OUR GIRL IS SIX and the twin boys are three. The boys have never been to a hockey game; she’s been to one. I’m not sure what made me decide to take them last night, when my wife was otherwise occupied and the kids had given plenty of indication that they’d be a collective handful. I suspect it had much to do with having been inside the house with them all day, not yet halfway through March Break, as well as being caught up in something of a civic mania. I can be impulsive in that way, diving into decisions, especially parenting decisions, paying heed only to to their positive potential (i.e. “It’ll be a blast and will serve to create warm, lasting memories”) and seemingly blind to the negative (“bringing three bored, overtired children to a hockey game, where they’ll have to sit more or less still for two-and-a-half hours, will be nothing short of a nightmare”). But the Peterborough Petes, left for dead after an abysmal start to their OHL season and a desperate December coaching change, have pulled themselves up and now sit on the playoff bubble, battling with Mississauga and Kingston for a spot. Last night was their final regular season home game, against those same Mississauga Steelheads. All day my Twitter feed was alive with chatter concerning the Petes, voicing support, urging solidarity, underscoring the must win-ness of the game. It felt like a great opportunity to bond with our community. It felt like a good chance to show my kids something new. It felt like a way to get out of the house.
I got us tickets.
HOMETOWNS ARE FUNNY THINGS. They are cradles, classrooms, and consolations. They are memorized streets and forgotten weekends. They are both blessing and curse, boon and bane. If you experience success there, you also suffer your greatest defeats. Call me a pessimist, but I can’t see it any other way: if you don’t have a bit of hatred for your hometown, some reserve of animosity, you’re either lying to yourself, or you are much deceived. Good and bad, your hometown is, in a lot of ways that I’m just now coming to comprehend, a large part of who you are.
Understand that I’m not subscribing to any sort of hardline determinism here. I don’t mean to suggest that hometowns make all their people into indistinguishable clones, just that they shape you in ways that only those places can. A pair of brothers from the same town won’t become the same person simply for having both been raised there; the factors of place and time and personal influence work differently on different people. Friends, heroes, the music you love, the books you read — these are all ingredients. You know how your corn chowder recipe never tastes exactly the same one time to the next? Same idea. But one thing doesn’t change: you have to be honest about where you’re from.
We’re not from Peterborough. My wife and I are both from Ottawa, and that’s where our daughter was born. My wife’s parents were civil servants there; my father was a naval officer who wound up, after a somewhat itinerant career, at National Defense Headquarters in Ottawa, and so I grew up in the capital. I have my beefs with that city, with my time there, but there is also a fondness which has crept into my heart, against my expectations, since we left it. It is, for better and worse, my hometown.
But life bucks and swerves. After several fairly idyllic years in our first house, in the country southwest of Ottawa, we followed my wife’s job opportunities to Peterborough five years ago. We bought the house I’m sitting in now, put our daughter in the school that sits across the neighbouring soccer field, and soon had those twin boys. Born a bit early, they spent the first month of their lives on the fifth floor of the hospital that I could see from here, if I were to stand on the roof of this house.
I won’t bore you with details (any more than I already have), but for a number of reasons it seems clear to me that we’re here for good, that wherever we’re from, and wherever we had pictured ourselves, back when it seemed like the world was a blank canvas onto which we might spill our paint in whatever combination of colours we chose, this is our home for the decades to come. Knowing that, I suppose I have embarked on something of a project to give my kids, in Peterborough, a hometown of their own, though it’s not mine and never will be. I don’t want them to inherit the ambivalence I feel toward the place. I do want them to know its flaws as well as its charms, but I want them to be able to place their finger over it on a map and say, “There. That’s where I’m from.” I will, I’m hopeful, succeed in giving them a hometown that they’ll grow to either love or hate. Or, likely as not, both. But it will be theirs to do with as they please.
We will, under this scheme of mine, lash ourselves to this place, to its successes and aspirations, as well as its shortcomings — they are inexorably bonded, after all — and settle in amongst the people of this town. We will play alongside them, and eat with them, and come to love them. We’ll mourn with them, laugh with them, and we’ll get drunk with them. We will, perhaps over time, become one with them, and them with us. We’ll become local.
