Guy Lawson on hockey, fighting and national pride

Lawson’s “Hockey Nights” is a study of national pride as seen through the Flin Flon Bombers. “Hockey Nights” by Guy Lawson, Harper’s, January 1998 By Rebecca Melnyk At the beginning of Guy Lawson’s feature “Hockey Nights,” it’s twilight in Flin Flon, Man., a mining town with not much culture. But whether we want to be…

Lawson’s “Hockey Nights” is a study of national pride as seen through the Flin Flon Bombers.

“Hockey Nights” by Guy Lawson, Harper’s, January 1998

By Rebecca Melnyk

At the beginning of Guy Lawson’s feature “Hockey Nights,” it’s twilight in Flin Flon, Man., a mining town with not much culture. But whether we want to be there (a 10-hour drive northwest of Winnipeg) or not, there’s no turning back. After the short opening scene, we already know what drug local high-school students are on (LSD), the attitude towards strangers who wander into the Flin Flon Hotel and what coins gamblers are dropping into slot machines down the street.

Such cinematic detail pulls us into a town once called “an ugly blotch on a barren rocky landscape.” We find out, early on, why Lawson wrote 9,970 words about the place. Not only “the heartland of Canada’s national game,” it is where he played hockey 17 years earlier, in a league one level below the juniors—a path he “had chosen not to take.”

The descriptive details of Flin Flon quickly become background to a larger story, a personal exploration for Lawson to understand or possibly reaffirm why he decided to quit competitive hockey. We follow him back to this town, where he spends the first month of the new season with the Flin Flon Bombers, the resident Junior “A” hockey team that has cultivated several professional players, most notably one-time Philadelphia Flyers captain Bobby Clarke.

By going there, Lawson invites us to perceive the Canadian tradition of hockey in a new way. He does not stalk future National Hockey League stars with a tape recorder or sit in the front row of a playoff game. Instead, he hangs around the living rooms of everyday players. In turn, the structure of the piece is built not only on the careful observation of the town, but through in-depth characterizations, formed by Lawson’s immersion inside the ordinary lives of the Bombers.

The one-on-one time he spends with young players nicknamed Meeks (winger) and Dodger (goalie) is invaluable because they become the characters who form the narrative arc. When Lawson first introduces us to Meeks, he shows his adversity to fighting. A scene where the Bombers play a carefree game of scrub hockey—away from coaches and fans—tied with Meeks’s desire to play every game rather than get kicked off for fighting, sets up the theme: that hockey has become more complicated, a game less likely to be “played purely for its own sake.”

Then Lawson takes us deeper. When he goes fishing for pickerel with Meeks, he’s also trawling for narrative material. And he reels in a gem. “I just want to turn into a professional fisherman,” Meeks says. “Stay out on the water and think about life.”

Lawson continues to offer glimpses into why the young player may lose motivation for the game. We’re privy to intimate details, such as learning Meeks’s father and brother taught him to fight when he was 13.

Lawson filters Meeks’s experiences through his own mind, reflecting back to when his father thought the opposite: that if he fought, he wouldn’t play. By doing so, Lawson shows us a parallel between him and Meeks, whose internal struggles often drive the narrative forward to reveal Lawson’s own inner conflict with the sport. “The real reason I quit playing, though, what I didn’t tell my friends, was that at the time, I had grown to hate hockey,” Lawson says. “It was in rinks like the Colosseum that I realized I had become, as they would say in Flin Flon, a pussy.”

No character is too insignificant. One day Lawson is on a bus with the Bombers, wheeling along the rutted back roads of Saskatchewan. Another day he’s drinking strawberry milkshakes at an A&W with the “Pucks and Bikes,” tough female hockey groupies who hang around the Bombers, and are, according to them, their “only friends.”

Not only through the perspective of these various characters does the piece become cohesive, but also through Lawson’s crafty eye. The author juxtaposes scenes to show us how acting tough is an ingrained part of hockey culture that extends past the Plexiglas into the streets. He moves to the stands, where miners and other locals are quick to belittle the Bombers for not playing rough. Then we’re in a bar where an ex-hockey dad keenly remembers a brawl that he witnessed, one resulting in blood-splotched raffle tickets he couldn’t sell. Then we’re at a scene of two young boys shouting homosexual slurs while pushing each other to the ground.

Some sources, like Dodger, ration out intimate life details, but Lawson is there, helping him collect empty pop cans for resale, patiently waiting to scoop up the whole story. What he finds out—a local Aboriginal woman was murdered at the hands of Dodger’s best hockey buddy—serves as a ghostly parallel to the violence encouraged on the ice. Lawson’s feature is not just a meditation on junior hockey—it asks readers to rethink the idea of how culture can breed aggression.

You don’t have to watch, or even love, hockey to appreciate this 17-year-old Harper’s piece. Many reluctant hockey fans woke up earlier than normal to watch Canada beat Sweden in the Gold Medal game at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics. Afterwards, they piled into places like Toronto’s Dundas Square to hug and high-five strangers with whom they took selfies.

Flin Flon is a microscopic study of this national pride. At one point, Lawson describes the local Donut King, where a girl named Susie works behind the counter, as his makeshift office. Susie doesn’t understand why anyone would want to write about Flin Flon. “There’s nothing to write about,” she says, but Lawson proves her wrong. The everyday in “Hockey Nights” is far from mundane—it burns holes through some preconceptions about our national sport, and it lights up the streets of a small town that depends on winning not only games, but also fights. In these seemingly tiny pockets of the country, there is much to write about.

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Students and non-students alike may write a Great Canadian Literary Journalism story on a worthy piece of literary journalism/long form/feature writing/reportage. If interested, please contact Bill Reynolds, reynolds@ryerson.ca.