse in their bodies, always on the edge of losing control. I loved it. The coaches were nicer too, treating the officials like human beings, not an anonymous Internet comment box. But I didn’t have time to admire the athletics; I had a job, and I had no idea what to penalize. If body checking is allowed, isn’t every hit legal? I’ve been learning. Even with hitting, the rulebook stresses safety, which is encouraging. I used to think hockey with hitting was like the WWF, but it’s still a game of chess.

I saw the biggest guy on dark hit the biggest guy on light, square and clean. Light had clearly never been hit by anyone his own size, because he retaliated by flailing at everyone in sight. When he clobbered a guy not carrying the puck, I gave him two minutes for interference. Dark’s strategy was the one Jordin Tootoo describes in his book: hard, but just legal. Infuriate the opponent, then let them take the penalty. Having read Tootoo, I’d love to give his game a try. Not to piss off another sentient being, but to intensify the contest.

The way I bring humanity back to hockey is to use my voice. Those kids in Novice who think punching is part of the game? Rather than sitting them in the box for eighteen minutes, talk to the coach. That girl in Peewee who parks herself in the crease? Rather than disallowing a goal (if it came to that), talk to the girl at a whistle and yell, “crease!” if she does it again. A coach who says, “could you keep an eye on their goalie? He’s slashing our players,” gets my attention. A coach who says the same thing, but adds, “honey” at the end? Doesn’t get the same respect. When I start a discussion with a coach by apologizing, they usually eat their words.

Despite the toxicity of the arena, I still love this game. I look forward to officiating next winter. I know the loudest fans don’t represent the majority. I know there are goalies who need me to whisper encouragement when they’ve been beat. There are girls who need to see how I can absorb a slapshot to the hand. There is no workout quite like chasing a blocked-shot to a breakaway to a two-line pass. There is no feeling like the wind created by my own speed. I think I’m making a difference, calming people down and reffing the type of game I believe in. Watch for me in a few years. With a bit of luck I’ll be on your TV, breaking up a fight between Tootoo and some other agitator.




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Amy Attas

Amy Attas is a graduate of York University's Creative Writing program. Her stories have appeared in anthologies by Summit Studios and Cumulus Press, and her reviews in The Rover. She grew up in Pinawa, Manitoba, and now lives on the road, sometimes planting trees.