Thursday, June 07, 2007

The Iron Man Cometh

One of the more annonymous figures included in the Power Player collection was a fresh faced player on the Detroit Red Wings with a thick plume of blond hair named Gary Unger. Unger's career had begun only two years before as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs, but in another one of the moves made by Toronto GM Punch Imlach to remove any player whose ego inflated to the point where it might undermine the former's authority they would be unceremoniously given the heave ho. In Unger's case he wasn't the culprit, but Frank Mahovlich was. Unger, who until then was a largely untested commondity by the Leafs was thrown in to ensure the deal would be completed.

Unger would only play for the Red Wings for a year, before he was shipped off to the St. Louis Blues. This time, it was Unger who was proving to be a distraction in the dressing room, but it wasn't because of his ego; it was simply because he refused to get a haircut. To the Red Wings' coach, Mr. Mod had to go, and during the '70-'71 season, Unger was shipped off again - this time to the St. Louis Blues. Unger wasn't even 24 and he was on his third NHL team in two years, a trend if it continued would permanently attach the dreaded label "journeyman" to his profile. Seems as though St. Louis was a good fit, because Gary Unger would go on to represent the Blues in seven all-star games but more significantly, Unger would go on to play in 914 consecutive games, smashing the NHL record.

Maybe the intensity on Unger's mug on his stamp forshadowed his determination to play hard without missing a game for the next eight years, but then again we were young. Looking back at that picture now, it was clear that the Iron Man had arrived.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

An Homage to Mr. Hockey

There are so many places where I could really get this blog going, but really, could there be any other place than starting with Gordie Howe? Right off the bat, I'll tell you that my exposure to Mr. Hockey (in a Red Wings uniform that is) was brief, and from what I saw, I didn't like the guy because he had this distinct penchant for mixing it up in the corners with his elbows (hey, that has a familiar ring to it!). I was in a roundabout way attached to this guy because all my hockey equipment was made by TruLine - a brand of hockey equipment put out by Eatons, endorsed by noneother than Mister Elbows himself.

Anyway, I do remember that in the spring of 1971, there was a center ice ceremony at Maple Leaf Gardens where Leaf captain Dave Keon presented Howe with a plaque to commemorate his service to the game of hockey. Really, what better time to make this presentation than to have it coincide with the Wings final appearance at the Gardens that year. Here's what they wrote about Howe in the album:
Two names - Jack Adams in the front office and Gordie Howe on the ice - dominate the history of the Detroit Red Wings...Many stars have helped Detroit to be the most successful of any NHL team based in the United States, but Adams and Howe are the biggest.

Howe is one of the "greats" in the history of hockey and the record book is a testimonial to his massive talents. The 1970/71 season was Howe's 25th in the NHL and, starting that record year, he owned every career record available - most games 1,624; most goals 763; most assists 994; most points 1,757.

If this didn't have the makings of setting up a Howe swan song, I don't know what would have. But being the feisty competitor he always was, he would prove that there was lots left in the tank.

A year or two later, Howe was convinced to join the upstart WHA and play on a line with his boys Mark and Marty for the Houston Aeros. Somehow, he kept going, and when the pieces of the WHA were merged with the NHL in 1979, there was Mr. Hockey still going strong and plying his trade for the New England Whalers, who were rebranded the Hartford Whalers when they made their NHL debut. In the irony of ironies, when the Whalers made their innaugural appearance at the Gardens in the 79/80 season they were led by three of the brightest NHL stars from another era: Bobby Hull (who was nearing the end of his career), and none other than Dave Keon and Gordie Howe - the same guys who played a prominent role in the center ice ceremony in the year of Power Players, 70/71.

Monday, November 14, 2005

How the Fun Began

I was 7 years old in the fall of 1970 - about a year after I started collecting hockey cards, and then it happened. The new season of Hockey Night in Canada kicked off and as usual, it was sponsored by Imperial Oil. To a kid, that meant nothing until that particular year, because it was then that Imperial did a deal with the NHL and Alan Eagleson's NHLPA and created this great little promotion to get dads to switch their pump allegiance from Sunoco, Shell, Gulf, Texaco, Supertest, BP, Canadian Tire, or Fina to Esso.

