The shadow side of sport

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  It’s NHL playoff time. The Winnipeg Jets, for whom we cheered when we lived there in the 90’s, have gotten a new lease on life and are making the Rest of Canada (outside the GTA) roar. Go, Jets, go!

My own hockey career started…and ended…at 7:00 p.m., Thursday, October 15, 1972.

I might have the details wrong, but I remember the phone call well: “First practice will be at 7:30 a.m., Sunday morning, at the main rink in Sturgeon Falls.” And that was that.

The problem wasn’t that Sturgeon Falls, Ontario, was a 40-minute drive from our home on the east end of North Bay, which would have meant hitting the road no later than 6:30 a.m. for a practice starting an hour later.

That would have been a hassle, to be sure, since my mother was in charge not only of my extracurriculars, but those of my two younger sisters and younger brother, too. (My dad, a busy physician, was entirely occupied driving himself around.)

In the high school years that followed, however, my mother drove me lots of places as I took piano lessons, played football and basketball, ran track, performed in three different school bands, competed with the math team and the “Reach for the Top” team, led the school Christian fellowship, and more. No, my mother could not have been more supportive, and was equally so for my siblings.

What instantly killed my nascent hockey career was not the long, early drive. It was the day of the week: Sunday morning. I didn’t even ask my parents about it. We all knew that Sundays were for church and family, and if playing minor hockey meant disrupting the whole family on a Sunday morning, then minor hockey would go.

I told the coach I wouldn’t be there and would be off the team.

I look back and I realize that my father must have suffered a pang or two at this decision. Why? Because hockey had been hugely important in his life.

Dad grew up in small-town Ontario—very small-town: Norwood, a hamlet outside Peterborough. And the one thing he did very well was play hockey—in goal, before there were facemasks and helmets.

Dad was so good and so dedicated, in fact, that he played for two years in Junior “A” as goalie for the Peterborough Petes. He had his front teeth shot out by eventual Hall of Famer Bobby Hull. Then, two weeks later, he had then shot out again by another: Stan Mikita.

But the puck didn’t go in, baby.

Dad was sufficiently accomplished that he then had to decide whether to “sign his card” and enter the system of the parent team of the Petes, the Montreal Canadiens, or go instead to medical school. Sadly, he chose medicine. He played for two years as goalie for the Queen’s University Golden Gaels, and then had to hang up his skates so he could bear down on his studies.

For him, then, to let his older son start and quit hockey on the same day—just one activity among many for me, but Dad’s First Love—had to have been costly. But I never heard a dissenting word from him—not then, not ever.

When I first saw the movie “Chariots of Fire” and witnessed British runner Eric Liddell giving up his spot in the Olympic Games so as to avoid competing on a Sunday, his logic seemed simply obvious to me. Yet now, in contemporary Canada, it seems almost unthinkable.

Alas, for those days of yore. The whole thing sounds medieval, doesn’t it? Giving up sport for church? Who does that?

So Christian parents communicate priorities to their children. So children get the message that church is optional while sport/family time/leisure is not.

How could children possibly be catechized any more when teachers can’t count on them to be in attendance a dozen Sundays in a row—or even three or four? How can their parents be given anything approaching systematic instruction in the faith when they’re preoccupied with hockey tournaments, or soccer matches, or ski weekends, or getting to the cottage?

And we wonder why the Canadian church is so weak, why volunteers are so few, why tithing is so low, and why evangelism bears so little fruit.

These be thy gods, O Canada. And playoff time is as good a time as any to give them a hard look.

 

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John G. Stackhouse, Jr., PhD, serves as the Samuel J. Mikolaski Professor of Religious Studies at Crandall University in Moncton, New Brunswick. A graduate of Queen’s University, Wheaton Graduate School, and the University of Chicago, he was formerly Professor of Religion at the University of Manitoba and held the Sangwoo Youtong Chee Chair of Theology and Culture at Regent College, Vancouver. He has given interviews to ABC, NBC, CBC, CTV, and Global TV as well as to CBC Radio from coast to coast. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Times Literary Supplement, The Globe and Mail, the National Post, The Atlantic, Time, and Maclean’s. Author of over 800 articles, book chapters, and reviews, his tenth book has been released this year: “Why You’re Here: Ethics for the Real World” (Oxford University Press).