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Hockey

The Meaning of Hockey, Chapter 1

Maggie Moo, catching fish, and the point.

Gary Engler 1 Mar 2005TheTyee.ca

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“I can tell you the exact time and place and why I lost it,” Bobby said. “It was the damn cow two years ago in Muskegon.”

“Muskegon?”

“Michigan. Across the lake from Milwaukee.”

He noticed the doctor’s green eyes for the first time as she walked past him crossing the room. He had always loved green eyes. She looked familiar. That was one of the problems of having been previously famous: People often looked like someone he had seen before. Perhaps she had been a guest with him on some TV show and they had chatted backstage. Perhaps he had picked her face out of the crowd as she sat behind the players’ bench at a game twenty-five-years ago. Perhaps she had smiled at him while asking for his autograph. He would have smiled back.

She had light brown, curly, short hair, a key element in her sexy uptight school marm demeanor. Since Miss Marlowe in Grade Four, he had lusted after small breasts hidden beneath plaid woolen jackets and crisply starched, white blouses. And she smelled nice — just the right amount of some faintly sexy perfume. Did she have a ring? No ring and green eyes. But she’s a doctor. Is a psychologist really a doctor? What should I call her? Maybe I should ask.

“What about the cow in Muskegon, Mr. Benoit?”

“Do I call you doctor?”

“Frida, please,” said the fortyish, medium-height, just-right build for her age — real hips, a bum you could hold on to — psychologist, as she sat on an antique wine-colored plush chair across a coffee table from him.

“Frida. Nice name. Really.”

It was the first time he had heard that name since Moose Jaw. Frida the Freak, they called her. Frizzy he called her, because of her red Shirley Temple hair. His first love. Guys said her mother was a prostitute, but she was just a beatnik artist. Man, how they tortured that girl. Frida the Freak. Frida, his first love. She was a good kisser. That’s what he remembered best. First girl he ever went all the way with.

“Mr. Benoit. The cow?”

Concentrate on the doctor. I’m paying by the hour. Come on. I can do it.

“Her name was Maggie. Maggie Moo. I met her just before the game in a temporary stall outside our dressing room. The team had had a few days off over Christmas and I’d driven up to Sault Ste. Marie to see my son Mike — he was sixteen at the time — and it was a really bad visit. It was his first season in major junior. First season away from home playing with the Ontario League’s London Knights and he hated it. All he talked about was quitting hockey — how he didn’t see the point of playing such a meaningless game — and I guess I didn’t handle it very well. We had a big fight. I called him lazy and unmotivated and he called me a “shallow fascist.” I traveled all day thinking about Mike and what the hell he meant by shallow fascism and didn’t get to the rink until just before game time.”

Bobby could repeat every single word of the half-hour conversation with his son in Sault Ste. Marie. In fact, he had memorized every word of every conversation he ever had with Mike. Not that he was some sort of super parent. The truth was, his sole familiarity with fatherhood consisted of six conversations with the love child he sired with a woman, he later learned, was a radical Boston lesbian who had been infatuated with hockey and caught him on the rebound from a failed romance with a turkey baster. After winning five-thousand-dollars-a-month child support and Bobby’s everlasting anger with a paternity suit, she confided that sex with him was the second-best non-lesbian experience she’d ever had. He still remembered her exact words. “You’re up there big boy, right after that drawer of kitchen utensils.”

“Mr. Benoit?”

What’s happening to me? Why am I having so much trouble concentrating? Focus. I’ve got to focus.

“My usual coaching routine was to give the guys a little pep talk and then they had five, ten minutes to themselves before the game started. So anyways, I leave the room and there’s this cow parked a few feet from the door. Nice, kind of intelligent looking, I mean for a cow. I know it sounds kind of stupid, but we made eye contact. I looked at her and she looked back. That’s what happened. Maggie and I hit it off.”

I can be best friends with a cow after five minutes, but my own son calls me a shallow fascist and tells me he never wants to talk again. Bobby had remained outwardly serene but Mike’s words had hurt more than any hockey injury: “This game is meaningless. Your life has been meaningless. My life, if I continue playing, will be meaningless. What’s the point? To win? Why? Who cares? The only thing that keeps me going is this shallow fascism that permeates everything about hockey. If I keep playing, pretty soon I’ll be a shallow fascist too, just like you.” How could someone only sixteen be so smart? Mike had grown up around colorful university and artistic types in Boston. Probably got his brains from his mother. She was smart. Was devious the same as smart?

