These days when I’m bored and have nothing to do, I go on Facebook or read my Twitter feed – seems to me I’m bored way too much – but in another time when phones had cords and rotary dials, and the Love Boat was still roaming the seven seas, my options were to go outside and play hockey or stay at home and read a book.
Now, fortunately, Dad got bored even more than I did, and when he had nothing to do, we went for a drive.
“Wanna go for a drive?” he’d ask Mom and me, and if Mom said yes, we’d drive to friends, but if she didn’t, we almost always drove to a hockey rink. Maybe there was a game, maybe just a practice, or maybe we’d bump into some friends, and have a Coke and a donut at the cafeteria.
Or, maybe, if we were lucky, we’d see something better.
Like a rec league rink bandy game. Rink bandy being a game of bandy – ball and stick – in a hockey rink. Not all of them were great games, and in fact, most of them were just games between two teams of wannabes and has-beens, but one time, we caught a game I’ll never forget.
See, one team had got lucky that time and they had recruited Matti Hagman, Helsinki IFK and Team Finland first-line center to play a rink bandy game. Now, he was already one of my favorite players in the league, thanks to his fantastic hockey sense, superb passing, and his overall cool, but in that rink bandy game I got to follow him from up close.
Since there’s no offside in rink bandy, he spent most of the time in the offensive zone, on his own, just observing the game when the ball was in the other end, but once he did skate to his own zone, picked up the ball, and since there’s no hitting in rink bandy, either, placed it between his skates, put his stick behind his skates to keep the ball in its place, and then he simply glided down the ice, until he was close enough to shoot the puck into the net undisturbed.
Dad and I looked at each other, and laughed.
“I think the firemen are going to win the game,” Dad said.
That was the time of the amateur player. Hagman had suited up for his fire station’s team.
Back then, every game and season program listed the players sweater numbers, names, height, weight, date of birth … and profession. To me, an information junkie, the last column was just as important as the others. They were car salesmen, and firemen, and policemen, and insurance salesmen, and engineers, and students, or if they didn’t really have a job, “students”.
Dad’s always emphasized the importance of education, maybe because he didn’t have the chance to get as much as he possibly would have liked, but every time we’d see a medical student or a lawyer listed, he made sure to point them out to me. Good players became great players if they also had college education, but all players were something else: The left wing with the cannon of a shot was also a painter, the third line center the phys-ed teacher at a junior high.
It wasn’t just the college educated kids Dad liked, and every year during the World Championships, he’d tell me how my favorite player in the Finnish league declined an invitation to the national team because he was a carpenter, “and he didn’t want to stay away from his business that long.”
With their dual identities, to a kid, the players were like superheroes.
Hockey gave Dad access to a fantastic network. He had former teammates who were car salesmen and could give him deals on things, and former coaches who were electricians and would help him with the wirings on his boat, and he didn’t hesitate to hire young players to his stores as delivery boys.
One of my pastimes growing up in Joensuu was to walk through the three big department stores in town – see if they had any new records – and then hit the sports store next to the supermarket on the south side of town. It sounds much grander than it is, the supermarkets were just a few hundred yards from each other, and the tour of all three took just 20 minutes.
But at the sports store, you could always find someone to talk hockey with because the captain of the local team – and a legend – worked there, and he always had time to chat with kids like me. And that way the team was truly a part of the community. Everybody having another profession – a real one, if you will – made them easier to relate to. They were just like us.
Only more so.