"The ink was not distilled from crows, but from black cormorant feathers and brought all the way from Fukushima because the birds in that prefecture were rumoured to be mute..."
The Original Six: True Stories From Hockey's Classic Era
Edited by Paul Quarrington
Reed Books Canada, 160 pages, $21.99
Author interview with Paul Quarrington and Dave Bidini
According to Dave Bidini, rhythm guitarist for the Rheostatics, hockey means more to most Canadians than just "sport". "It's about life and death," says Bidini, "It's about obsession. It's about being consumed with the game."
An obsession with "a game" is something more than a coughing fit of home-team rah-rah support at the end of a hockey season. Obsession, in its most elegant form, is ultimately about story. This is a recent discovery for me, but I think grown men trade hockey statistics to grasp something more profound than simply learning who might have won the Stanley Cup in 1973. They are consumed by the how and the why, the characters and the story itself. They know the name Andy Bathgate because he shot the puck that transformed the game forever. He was the man who sent The Hockey Player reeling toward the almighty Hockey Mask. History was changed.
This kind of information was trading fast and furious over a certain bar table in Calgary last weekend. Dave Bidini and hockey poet Richard Harrison were huddled in conspiracy, sharing hockey statistics like wine gums, minutes after meeting each other for the first time. Novelist Paul Quarrington leaned into their conversation, saying ask me another, go ahead, ask away. And the evening just disappeared.
It's hard not to appreciate the intensity of The Hockey Obsession when you notice three men are still talking about it at four in the morning. Only food can intervene.
Bidini and Quarrington were in Calgary and Banff last week to visit WordFest and read from their short story collection, entitled The Original Six: True Stories From Hockey's Classic Era. Quarrington edited the collection and wrote one story about Eddie Shore of the Boston Bruins. Bidini's contribution was assembling the illustrations for the book and writing a story about Chicago's Charlie Gardiner. Four other tales track odd moments and larger-than-life characters in hockey history when the Canadians, the Wings, the Leafs and the Rangers transcended hockey into something truly mythic.
But Bidini is quick to explain that the collection isn't nostalgic. "This country," he says, "stands still when hockey is played at a certain level, on those emotional levels. Hockey back then was heroic. Every player in the Original Six played and it wasn't about money. Hockey became a good example of those who try to conquer their physical bounds. Look at little guys like Theoran Fleury, Bobby Clark who had diabetes, Eddie Shore, Kevin Dineen, or Joey Mullen who learned to play on roller skates in Hell's kitchen and became the highest scoring American-born hockey player."
Bidini, stirred by the poetry of the sport, the moment of game's transcendence, whispers, "It's more than a game. Two guys go into a corner. One guy comes out. Why?"
Quarrington interjects: "He got there first you mean?"
Jerked out of transcendence, Bidini nods.
In the introduction to this entertaining and skate-sharp book, Quarrington writes that he asked his contributors to try a "little fiction." This advise is cautioned with the words: "Just make sure it's true." But the question of this veracity is intriguing: Just how true are these True Stories from Hockey's Classic Era?
Bidini doesn't worry about the distinction. He actually shrugs, "What is truth my friend?"
Quarrington picks up the play, "Ah, but in what sense do we use the word "true" -- true in the sense that we mean true lies? Yes, I think that's defensible."
I look to Bidini for his own defense, but he's sticking with Quarrington: "What he said."
Pressed further, Quarrington admits, "the kernel was always some magic story, myth or anecdote that we encouraged a little. Sometimes it's a good idea to just let yourself go. But I love structure, actually. Write that down. I love structure."
Pressed even further, Quarrington says: "All I really did was have a couple of lunches with everyone and assembled the stories together in an arbitrary sort of way."
"I didn't get a lunch," says Bidini.
"You didn't get a lunch?"
"No. I didn't get a lunch."
"Well," says Quarrington, "your story was so good you didn't need editing."
Pressed further than ever, Quarrington finally admits: "As a kid, I didn't care much for the game. But I'm enjoying my adolescence now. In a sense, this book was just a side door to get back into sports and hang around sports writers...Sports writers who drink too much diet coke and move from game to game in one intimidating mass."
The truth of this hockey anthology is beginning to resemble the same truth of a fishing story, well told. On one level, these stories aren't even about hockey. Trent Frayne's story is about memory. Judith Fitzgerald's is about family. Wayne Johnston's tale is about the Rocket Richard's ghost writer, a St. Patrick's Day riot and conviction.
I decide to focus on the details, those moments in time when famous hockey players actually speak. The book is chock-full of hockey slang, tough and (presumably) classic. In Quarrington's story, a player "drops the dot" to teammates who "make Swiss cheese out of opposing goalies." Another swats horseflies like "King Stork."
"That phrase is in Roget's," says Quarrington. "I'm not sure what I was looking up but I think that's what Eddie Shore would have said."
Bidini's story adopts a similar tone. There is a wonderful reference to a player who can, presumably, "hit a squirrel's ass with a cherry tomato." "Hey that part's true," he says. "That's the one true thing in the whole story. All summer long a squirrel was digging in our garden, tormenting my wife. One day, late in the season, she chased him out of the garden and he actually came back, turned around and flashed his bum at her! She picked up a cherry tomato and hit him squarely on the ass. That's a true story."
Quarrington edits this revelation immediately. "What really happened is this: Dave Bidini is in the house, writing his hockey story when a squirrel runs out of his wife's garden.. She calls Dave to tell him she just hit a squirrel in the ass with a cherry tomato and he says, 'not now dear, I'm trying to find just the right phrase for shooting the puck in the net.'"
Bidini laughs. Their partnership is genuine and Quarrington's editing (in both manuscript and this interview) is obviously enjoyed.
I ask them if they are working on a sequel. More Original Six?
Quarrington answers, "An expansion, actually. We do the expansion teams next. Twenty-one writers, then I'll be earning my fair wage ... neither a pittance nor an exorbitant sum."
As for Bidini (performing with the Rheostatics next month in Calgary), he's just finished acting one of the stories out in a short film project, playing Quarrington's creation, Eddie Shore. The film is complete, despite the task of simulating a snow storm in the middle of an Ontario summer. But Bidini enjoyed the acting debut so much he has plans to move the band toward this new hobby.
"It's true," he says, "We've always wanted to do a musical, actually. We're hoping hockey writing is becoming hip. In England soccer writing is in. Here in Canada, bands like the Hanson brothers are already playing hockey songs. They're the Romones meets hockey."
"I love structure," says Quarrington.
© Copyright 2006-2008 Peter Oliva. All Rights Reserved.