Springtime. The war is finally over. 21 years old, he demobs from the Royal Navy. Not sure what the future may hold, he departs England, works his passage west across the Atlantic with a loose plan to join his sister in British Columbia.
Eventually arrives in Montreal, finds a job, saves some money. Moves on to Ottawa, then to Winnipeg, to Regina and finally to Vancouver.
A fine athlete, he loves sport, the competition and the rhythm of it. He is familiar with rugby, cricket, boxing and athletics. Still, he quickly discovers baseball and gridiron, learning team names and devouring available storylines and statistics.
And, of course, he is also introduced to ice hockey. His new circle of friends all support Toronto, one of two Canadian teams in the NHL’s Original
Six. And so, he too becomes a passionate, lifelong fan. The immediate reward is three consecutive Stanley Cups, as the Maple Leafs capture the coveted trophy in 1947, ‘48 and again in ’49.
Perhaps not surprisingly, years later I follow in his footsteps. The Leafs come to be my team as well. And I am spoiled as a young boy, watching my heroes capture the Cup four more times in the 1960s. Alas, though I do not know it at the time, the 1967 triumph turns out to be the last in club history. While a half century has since slid by, I will never forget the two of us, father and son, glued to an old black and white 12” TV screen. Exploding in joy as Toronto bags the empty net, series clinching, game 6 goal against arch-enemy Montreal.
Of course, in my adolescent mind Les Canadiens are the bad guys. Scar to Simba, Darth Vader to Luke Skywalker, Voldemort to Harry Potter. The four Toronto titles notwithstanding, I am crushed, tearful and heartbroken on too many occasions as “Le Bleu, Blanc et Rouge” win Lord Stanley’s silverware fourteen times between 1956 and 1979.
With time, I learn to better control my emotions. I finish high school and head off to college. Play a lot of sport along the way. I start to more fully appreciate the keys to athletic success. While I continue to back the Leafs, I know, deep down, they are a brittle operation. Though boasting some serious top end talent and capable of the odd playoff upset, they are notoriously unreliable.
And so, ironically, it is a Montreal player, a reviled "Habitant", who emerges as my standard bearer. His name is Bob Gainey.
In a lineup choc a bloc with stars, Gainey is still a forceful player. Never a prolific goal scorer, but totally team oriented. Big, powerful and a tremendously fast skater, in contrast to many on the Leafs’ roster he is also reliable and disciplined, safe and secure. This especially applies to his defensive responsibilities. He is a peerless, lockdown defender with an unparalleled work ethic. And, while it may be one of sport’s biggest clichés, defence does win championships.
These qualities are summarized brilliantly in “The Game”, one of the finest sports books ever written. In one chapter, the author, Canadiens goalkeeper Ken Dryden, reflects on the 1978 Stanley Cup final, painting a vivid picture of the substantial role Gainey plays in Montreal’s conquest of Boston.
In it, Gainey's ultimate satisfaction comes during the last game of the series. Thanks in large part to his leadership and sterling performance, Montreal takes absolute, complete and unshakable control. Though thirty minutes remain, and with the Habs up only 3-1, enough time is left for the home town Bruins to mount a charge. But, under his direction, the tenor of the game has been irrevocably set. The players, on both teams, know there is no chance of a comeback.
I do not pretend to possess even a thimbleful of Gainey’s talent, nor can I really remember any athletic contest when my own singular contribution makes the difference in a victory. Still, using as examples his determination and commitment, his pragmatism and, most of all, his emphasis on a closely bound group chasing a common cause, I am fortunate to be part of many playing and coaching successes. And there is no better feeling, when a game or a season reaches its final stages, of knowing, just knowing, that a positive outcome is guaranteed. Is a lock. That there will be no way back for the opponent.
Now it is 2021, the Covid age. Professional sport stubbornly labours on, mostly in empty stadiums. Nonetheless, in a revamped NHL, after too many years in the doldrums, Toronto and Montreal are once again relevant. Both ride hot starts to the top of their division.
Still, far more weighty issues take centre stage.
The world is crying out for dynamic leadership at this moment in time. Leaders who can convince the populace to work in harmony with each other. Leaders who can exert iron control over a raging global pandemic that shows few signs of abating. Indeed, with a handful of exceptions, most countries and regions just continue to stumble along. They endure, but are strangled by protests, confusion, fatigue and uncertainty. It is not a pretty picture.
Vaccines supposedly are riding to the rescue, but already there are delays in delivery. And, in the end, these injections might not be as effective as advertised. Despite endless exhortations to “bend or flatten its curve”, the virus remains a most stubborn foe. New variants further strain our psyche and the medical system, as cycles start again. Necessary travel restrictions and border controls lack consistency while other cutbacks appear piece meal and ineffective.
Surely, however painful it may turn out to be, eradicating Covid is the only real way forward. A zero protocol. Balanced against costs, this will be undeniably hard to achieve, but the current dithering must end. It is time for hard, enforced circuit breaks, a la New Zealand and Australia, as we test, track and trace while hunting down the virus.
Today, I dream. Dream of a sharp, decisive change in Covid tactics. In this dream, Bob Gainey is a senior advisor in my Health ministry. He has past form, understands the principles of lockdown, has lived and breathed it, knows what can be achieved. In this case, actual light at the end of an interminably long, dark and frustrating tunnel.
At which point, blasphemy be damned, I will throw away my treasured Leafs hoodie and replace it with a replica #23 Canadiens jersey.