Come to Esso, they were told, and you could get these packs of 6 hockey trading stamps called NHL Power Players. These came with little blue plastic wallets to hold your traders, and an album to put them all in (a soft-cover edition that had some stamps already printed in, and a deluxe hard cover album that required your getting all of them).

The hook seemed simple enough, tug at the heartstrings of Canadian boys born between about 1957 and 1964, and tell them that the only way they could get these little gems was to have their Dads fill 'er up at Esso. I suppose that's what made them so special - with cards, you could just go to the corner store with a pocket full of dimes and buy cards to your heart's content. These were different - you could only get them with a fillup of gas - so there was this built-in scarcity factor that was built in.

I had the soft-cover edition (as did most kids) - only a few selected kids actually had the hard cover - but over the years it gradually disintegrated into many pieces. I tried to explain to my wife how special these things were, but without physical evidence, they became nothing more than a cherished memory.

Enter one Paul Greenstein. The whole idea for this project came about because Paul Greenstein or PG, my best friend since childhood came by our house one evening for dinner to say hi to my family before leaving for Europe and Japan. For the last fifteen years or so, he has become an expert antiquarian book dealer, who has this uncanny ability to walk into a used book store and find undervalued books that he in turn will sell to buyers in all corners of the world. The fact that he found his way into this profession is little suprise to me because he has been an expert collector all his life. This began, by collecting coins and hockey cards, and not suprisingly in 70/71 he collected Power Players as well. Because he has known me since kindergarten, and was party to the same schoolyard wheeling and dealing of these little stamps, he always knew how much I coveted them. In fact, there were more than a few times when I declared that if I could ever find an album that was intact, I would pay a thousand bucks for it. It really meant that much to me. So what did old PG lay out for me a vitage copy of the hardcover edition of Power Players. To say that this was in mint condition would be an understatement. It was simply pristine.

I suppose with all those years of collecting under his belt, he knew a good specimen (often sight unseen) when he came across one. The more puzzling question was, how did he know that this would be the perfect gift? The answer to this lies first in understanding the gift giver.

Search high and low, I don't think it's possible to find an individual quite like Mr. Greenstein. His grandparents were European Jews who emigrated from Poland and Russia in the early part of the last century. His grandfather, John David Greenstein or "Jack" quickly learned the ropes of the new country and after marrying his sweetheart Mary Rosenfeld, gradually settled into his role as one of Toronto's most prominent furriers. His operations began modestly, but by the 1940's his operations comprised two floors of the Fashion Building in Toronto's garment district. Jack was the king of fur and seemed to know everybody. When we were kids, he used to tell us that two of his more prominent customers were legendary broadcaster Foster Hewitt, and Leaf owner Conn Smythe (he made it a point to mention that whenever he saw him, he would call him "Connie"). As Jack aged, he also told us that he used to babysit Connie, so perhaps his advancing years were becoming a factor in his recollection (an observation validated one day shortly before his death when a group of us took him out to dinner, and upon passing Canada's most prominent museum, The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Jack casually remarked "this is where they slaughter them cats").

Jack and Mary had two boys, Murray and Leonard and the family settled in the Beaches section of Toronto, an unusual choice for a Jewish family, as most of the residents were of British ancestry. Although Jack and Mary consciously made to decision to locate in that part of town, life for the boys wasn't always easy, as they had to endure a steady stream of anti-semetic tuants and abuse. Murray could do one of two things. He could either cower and bury his head in hopes that the abuse would end, or stand up to it. He chose the latter. His chief tormentor during high school was a stocky bully named Bill Kirk, who simply put did not like Jews and let Murray know it every day. After putting up with this abuse for what seemed an eternity, one day Murray decided to fight back. Before an English class the two shared at Toronto's Malvern Collegiate, Kirk came in and started to make comments that it would be only a matter of time before Hitler came to Canada, and when he did he would be hunting down the Greenstein family. With this, Murray flung his desk aside, went to Kirk's face, drew his right arm back and landed a blow square to his nose. Blood poured out and the tought oppressor meekly retreated. Murray was never bothered by Bill Kirk again.

