Joey Ramone, Michael Enright, Norman Mailer and Me

In 2001, my hockey team, the Morningstars (20 years old his year), reached the Cup Final versus Capsule Music– a Toronto music store run by guitarist/goalie Peter Kesper–  but I’d taken a circuitous route to the championship. For me, the event started 600 kilometres to the east, in Montreal, where I’d been invited to read at the Blue Metropolis Literary Festival. My plan was to read on Thursday and Friday, then fly home to Toronto for the weekend games. My heart was divided between my authorly involvement on the booze and books circuit, and thinking about my friends back home cracking helmets with teams trying to unseat us as Cup champions. It wasn’t long after I’d arrived in the City of Lights, however, that I soon forgot about the ice, for once Janet, Cecilia and I stepped into the elevator to take us to our room, standing there was Norman Mailer.

A smallish gargoyle of a man with an old appleface and a rich sprig of white hair, I drew in a long breath and asked him with the slow, verbal weight of a young person addressing one of his heroes: “Are you looking forward to the   events of this evening?” (Mailer was to be feted by festival organizers for his literary achievements). Instead of answering, Mailer trained his eyes on our daughter asleep in her stroller and said: “You know, I’d forgotten what a trial it is to travel with young children.” I had no rejoinder, having expected him to answer my opening query. I might have responded, dumb-wittedly, “Yes sir, uh, yes, it really is, sir…” but it didn’t matter. Running into one of the continent’s great literary lions in my first five minutes at the festival blunted whatever concerns I’d had about how the ‘Stars were getting on in my absence. It also promised that Montreal would be days well spent.

By some wierd scheduling quirk, I was booked on the first day to read alongside Margaret Drabble, her husband Michael Holroyd and Linda Spalding as part of an event that appeared to have a “What to do about Bidini? Might as well just put him in here” kind of theme to it. Drabble had just published “The Peppered Moth;” Holyrod was promoting an acclaimed biography of George Bernard Shaw; and Spalding had come out with a historical novel written with her daughter. My two books, by contrast, concerned the ravages of Canadian rock and playing hockey in the Transylvanian interior. I was as nervous as a roach in a boot factory. The long room was filled with about 300 people, mostly middle-aged women in print dresses, broad hats and scarves, Drabbleians to a T. While everyone likes to think that their work has a certain universal appeal, I’d pretty much handicapped the crowd as one that had never heard of Jerry Korab, nor listened to Fludd. Rifling through my two books laid flat across my lap, I had no idea what to read before stepping up to the table mic.

Linda Spalding went first, and she chose a rather serious and poetic chapter for her oration, a Conradian bit about the darkness of travel. Having written very little that would be considered either of those things, I knew that my reading, next to hers, would stand out even more. When my turn came, I reached for “On A Cold Road” and decided on a passage about a band who bombs while playing to a savage, resentful crowd. Not that I was comparing this group of well-lettered fiftysomething ladies to WASP’s denim army, but I really had nothing to lose in the face of imminent disaster.

I read about the Ramones.

There was little reaction to the piece at first. But as the tale evolved, I heard the occasional squeal of delight, a laugh that punched the silence, a few hiccups of sudden joy. Remarkably, as the story unfolded about how the Ramones were pelted with food, batteries and garbage after being booked to play at a summer hard-rock festival in Toronto, I could feel the crowd become drawn in despite its tastes, and by the time the piece was done, there were bellyaches and wild applause. Being accepted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame must have been quite an achievement for the Ramones, but having their tale win over a room full of crusty literary ladies was no small feat, either.

Mrs. Drabble, to whom I’d earlier confessed my apprehension about the bill, was as chuffed as anyone in the room. While reading my piece– she and I were seated next to one another– I could see her head bob in approval, and after my last word, I stole a glance, noticing that a broad smile had spread across her face. Before starting into her bit– the opening chapter of her acclaimed book– she told the crowd: “This story takes place in the slow past, long before the Ramones.” There was more laughter. I felt like a million and a half bucks.

The next day, our family jetted home to Toronto. Janet and Cecilia hopped in one cab, I hailed another, and, sliding across the back seat of the car, I made sure the driver knew that I had only twenty minutes to get to my  game. He got me there in eighteen and I was on the ice for the opening shift. Riding a literary high, I played like a devil, firing the puck at the net,  hitting forwards by rote, stealing and winning the puck in battle. I carried this through to the next day, where we defeated Sonic Unyon in the semi-final, who’d enlisted two members of the Plymouth Whalers in an attempt to break the Morningstar jinx. We were booked later in the afternoon to defend our title against either Capsule Music, or Boom, the team that had been formed with the express purpose of feeding us our lunch.

Before the game, my team-mates and I gathered at a falafel joint off of Yonge street and tried not to vomit (from nerves; the food was, in fact, terrific). After killing an hour talking about strategy and who was or wasn’t a  big homo, we shuffled-stepped back to DelaSalle arena, the fear and anxiety gathering in our hearts and stomachs. And then I saw Michael Enright.

In sports as in life, athletes look for signs to tell them whether or not a game will play itself out as it should. There was a time when I was avowed to the forces of superstition as it concerned my route to the rink, and while I still believe that sport is, in itself, rich with magic, I think that the rest of it is a lot of hooey. I came to this conclusion during an earlier E! Cup, when a member of the Songbird Millionaires gave me one of Phil Esposito’s sticks from his training camp days with the Bruins. I brought the stick with me during our Downtown Men’s Hockey League (DMHL) run of 1998, and it seemed to work its magic for two good weeks, until we reached the final.

