9 March 2006

Canada's Other National Sport

From Punch Imlach's "Hockey Is A Battle" (which he wrote with a little help from Scott Young, Neil's dad).

People ask me sometimes if I used to do much fighting when I was a player. Well, at my weight I didn't exactly go out looking for fights, but I never backed away from one either. Even if it would have been the smart thing to do. But the one I can remember in most detail wasn't in hockey, but in lacrosse. I'd played the game as a kid in Toronto, but then quit until I hit Cornwall. That's a great lacrosse town. We didn't go into it very seriously but a lot of us wanted to be playing some kind of sport all the time and you couldn't play hockey in the summer. And the second year I was in Quebec City, lacrosse arrived there. They brought in some pretty good players, but they wanted a little local talent too. I wound up playing on the front line with Bobby Thorpe and we had a Hell of a year.

I'll always remember the very last game of lacrosse I ever played. There was a great big guy on the other team, called Windy Debank. He's got to be six feet six, a very tough guy to check. Probably because I was a hockey player, I was put on him. I'm about 165 or 170 at the time, and he is about 220 and so tall that when he got the ball and held it up there was no way you could get the ball away from him - so all you could do was get in his road. So I was told, check, check, check, because this guy could beat a team all by himself.

So here I am checking him in front of the net. He's reaching for the ball to take a pass, he's backing up, and I put my foot out and, bang, down he goes. I didn't pay any more attention to him, but it was a good thing I was wearing a helmet, as I always did in lacrosse. As soon as he got up he hit me right on top of the head. Down I go. I'm trying to get up, and I can't do it - the whole place is going around and around. Down I went again. By that time everybody was grouped around. And finally I did get up and went after him. Well, I couldn't do much, I was still dazed, but I was trying.

The penalties were five minutes to him and two to me. So we're sitting in the penalty box, right beside one another, and I'm telling him, you cocksucker, you gave it to me good, I'm going to get you.

He looked at me and laughed. He said, "You just think you're smart, because you got that job coaching hockey."

"That's right," I said. "And I want to tell you something else. I don't care if I ever play lacrosse again. You're going to get yours as soon as I get on that floor."

He was beginning to pay attention.

"I'm going to tell you exactly what I am going to do," I said. "When I get back on the floor I'm going to tell our guys that when you get back, they are to check every other man and leave you open so that the ball has got to go to you. And when you've got the ball, I'm going to come around and knock your motherfucking head off."

He sat looking at me. "You're crazy," he said.

I got out of the penalty box. He still had three minutes, so I got it all fixed with our guys. Just when he came out there was a stoppage of play. Windy was standing there looking at me. Play started and he got the ball. But as soon as he saw me coming he threw the ball at me and tried to avoid me. It must have looked pretty funny, a little guy trying to beat the tar out of a giant. I'm chasing him, throwing my gloves at him, and finally I do get to him. The only trouble is, he reaches out one hand and pins me against the wire. I'm flailing away but I can't even reach him. I'm screaming at him. And then he's got me pinned there and all I see is his other big fist coming over, looking like a ham coming at me. And I'm trying to duck and saying to myself, "How the Hell did I ever get here?" He hit me and I was out again. Also, I got a game penalty. I never played again. But that big guy was a terrific lacrosse player. Not many like him. He could kill me, wrap me up, and throw me in the canal, and he'd never even know he'd been in a fight.

Why people think any other sport they play is tough besides hockey and lacrosse is beyond me. And what better preparation for life could a young man ask for that would beat being knocked out twice in one game?

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