The valuable take-away Murray learned from this incident was that the world could indeed be a mean place, but the only way to address such issues was to tackle them head on. Murray became very resilient after this incident, and would maintain the good fight throughout his life (even after he was diagnosed with brain cancer shortly before his 80th birthday). Tragedy struck the Greenstein family when Leonard died as a teenager of the flu, so it was up to Murray to carry the mantle and maintain a watchful eye on his parents as they grew older. He enlisted with the Canadian military at near the end of World War II, and although he didn't see action, spent a substantial amount of time preparing at Camp Borden, a detachment about two hours north of Toronto. When the war ended, one couldn't avoid being caught up in the euphoria that followed. These were halcyon days indeed, and for a a wide-grinned bachelor just released from his military duties, it was time to celebrate.

During the 1950's, he snubbed his nose at his parents' expectations of him becoming a pharacist or an accountant and instead went into sales. This career choice fit him like a glove, and he began rolling in the dough so he could live the good life. While many of his friends were now chosing to get married, Murray had no intentions of settling down and instead chose to live life to the fullest. He regularly cavorted with his still-single buddies from childhood, regularly taking vacations to exotic ports of call including Miami Beach, Acapulco or Havana. When he was back home, he bought a boat and he and the boys would regularly hop in the car and head down to the Catskills with their bathing suits, record player, a collection of 78s and finely pressed white dinner jackets.

Like all good things, the party had to end at some point, and by the end of the decade, he was one of the last single guys from the wrecking crew he had assembled. But cliches work the other way too, because good things come to those who wait. Shirley Stern was a beautiful young actress from a touring company based on Canada's east coast. Her mother's family had deep roots in New Brunswick, and her father was an enterprising adventurer from South Africa. When Shirley moved to Toronto and met Murray, the rest was just a formality. They were married in 1960 and had two boys, Jeff and Paul. To say Murray and Shirley's approach to parenting was unconventional would be an understatement. For starters, Shirley insisted that from the time they were born they be treated as peers. There was going to be no goo-goo, ga-ga action with the boys, but casual and loving peer interaction. When the boys were young, they were encouraged to look past the suburban sensibilities of the 1960's and look to appreciate all there was in the world.

There was a small street that ran perpendicular to their driveway on Wetherfield Place called Bixby Court. At 3 Bixby Court lived the first Indian family in Toronto, the Gills (no relation), consisting of two brothers and their Nepali wives. It was a lively and unpredictable household, but from the perspective of any other resident of Don Mills, this was about as ethnic a household as there was. Despite the seemingly endless raucous incidents, the strange smells, and the strange clothes worn by the women that to the casual observer looked like living room drapes slung over their shoulders and wrapped around the body, Shirley was intrigued, so intrigued in fact that she walked over to introduce herself and satisfy her curiosity about her exotic neighbors. Shirley and the sisters would become good friends, and all the while the boys had been watching.

I first met PG in kindergarten but didn't become better friends until a few years later. Unlike some other kids who met me for the first time and didn't quite know what to make of me, PG treated me with respect and exhibited the same curiousity his mother had for the Gills. He was quite the renaissance man. He was the best baseball player we knew (a southpaw - by the time we reached high school he was our team's starting pitcher - of course I was his catcher), he could strike a golf ball with deadly accuracy by the time he reached grade 7 (by which point he was shooting in the 80's), he knew every player in the NHL and their stats by heart, and he could tell you any academy award winner (the major categories) since the ceremony's inception. He was also the first one of our group who had the courage to ask a girl out. In grade 5, in front of myself and three other friends, he called a pretty girl named Elise, chatted her up with the banter of an old pro and on the weekend, they made a date to go play pinball - this Greenstein guy was one serious cat.