“Hit it off? Mr. Benoit?”

Focus.

“Hit it off?” she repeated.

“I told you it sounds stupid,” said Bobby.

“No, but an explanation would be helpful.”

“Maggie and I made eye contact and I remember thinking ‘we understand each other.’ Something just clicked,” Bobby stretched his legs to get rid of the knot in his lower back. “I don’t know. You ever had a cat or a dog that you felt really comfortable with? It was like that with Maggie and me. I mean, we only spent a few minutes together, but we were friends.”

“And?”

It was a story Bobby had told dozens of times, in airplanes, buses, dressing rooms and empty arenas all across North America, but never before had it been anything more than a tall tale meant to maintain his reputation as a hockey raconteur. This time Bobby wanted something else. Something. What? To convey an important secret? Hardly important. A plea for help? Ya, right. What could she do to help? Could she be trusted? That’s it.

“Mr. Benoit?”

Focus.

“Seems some dairy and the advertising department of a local radio station had come up with this concept for a promotion they were calling ‘Meet Maggie Moo.’ The idea was you guessed the weight of this cow and you won a year’s supply of milk, ice cream and other dairy products for the whole family. There were billboards of Maggie on every corner, pictures in the paper, but the only opportunity to see the cow in person was going to be at the hockey game.

“So, the buzzer goes to end the first period and it’s a one-one tie. As the guys are leaving the benches the announcer comes on the P.A. system telling the crowd to remain in their seats because they’re going to bring Maggie Moo out on the ice so that everyone can get a good look and make an informed guess about her weight. Muskegon had one of those rinks where the visiting team has to cross the ice to get back to their dressing room. So, while I’m sliding across it, getting closer and closer to Maggie, who is standing just a couple of feet behind the boards with this twelve, thirteen year-old boy, I make a connection with Miss Moo’s eyes again. She seems so content, so happy with whatever is going on in her life and I’m thinking ‘why can’t I be like that.’ I’m thinking ‘I wish I was a cow.’ I’m thinking ‘Bobby, you wish you were cow?’

“I get off the ice and the crowd is cheering. They’re really going wild over Maggie Moo. I mean she must be some terrific milker or something. Thing is, she is handling the fame really well. It’s like Maggie is a star and knows it and she expects the crowd to treat her like a celebrity.

“While the announcer is getting the crowd even more worked up to ‘give Maggie a marvelous Muskegon welcome’ and there’s like three thousand people shouting ‘moo’ as loud as they can, a crew of five guys is rolling this red carpet out to center ice.

“The kid, who turns out raised Maggie as some kind of 4H project, leads her on to the carpet and as they walk, the crowd gets louder and louder. I mean they’re going crazier for this cow than for a playoff game. The whole experience seems not quite real and I’m feeling like I’m not quite part of it. It’s like my consciousness has left my body and I’m watching from somewhere else. That Rod Stewart song about Maggie is blaring over the speakers and kids are folding their Maggie Moo posters into airplanes and throwing them on to the ice. None of this is going to Maggie’s head; she’s still calm as can be, but the kid is really starting to ham it up. He’s got this rope around Maggie’s neck and he’s hopping from one side of her to the other, bowing to the crowd. I’m standing by the boards looking at this spectacle and thinking ‘cow, hockey — it’s all just entertainment. The fans pay their dough to take their minds off their miserable lives for a few hours.’

“Then suddenly the kid accidentally steps off the carpet and he’s wearing leather shoes with absolutely no grip and he goes flying up into the air before landing on his back. The crowd goes dead quiet, like after a big hit when a player is down, unconscious. But almost immediately the kid jumps back on to his feet and smiles. Of course the crowd roars, even louder than before. And then, just at that moment, when everyone in the building is laughing and yelling and clapping, I notice Maggie. The kid’s fall has changed the cow’s direction and she’s headed off the carpet and on to the ice. I try to warn the kid. I shout ‘watch out, cows can’t skate.’ Sounds kind of stupid now, but that’s what came out. Of course, in all the noise and confusion no one can hear me. Still, as soon as I said it, I knew it was a stupid thing to say.

