Thursday, March 25, 2004

The Healing power of Hockey

There's a pretty special thing happening in Fredericton these days, friendships are being formed and damaged relations repaired, all thanks to minor hockey.

Last year a Peewee hockey team from Brockton, Massachusetts arrived in Montreal to take part in a tournament there, something they had been looking forward to all year. The visit went wrong right from the start, as they were unloading their luggage from their bus, it became the target of Anti Iraq war protestors wandering through the streets of Montreal, banging on the bus, cursing and yelling at the passengers, 12 year old boys, the moronic behavior of the protestors causing much alarm amongst the chaperones and players alike. Things didn't get much better as the visit went on, the next night while attending the Bell Centre for a hockey game, normally a festive event for any twelve year old, they heard their anthem booed and their presence in the building mocked. They left after the second period and went home, pulling out of the tournament many vowing to never to return to Canada again.

Over the next week and month, the Brockton Boxers received e mails, letters and various forms of apologies for the boorish behavior of a small portion of Montreal. But one fellow in New Brunswick went the extra step to try and repair the battered image of Canada. Brian Johnson a hockey parent in Fredericton, New Brunswick took it upon himself to try and make amends. He and other parents put in motion plans to bring the Boxers to New Brunswick for a friendly tournament. Approaching the Brockton parents himself, Johnson started in motion an event, that has mushroomed into a symbol of good will and good sporstmanship. The Premier of New Brunswick visited the Massachusetts state House last week with team jackets and personal invitations to attend. Setting the tone for what was to come.

The Boxers traveled to New Brunswick yesterday, met at the border by an RCMP honour guard, a police escort through St. Stephen, the border crossing and hundreds of minor hockey players banging their sticks in salute as they crossed into the province. The fence mending has continued in Fredericton with a gala dinner with Frank Mahovolich as a keynote speaker, a friendly hockey game in the midst of the Canadian University championships and a pond hockey game with the Stanley Cup on the banks of the pond for inspiration. To show twelve year old kids that there really are no differences between the two countries, the teams were deliberately split up, Canadian and American peewees playing on the same sides, in Canadian and American sweaters. The score an 8-7 USA victory, irrelevant to the friendships being created.

Brockton Mayor Jack Yunnits says his kids are walking on air, overwhelmed by the reception. You can't help but admire the tenacity of Mr. Johnson, for taking on a task such as this. While the cards, letters and e mails probably had started to soothe the justifiably bad image our country received, Mr. Johnson took it to another level, getting out and doing something about it. Showing a group of twelve year olds that they really shouldn't have been held accountable for decisions made by adults. As much as we treasure the idea of free speech and the right to protest, treating 12 year old boys as badly as these ones were treated, doesn't put a particularly good light on our sense of perspective. Fortunately the attitudes of those in Montreal those days reflect the smallest minority of Canadian opinion, the reaction to the incident from ordinary Canadians a much more telltale indication of Canadian beliefs.

But as it always will be, it's the kids that once again help us to recapture some sense of doing the right thing. In a month where hockey seems to have been under attack from all corners, the events in New Brunswick this week give you some hope. The Brockton Boxer and Fredericton Canadien players, 12 year olds that they are, could probably teach the boors of a year ago a lesson in civility. The ability to share good times and good competition in New Brunswick says a lot about their character. The fact that the hockey parents of New Brunswick went to such remarkable lengths to reverse the bad feelings tells us a bit about ours as well.

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