The ‘Stars were matched against a lawyers’ team called Life: The Nightclub. They were a grim, goatte’ed unit, who played effective, if unsmiling, hockey. We defeated them in the first game, lost the second, and going into the rubber match, I was convinced that my Espo lumber would provide the difference. I was almost right. We scored twice in the last minute to tie the game at 3, but neither team could find the net in overtime. The match was eventually decided by a shoot-out, where we were edged by a single goal, whose scorer passed by our heart-stricken bench, grabbed his protective cup and told us: “Now you guys can all suck my cock.” From that day forward, my Espo talisman has hung on my wall, drained of whatever minor powers it once possessed.

Mark Robinson, our goalie, is a terrible one for taking these symbols to heart, and I believe his attention to kharmic details has also heightened my awareness of such things after swearing off the hoodoo. Once, on his way to a ‘Stars playoff game, Mark swears that he heard a traffic reporter say, “Things are moving well on Morningstar drive,” only to correct himself: “What I mean to say is, ‘Morningside drive.” On another occasion, he’d celebrated his son’s birthday by filling his room with red star balloons. Upon waking Rudy on the morning of an important game, the little boy pointed at the balloons and said: “Dad, the stars are coming down.” Mark remembers feeling a shiver of doom upon hearing these words, but had a change of heart after realizing that it could have been much worse. “Rudy could have said “The ‘Stars are falling,’ but he didn’t,” reasoned the goalie. “‘Stars are coming down’ is actually kind of cool. It’s like, ‘Man, we’re coming down to beat you.’” In the end, Mark’s kharmic alarm rang true. We won the game and Rudy was spared having to watch his father savage his balloons with a hat pin.

The thing that was curious about seeing Michael Enright wasn’t so much that I’d come across a famous CBC radio personality in the flesh, but that he was wearing a baseball cap with a red star in the middle: a morningstar. To be certain this hadn’t been a product of my imagination, I ran into Enright’s wife, Karen Levine, on an outdoor hotel terrace while following my Italian baseball team during a playoff series in Palermo, Sicily. After introducing ourselves– and expressing  astonishment that two Torontonians had crossed paths in such a faraway port– I asked her flat-out: “Your husband. He has a hat with a star on it, right?” She told me she could see it hanging in the hallway.

Confident that Enright’s star had appeared  for a reason, we continued down Farnham Road to the gates of the old college, where we made our way across the parking lot to find one of the Boom players– a local deejay, Brother Bill–  shlupping his gear into the trunk of his car. When he saw us, he held out his hands and shook his head.

“What happened, man?” I asked him.

“Kesper. He was incredible.What could we do?”

Arriving at the rink, the stands were abuzz with the story of how Peter Kesper had stoned the tournament’s favoured team, thereby eliminating the single greatest stumbling block in the ‘Stars pathway to victory (while rolling himself in that very pathway, but that’s another matter). Onlookers described how Kesper had used every part of his body and equipment– the cherrytop of his helmet, the gauntlet of his catching mitt, the pulp of his thigh, the inside of his arm and side of his stomach– to win the game. He’d made fifty stops and many near-impossible saves, pinwheeling his arms and legs to keep the puck from poking the twine. The victory was doubly sweet for Kesper and his team-mates because, just months earlier, the butterfly goalie had braved chemotherapy to dissuade the cancer that doctors had found in his stomach and elsewhere. By all accounts, Peter had performed like a phoenix, beating back the shadows while playing a game he must have wondered whether he’d ever play again.

In the end, we defeated Capsule 4-1. Kesper stoned us in the first half, but it was too much, too soon for the tired goalie. He played half of the game, leaving to a standing O in the middle of the second period. Later in the evening, Tom Goodwin asked me to present Peter with a trophy at the Paddock. I swore a lot during my speech to keep myself from crying. I finished by saying, “This fuckin trophy goes to a fucking guy for whom ‘heart’ is too small a word.”

With the world kharmically ordered, I slept a sweet, boozy sleep, only to awake the next morning to the sound of my answering machine clucking in the kitchen downstairs. It was the voice of Dave Clark, the old Rheostatics drummer. This is probably a story for another book, but I hadn’t spoken to Dave in six years, despite have been best friends for the better part of our lives. Sleepwalking down the hallway, I half-listened to what he was saying, and then it hit home:

Joey Ramone was dead.

Too late to pick up his call, I grabbed the newspaper from the front door, and there it was: JOEY RAMONE: DEAD AT 49. My first reaction was, “Man, the Ramones finally made  the front page of the Toronto Star.” Over the next few days, there were testimonials in the Globe and Mail, Rolling Stone, and the Times of London, citing how Joey and his band had changed the course of rock and roll. Having  documented the Ramones impact on my life in other books — how seeing them perform in 1979 changed the nature of my dreams; how they taught me to stand up for what I believed in, to energize that which had long been burning inside me– I was asked to talk about them on the radio– the CBC– a half hour later. I told announcer Brent Bambury most of the story that you’ve just read. I told him that the events of the previous three or four days had been a  crazy cocktail of beauty, pathos, retribution, home, art, and death, not forgetting to remind   listeners that in rock and hockey there is always life, even when the ‘Stars are coming down.

*Adapted from “The Best Game You Can Name”

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