Wednesday, March 14, 2007

In Praise of Speedskating

My wife, our youngest son and I spent the weekend at the Ontario Speedskating Association's Short Track Provincial Championships in Ottawa. For parents of young competitors, it can be a somewhat gruelling two days. I do not refer to the skating. It's just the getting there and the long days at the rink that are a little onerous.

But, after all, this is Canada; and you can walk into any rink in any town on any weekend in this country and there will be at least twelve brave souls there playing hockey. It may be three o'clock in the morning and the seats may be empty; but someone is on the ice.

What matters is what happens on the ice. And, at the risk of being pilloried for treason, I here state unequivocally that speedskating should be Canada's National Sport.

I did not always feel thus. When I was a kid, and there were only six teams in the NHL, I followed hockey passionately. We lived in Montreal at the time; and a trip to the Forum or a Saturday night watching Hockey Night in Canada was guaranteed to be time well spent. The game was about skating then -- from one end of the ice to the other. And I knew the names and the reputations of everyone of the players on everyone of the six teams.

The game was not without fisticuffs, even then. I was in the Forum the night Lou Fontinado, a tough defenseman who had previously played for the New York Rangers before coming to Montreal, broke his neck. The sound of his head hitting the ice still rings in my memory.

But times and the game and the personnel have changed. The recent incident, in which Chris Simon slashed Ryan Hollweg across the face with his stick, is just the latest in a string of examples which illustrate that the game has become a contest between bullies. It is no longer about outskating and outscoring your opponents. It is about pulverizing them.

Speedskating is about what hockey used to be about -- skating. It is fast and smooth and inclusive. There is poetry in the long strides, the low profiles and the sharp angles as skaters come around the turns. And there is the speed -- blinding, heart pumping, rhythmic speed.

Moreover, there is a place for everyone. The club our son belongs to started out as an activity for Special Olympics folks and it expanded to include kids as young as three and adults well into their sixties. They compete according to their age and ability and everyone finishes the race -- no matter how long it takes.

The sport is not injury free. My wife is currently nursing a broken arm, which occurred at a practice some seven weeks ago. Obviously, she and we wish that it never happened. And friends and family scratch their heads and wonder why someone her age would contemplate participating in what, to them, seems such an extreme sport. But my wife likes to see her times improve; and she likes the head space in which speedskaters live. Even as she comes around the corner -- in last place -- her teammates, young and old -- as well as her competitors -- cheer her on. Our son sets goals for himself -- to shave so many seconds off a race of so many meters; or to achieve a time which will allow him to compete at a particular meet. The path to success in speedskating is the same as the path to success in life.

If visitors, who had never been to this country, asked me to tell them what Canada is like, I would take them to a speedskating competition. Like most Canadians, they would have the experience of sitting in a rink at an ungodly hour. But they would see what is best about Canada; and they would see why some of us call it The Peaceable Kingdom.

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