In grade 6, we were fortunate enough to have one of the coolest teachers a kid could ever have. His name was Robert Brown, had a big afro and bushy moustache, and taught by exposing the class to educational television and playing rock and roll on a small record player he kept in our class. On one particularly cold December day prior to the Christmas holidays, all the kids went outside for recess (as per their normal routine). All of us that is except for one who decided it was too cold to go out and time would be better spent reading the teacher's copy of Canada's National newspaper, The Globe and Mail. What better place to read it than the teacher's desk because the chair allowed him to recline and put his feet up on the desk. When recess was nearing an end, Mr. Brown came back to the class after enjoying a coffee and a cigarette and found his pupil still sitting there reading the paper. Paul had heard Mr. Brown coming but sensed that Mr. Brown would appreciate his free-wheeling tendencies, so didn't flinch an inch when he saw the teacher approach (this would simply be uncool).

"Greenstein, what are you doing?" the teacher asked. "Reading the Globe" replied Paul. "Why didn't you go out for recess?" the teacher continued. "Because it was too cold."

Yes indeed, that little incident may have scored my friend some brownie points, but not on that day at least. Mr. Brown ushered him down to the principal's office where he spent the rest of the day.

By the time we reached junior high, many of the kids who were part of my circle of friends became more and more influenced by the effect of peer group pressure, and very few had any notion of individuality. This was the mid-70's and all of a sudden, and due to fundamental changes in Canada's immigration policy, massive swaths of people from other countries began arriving in Canada. One of the negative fallouts from this influx is that established Canadians from European backgrounds would scapegoat visible minorities for taking all the jobs. The brunt of the backlash was being absorbed by new immigrants from South Asia including India and Pakistan. The unfortunate fallout for me was that all of a sudden, I was lumped into this group of new arrivals and began being treated like a second class citizen or even worse. Many of those people who I thought were my friends began to distance themselves from me, simply because of the colour of my skin. As an eleven year old, I remember seeing the 1956 movie "Invasion of the Body Snatchers", a film about aliens who invade earth and gradually taking over the bodies of their human hosts as they sleep. A person once taken over would be devoid of any human feelings and would immediately look to those who hadn't yet been transformed as been possessed "the other."

This movie was always at the back of my mind when kids who were once my friends started turning away and started taking on all the visibile attributes of those crazy pod people. A few even would join small gangs who would physically intimidate me after school. Amidst all of this turmoil, there was one guy who wouldn't compromise his values. Perhaps it was the lessons he learned from incidents involving Bill Kirk, the Nepali Sisters on Bixby Court, or the immigrant experience explained to him by his grandparents, but Paul Greenstein's character was simply too strong to be swayed by influences that he saw as unjust. Whether he would stick his head into an escalating situation and say "lay off" or roll up his sleeves to get dirty and defend his friend, when any incident came to its natural end, he would brush it off as though nothing happened and say, "Let's get a game of football going." With this, we'd summon the last of the remaining good guys, who remain to this day the salt of earth.

Little wonder then that PG knew that in a hyper consumer world, where anybody with even a bit of money can shop for great things to their heart's content, a parting gift when he bid adieu to Canada was something he knew would be special. A couple of years later, I still absolutely marvel at what an amazing album Esso put together, and how fortunate I am to have had a friend like PG. It should be noted that today, whether it is my wife, my kids, my brother, his kids or my dad, all of us claim a little PG for ourselves. He's been an integral cog in the family for years.

When I began leafing through the album, it had struck me that I clearly remembered the names of the players, their numbers and thier exaact position in the album. More significant though, the sight of these stamps unlocked a flood of memories, not just of the players but the simple lessons I learned through collecting. These little life lessons or stories of the hockey players I followed so closely at that stage in my life formed the foundation of values, or provided early glimpses of the types of themes that would influence my own life as I grew older. As I looked at the stamps, I would see a player who I associated with an incident, and the thematic quality of that incident would paint my perceptions of many influences in life that would follow.

What a neat idea it would be then for me give that album a more thorough look and extract those memories and themes and when completed see if they could be stiched together to form a cohesive narrative that somehow might be able to describe the life I have lived so far. It may also serve to reveal the quality of the love affair this country has with its great wintertime game, and finally, define what it has meant to grow up in Canada at a time when the country was in transition and land up in the place it has today as one of the most well balanced and just societies the world has ever known.