There’s method in our greyness

Catching up: A version or this column appeared in The Sault Star in December.

Columnist Gene Monin, who has shared his insight and compassion with Sault Star readers for several decades, wrote this recently:

“You are old for a reason.”

I found that reassuring, though lately I’ve suspected that the main reason I’m aging might be to provide amusement for some sadistic lesser deity.

Pains, aches, fatigue and inability to make machinery and technology do what you want it to do seem to be the defining characteristics of post-retirement existence.

That’s never so evident as when older guys gather to play hockey.

Many of us arrive about ten minutes earlier than we used to in case we have to remove all of our equipment to put on a forgotten brace or support.

We do lengthy and vigorous pregame stretches just tying up our skates.

As with the pros, our games are won or lost by the mistakes we make. Unlike the pros, it would take a ridiculous amount of time (and better memories than we possess) to count all of the things we manage to screw up.

If we assessed tripping penalties, our own feet and the bluelines would spend a lot of time in the penalty box.

My own goaltending style looks like it’s been modelled on Wile E. Coyote. The other day I glided across the crease to confront a shooter,  then slid by him toward the backboards when a gimpy knee gave out. I could have held up a sign saying “Free Goal,” if I’d had the energy to do so.

But as we wince and groan and dial up chiropractors in the dressing room after the game, these words inevitably will be uttered: “Consider the alternative.”

The alternative can be found in obituary pages populated by too many friends and acquaintances. 

It’s also found on the growing roll of former teammates who discover that playing hockey, even as slowly as we do it, violates the warranty on that new knee or pacemaker.

Some who have been forced to give up the game drop in for a visit now and then, either for the fellowship or because they’re having trouble sleeping and think watching the glacial pace of our skating might do the trick.

But reading deeper into Gene Monin’s column I find that he believes one of the reasons for which we are old is to teach the very young all the wisdom we have learned through hard experience.

And yes, spending time with grandkids is a big and rewarding part of many a retiree’s life, though like hockey our bodies can handle grandparenting only in short shifts.

But if I have taught my grandkids anything it’s been inadvertent, because I think kids have more than enough people telling them what to do these days.

Still, the little ones really do soak up everything grandpa does or says, especially if it’s something he regrets doing or saying.

They have better memories than Facebook or Twitter. One grandparental slip of the lip can become family lore.

So as we grow old together I find that “What I really meant was . . .” and “Grandpa probably shouldn’t have done that” are clubs often pulled from the grandparenting bag.

Gene astutely narrowed old folks’ teaching targets to the “very” young. That excludes teenagers, which probably is a good coping strategy for grandparents.

I have a teenaged grandson who slow-claps whenever I utter a “grandpa joke.” So I’m hearing a lot of slow-clapping these days.

He’s a great kid, but I suspect that puberty is closing his ears to any wisdom I might have acquired over the past half century or so and care to pass on. 

Fair play. I stopped listening to my elders at the dawning of the age of acne. I started listening to them again only when I realized I could pick up some good tips about travel destinations and bargains.

Because although Gene Monin doesn’t say so, it appears one of the reasons people in my cohort get old is so they can enjoy relatively inexpensive winter vacations to warm destinations. No more Spring Break ripoff.

Mind you, there may come a time when medical conditions and general incapacity put an end to travel.

When that happens I hope Gene Monin’s still writing so he can tell me why I’m getting really, really, really old.

Jacques helped me save face

(Catching up: A version of this appeared in The Sault Star Nov. 7)

Last Halloween I wore my old “Jacques Plante” goalie mask while dishing out treats at one of my kids’ houses.

I worried that the tiniest tots might be frightened, but they took it in stride. Perhaps because Halloween turns their whole world upside down, a masked man is just one more strange thing on a strange night.

But one smart seven-or-so-year-old (well not that smart, because he was dressed as Toronto Maple Leaf) figured it out.

Vintage goalie mask: not for sale. Vintage goalie: Not worth selling.

“That’s a really old goalie mask,” he said. “Why are you wearing it?”

“Because I’m a really, really old goalie,” I told him.

I’m also a really old humour columnist. And a couple of days earlier I’d run into someone who thought my goalie mask had something to do with that. 

This friend, legendary in local oldtimer hockey circles, is a delightful man who tends to speak using the upper case characters on the number keys.

“Too many pucks in the f – – – ing head, that’s why you’re so f – – – ing funny,” he theorized for the edification of me and a sizeable number of f – – – ing shoppers within earshot.

I truth, I’ve taken a lot of pucks to the head, f – – – ing or otherwise, in my goaltending career, which has lasted as long as the half-life of a disposable water bottle. 

Still do. You might think getting it up would be a challenge for guys as old as those I play against, but they manage to tattoo my mask while aiming for the bottom corner stick side.

Modern goalie mask technology leaves me relatively un-concussed.

Sadly, modern goalie mask technology didn’t exist when I was a kid. We used baseball mask technology. I wore a catcher’s mask until I was in my early teens (along with an infielder’s glove until they made me don a goalie trapper that employed pieces of 1/8-inch doweling in a largely symbolic attempt to prevent wrist damage).

But in the era just before me, goalies didn’t wear masks or headgear. Watch a clip of National Hockey League action from the 1950s and you’ll shudder at the spectacle of bare-faced goalies diving in front of pucks and skates and sticks with no protection above the flimsy quilted arm and chest protectors they wore.

Jacques Plante changed all that on All-Saints day 60 years ago. 

Of course, the legendary Montreal Canadien changed the whole style of goaltending by roaming from his crease to play the puck and challenge opposing forwards. He also solidified the notion that goalies are flakes by knitting his own undergarments and toques.

On that monumental Nov. 1, 1959, Jake the Snake Plante was flooding the ice with blood after stopping an Andy Bathgate backhand with his mouth.

“I rushed down to the dressing room and there was Plante, looking in the mirror and separating the cut,” recalled legendary sportswriter Red Fisher. 

“‘Pretty ugly,’ he said to me. I said, ‘Yeah, well you had a good start Jacques. Then he laid down on the table and was stitched by the doctor.”

Plante agreed to return to the ice, but only if he wore a mask he used in practice. Next game he said he wouldn’t play unless he could wear that mask in every game. 

NHL coaches, none of whom had tended goal, thought wearing a mask would make a goalie a sissy. But Plante prevailed.

My own antique mask is almost as old as Plante’s, probably dating back to 1962. It was second-hand; until my mid-teens I was not aware that hockey equipment could be new.

It was constructed of some sort of fibreglass material, based on a mold of the user’s face. The guy I bought it from had a big nose, so when I wore it I had to listen to opposing forwards mock me for a giant schnoz I didn’t actually possess.

But I did like to stick my nose into things on the ice, so fair game.

Today that mask reminds me of how enthralled a much-much-younger me was with hockey and how thrilled I am to be able to stumble onto the ice a couple of generations later. 

Funny thing, it’s sort of become my signature; I use it as the author photo in my book of humour columns. 

And thanks to Jacques Plante the face behind the mask isn’t quite as funny-looking as it might be.