Lesson One: Wherever Possible, Pretend You're a Beatle
A few days before my 49th birthday, our band landed in Vancouver on our way to Prince George, BC. Don said: "Wanna go to Stanley Park?" I hadn't been there in ages, not since my first visit 25 years ago. So me and Don and Kev and Link, we rented bikes, rolling into a forest path cooled by the shade of fat trunked trees and a forest bed of natural green upholstery. We told stupid jokes and talked about 54/40 and guitar pickups and boobs and scrotums as we followed the ribbon around the edge of the park in the early autumn sunshine.
My first few visits to the coast had been fraught with the struggles of young adulthood -- where would I be at the end of this tour? What about me had changed forever? Would I see myself the same way after thousands of kilometres of reflection in the van windows? But this time we were four laughing men on bikes -- rolling idiots; bandmates-- freed from the struggle of self-invention and the insecurities that come with growing up.
Someone joked said that the scene was like something out of "Hard Day's Night," and while it's how we saw ourselves in the moment -- darting blazer'ed between longboarders and strolling couples past sandy beaches crowded with bronzed chests and bikini bottoms -- our performance was unconvincing to anyone but us. Still, we rode high on our seats; part fools, part kings. We were moving, moving, moving.
Lesson Two: Always Bug Someone Younger Than You
The following morning, we flew to Prince George. We'd been invited to help the YMCA of PG celebrate their Champions' Weekend, which, for us, involved two shows at a steak and wings' beer bar called Shooters as well as participation in their three on three hockey tournament, which involved dozens of area players (despite being warned of our scrub pedigrees, they invited us anyway).
The Y is vital to a city troubled by economic issues -- thousands of people live below the poverty line and youthful dissolution; the scourge of bath salts being the latest concern (kids smoke it there). After arriving, we were shuttled from site to site to site: the new Canada Games offices to the town's brown and grey totem -- Mr. PG, a depanted steel monolith built out of old septic tanks -- before ending up at one of the city rinks, where the Junior A Prince George Cougars were preparing to play the Edmonton Oil Kings, last year's Western Conference Champs.
Junior hockey players always seem impossibly young, more so when you meet them in person. We were brought into the Cougars' dressing room and shown around before being introduced to the team, which included Avs' third round draft pick Troy Bourke. The players suffered through the exercise, but I know what I would have been thinking had I been forced to stand youthful and track-suited around four weathered musicians: "These guys are ancient. Like The Beatles or something."
I was told that one of the players came from Las Vegas, and I found myself standing next to him in the photo. After being positioned for the shot, I asked him about playing in the desert -- having once written a story about his local team, the Las Vegas Wranglers, I knew my Nevada hockey history -- and he answered each question with single words: "Ya. No. Ya. Okay. Good" -- his voice weighted with equal measures boredom, duty, politeness, and the sense that he would have preferred being elsewhere.
This only made me hector him further: "Is Sean Lampright still playing?" "How are things at the Orleans rink?" "Did you ever see Daniel Ryder skate for the Wranglers?" Finally, this young man and his team-mates -- all of them approaching the precipice of their lives; both terrified and thrilled to be there -- were excused from the exercise, but not before promising to come to our show that night. Which, of course, not a single player did.
Lesson Three: The Little Bones are Never Far Behind
According to one of the Shooters' bartenders -- named either Sheri or Brandi or Sandi -- the crowd at the gig that night was biggest they'd had in years. Alas, it was a small blessing on an evening that pulled me back in time, forcing me to remember my early years fighting through difficult sound rigs playing on weird stages to people who watched us suspiciously before wildly dancing post-gig to canned Dwight Yokum songs.
The whole scene made me think of how, at 22, I carried around the misfortune of shows for days and weeks, wondering what I'd done to be put in such compromising and defeating situations before realizing that it's what everyone has to do before they get anywhere. Afterwards, the band and I talked about failure -- our advanced years provided us with the ability to have a sobering discussion about this kind of thing -- and, in the end, the triumph of our maturity erased however tender my feelings had become during the show. At the end of the night, Mark Miller put his hand on my shoulder and reminded me: "You have to be at the rink at 8 am for your tournament game tomorrow." I said: "You're kidding, right?" He told me that he wasn't.
Lesson Four: Whenever You Get a Chance to Skate: Skate.
The alarm rang at 7 am. We joined our team feeling sore and wretched in a dressing room of the old Coliseum rink, only to find the other players -- most of them in the early 20s -- complaining about being hungover before climbing ably into their gear while Don and Kevin and I strained to tie our skates. Nobody played well, and we lost 12-6.
With a few hours before our next game, we sat around exhausted before Tony, our elastic goalie, talked about his days playing junior hockey, and how politics had driven him from the game. "I ended up quitting on my own," he said, "but if it hadn't been on my terms, I wouldn't be playing here with you guys, having fun. I have friends who won't even go near a rink because of their experiences, but me, I decided to make the decision on my own, and I'm glad I did. I had some great times, but the end wasn't pretty."
Tony talked about playing with and against Carey Price -- epic northern BC battles between emerging goaltending prodigies -- and it struck me how mature he sounded, even though he was just a kid. In the end, it was failure and disappointment that allowed Tony to relate to us, and vice versa, and pretty soon, the other players opened up: talking about chances missed; imposing parents; bad coaches; and unfortunate injuries before someone said "I heard that Martine Pendergrast slept with Maurice Richards' grandson." Then we told old stupid jokes and talked about 54/40 and guitar pickups and boobs and scrotums before hitting the ice for our last game.
Despite feeling dead-legged and brittle, we played the game of our lives; or at least the game of our lives in Prince George. Skating against a team with a few minor pros and Allan Cup winners, we held them to a 4-4 tie (they would go on to win the tournament) and at one point, me, Don and Kevin hooked up in the waning seconds for a play that nearly resulted in the winning goal. That we didn't score wasn't beside the point; it was the point.
There we were: three fortysomethings propelled by the sheer thrill of moving, moving, and moving; better men and stronger artists having spent our formative years feeding the meat of our soul to the hounds of failure. After the game, Sean, one of the youngest players said: "Not only are you guys good musicians, but you're great hockey players, too."
Of course, he was wrong. But it felt great to hear.