I’ve been playing pickup hockey with basically the same group of guys for more than a decade. They’re all good guys, which in the hockey context means they pass the puck semi-regularly, keep it clean in the corners, and mostly limit their shifts to two or so minutes. Over the years we’ve spent a lot of time together in dressing rooms and on benches between shifts, and have settled into a few comfortably predictable social rhythms: keep the trash talk friendly, banter about the professional game, tell outlandish stories if you’ve got ‘em (truthiness required), and complain a lot about getting old.
The jovial and surface-level vibe of the dressing room obscures the fact that, as Bill Gaston puts it in his old-timer hockey memoir, “all of these guys have these huge, complicated lives, just like me, and it never gets talked about.” To be honest, we don’t really want to know much about each others’ lives. Hockey is our escape from whatever heartaches and natural shocks we each face in the real world, and the buzz of good-natured insults and anecdotes around the dressing room insulates us from the possibility of spoiling this by getting serious.
THINGS GET SERIOUS
Every once in awhile, though, something serious happens that can’t be ignored. A few years ago one of the guys, Dave, didn’t show up for the first skate of the season. When we learned that he had been diagnosed with ALS, sad murmurs circled the dressing room. “What a shame. Guess it’s time for Dave to hangummup.” This emotionally-arms-length phrase (which I’ve written the way it’s actually uttered using Gaston’s phonetic spelling), is our way of expressing the unthinkable prospect of quitting hockey for good. It refers to putting your skates away one final time, and is perhaps as close as we come in the dressing room to expressing genuine sadness.
As far as I can remember, this is all that was said around the rink about Dave’s absence and disease. It would seem that the unwritten rule of avoiding the serious is taken pretty seriously. But as Dave went downhill, someone got an email from his wife with an unanticipated question: he can’t come to the rink, so could we perhaps take the dressing room to him? Struggling with ALS is the ultimate serious, and it turns out that Dave was missing the purely surface-level clowning and camaraderie that bookends whatever happens on the ice. So a bunch of the guys went over for pizza and beer, and did this several times before Dave’s decline faded out into his eventual demise.
When Dave died a few weeks ago, we got an email from his wife thanking “his team” for the visits. They had meant a lot to him. Before our next game we met at centre ice for a moment of silence to honour Dave. One of the goalies mentioned that he would collect memorial donations for ALS research if anyone wanted to chip in. Some of the guys were fighting tears. Then the puck dropped, and the game began. Pretty soon someone missed a shot from the high slot, and a chorus of taunting ensued from the bench. “What’s the matter, Frank? All Swedish no Finnish?” The regular order of things had been restored.
HOW TO TALK ABOUT DEATH?
I really like the fact that there is one small corner of my life where the absence of seriousness is sacrosanct. It’s an oasis. But as I’ve thought about Dave’s death, I’ve wondered whether a moment of silence at centre ice was enough. Maybe it wasn’t just our unspoken prohibition on seriousness that kept us from discussing Dave’s passing and what it meant. And just to be clear, I don’t mean passing in the hockey sense – we wouldn’t want to speak ill of the dead. At least part of the reason we didn’t really process Dave’s death, I think, is that our largely secular society lacks the emotional, liturgical, and theological tools to deal with this difficult reality. Because of this, people are afraid to broach the subject. It makes them uncomfortable, even terrified. My wife is a hospital social worker, and she routinely sees families stubbornly choose to prolong the suffering of a terminal relative who is well past any hope of recovery, simply because they cannot handle the prospect of death. Our society would prefer to defer, ignore and gloss over the inevitable end that we all ultimately face.
I don’t pretend to know what I should have said or done differently to help our hockey group reckon with Dave’s death. And I don’t know what my wife might say, exactly, to a family who refuses to accept the reality of death’s impending sting in their midst. Many of us have experienced similar situations among secular colleagues or acquaintances. What I do know, though, is that at moments like these I am immensely grateful that I serve a risen Saviour “who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10). It gives me existential peace. While I don’t look forward to death, I don’t really fear it. Augustine sums up this mindset well: “We want to reach the kingdom of God, but we don’t want to travel by way of death. And yet there stands Necessity saying: ‘This way, please.’ Do not hesitate, man, to go this way, when this is the way that God came to you.”
I’d like to think of a way to share this peace in the dressing room, but I don’t know how to do it without getting too serious. Maybe one of my favourite hockey jokes could be the way in: “He never won the Vezina, but Jesus saves. . . .”
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