“It was one of those ‘frozen in time’ moments. I can still see it, feel it, even think the exact same thoughts. Just as I watch Maggie’s front hooves touch the ice, the thought ‘cows can’t skate is a stupid thing to say’ is going through my mind. Then Miss Moo loses her footing and her legs kind of crumple under her. I swear I heard them break, right through all the screams.

“Next thing you know there’s not a sound from the crowd except for maybe a few people crying. The kid on the ice is trying to help Maggie up. The maintenance crew and the disc jockey are running to help, but I’m frozen because I know what will happen next.

“Poor Maggie is making a sound like I never heard out of a cow. Sort of a moo-scream. It’s horrible. People in the stands are wailing, crying. Security guards, first aid attendants, guys in suits begin running around trying to do something. They even bring a stretcher out on to the ice. But, what good is that? How do you remove a couple-thousand-pound cow with four broken legs from center ice?”

Bobby crossed and re-crossed his feet and stared down at them. He put on a sad face that notwithstanding his practiced demeanor was an accurate reflection of what he truly felt.

He waited. Telling a story is like catching a fish, Max Bentley used to say. The fun is making them bite and then keeping the hook in their mouth while you reel them in.

“They had to put the cow down?” Frida finally said.

“A bullet to the head at center ice in front of three thousand people.”

Silence.

“How did the fans respond?”

“Nobody left the building until it was all over, I’ll tell you that. First item on local TV news. Made the front pages all over the area. And average attendance went up four hundred for the rest of the season, so I guess it was a successful promotion.”

“And?”

Bobby looked at the doctor’s green eyes. She had bitten and the hook was still in her mouth. Would it be catch and release or pan-fried with garlic butter? Those eyes. Twin powers. They provoked lust and frankness, mostly incompatible sentiments. Which should I act upon? Go for both? What’s to lose?

“I looked at the late Maggie Moo laying there, the pool of blood spreading a bigger and bigger circle at center ice and I thought what the hell is the point of my existence? Entertainment? This is what I do? This is my life? And I knew my son was right. Shallow fascism. It summed up my existence perfectly. Summed up the world of hockey. The difference was Mike was young enough to quit. He was smart enough and he had the guts to maybe drop out before he got stuck and the game was the only thing he could do.”

“Like you,” said Frida, in a tone that could have been either a question or a statement.

“I haven’t been able to really focus on anything since then,” Bobby said. “Not like I used to. I just can’t see the point.”

“The point?” Frida said.

“The point of hockey. The point of coaching. The point of playing. The point of my existence. Everything I’ve done in my life has been in relationship to hockey. So what now? Who the hell am I?”

“Your will to live?” Frida said.

Those eyes made him nod.

“I lost it. It’s gone.”

“But you want to get it back?”

The question surprised him. He considered it carefully. Perhaps it was a gate to pass through in order for the doctor to continue seeing him. If Bobby were honest, the answer would be “no.” At the moment he wouldn’t give two broken sticks for “the will to live.” So then what was the point of seeing a doctor? She might as well show him how to slit his throat with a skate blade and bid him adieu.

On the other hand, why had he come here? He had tried anti-depressants, but the pills did nothing for him. Some had even made him feel worse. Suicidal almost. He had gone to the trouble of asking an ex-girlfriend to recommend a psychologist who specialized in drugless therapy, then made an appointment and then even showed up more or less on time. That must prove somewhere inside he wanted to find the will to go on.

Bobby looked up from his feet back to Doctor Rodriguez’s eyes. The green, the comprehending stare and that pulsing stirring of lust made him lie.

“Yes. I want to find it. I’d like to have my will to live back. Can you help me?”

Next chapter: Friday

Gary Engler’s novel The Meaning of Hockey runs three times a week for 16 weeks exclusively on The Tyee. To offer advice, to criticize or to reserve your printed copy of The Meaning of Hockey email [email protected]  [Tyee]

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