And in Peterborough, being local means hockey. Knowing it, playing it, watching it, talking it. This is a hockey town down to its marrow, and the Petes, an OHL fixture since 1956, are the team here. They are braided into this town’s DNA. So despite having been a hardluck franchise for several years, and starting off this season so awfully, the Petes are winning now, and the city is enthralled. These days, to be in Peterborough means, for a lot of us, following those boys’ fortunes and — it can hardly be helped — pulling for them to do the unlikely, and squeak into the playoffs. Doing so would require wins this week against both Mississauga and Kingston.
THE NAMES AND FACES of Stevie Y, Scotty Bowman, and Roger Neilson all hang from the rafters of our little barn, the Memorial Centre, which was built on Lansdowne Street in ‘56, the same year the OHL franchise moved here from Kitchener. It’s been gussied up a bit, but it’s still modest. You can cram 4329 souls in there for a game, feed them popcorn and stale nachos and warm beer. Our tickets put us at the north end of the building, behind the goal, about six rows up. My daughter, as she is wont to do, put on an air of experience and authority in leading us to the seats, though she has only been in the arena twice previously. The boys, meanwhile, were wide-eyed with wonder which, if you’re a dad, is precisely what you want your kids to be feeling when you take them to their first hockey game.
When the Petes scored first — Brett Findlay, their leading scorer, at 10:53 — the boys weren’t prepared for the noise. It was impressive, really, that fewer than 4000 people could get that loud. One boy put his hands on his ears. The other buried his head beneath my arm. My daughter, meanwhile, who is the only extrovert among the lot of us, was in her element. She danced.
The Steelheads scored next, but my boys didn’t really understand the inherent drama. They were waiting on the promised reappearance of the Zamboni. My daughter hogged the popcorn and danced some more. I hoped we weren’t annoying all those around us, but the smiles on their faces suggested we were good, if only for the time being.
The teams traded goals in the second, and nobody scored in the third, despite a mad scramble in front of the Petes’ net in the final minute. It was getting late when the horn sounded, and I was worried that we were treading perilously close to a fatigue-induced meltdown. I made to leave, but my girl, who thrives on excitement and drama, talked me into staying for overtime. When that decided nothing, I knew there was no way we were going to skip the shoot-out.
The Petes shot first, Nick Ritchie scoring on a wrister that dribbled so slowly between the goalie’s legs that we’d all given up on it. The Steelheads shot wide, then Tanus for Peterborough missed on a shot that had to be reviewed, leaving us all to stew an extra minute. Percy came up empty for the Steelheads, then Findlay failed to net his shot. Smoskowitz scored next for Mississauga, going to Andrew D’Agostini’s right and waiting him out before putting it past the tender’s skate. The Petes’ Greg Betzold potted one, and I thought I’d lose my voice. My kids, instead of being alarmed, smiled at me.
When Mississauga’s Kristoff Kontos missed his team’s final shot, and the Memorial Centre erupted in celebration, I rose to my feet somehow holding aloft both my daughter and one of my boys. We stood with the good people of Peterborough, elated, exhausted, dazed. Bright lamps lit the stark white ice where the Petes were mobbing D’Agostini, and our faces were glowing in the reflected brilliance, as were the faces of all the other men and women and children. I looked around. There are worse places to be, I thought, and worse people to be with.
We filed out into the brisk night, and made our way across Roger Neilson Way, toward our van. I had one boy in my arms and another by the hand, while my daughter skipped ahead. The breeze carried an early spring tang of earth and damp, alongside cigarette smoke and car exhaust. My children, so small and guileless and full of nothing but hope, I thought, need somewhere to come from. I thought about the old men and women of Peterborough who had been sitting nearby us there, in section 19, eased into their stiff seats, arms thrown back, talking about the boys on the ice, remembering better teams, or maybe their own days on skates. That could be my children, I thought. They could be from here.
I don’t know what’ll happen for these Petes — “the mighty maroon and white,” as they are sometimes known. I don’t know if they can beat the Frontenacs in Kingston on Friday night, as they must if they hope to make the playoffs. Even then they’d certainly be longshots to escape the first round. But who knows? If momentum is a thing, you have to give them some slim chance of doing something amazing. And if that happens, there will be something to cheer about for the people of Peterborough. For us.
I do know that it felt to me as though my harebrained scheme — to convince my kids, and by extension me, that this is their hometown — had advanced a little last night, as though seeds were planted, etc. An evening spent watching OHL hockey among our neighbours and peers, those who sell us our bread and pave our streets and teach our kids — an evening spent cheering the boys who wear our town across their chests — affirmed my suspicion that if we dig deep enough, we just might find something elusive, like community. Like rootedness. Something, maybe, like home.