WHAT IT ALL MEANS, PART I
So far the story unspools the way these stories always do: good guy-bad guy, right-wrong, black-white. You don't have to read past the headline to know what happened and form an opinion. It is another tidy front-page morality play that teaches the kiddies a valuable lesson in sportsmanship before working its way backward through the newspaper until it evaporates completely. Seen out of the corner of your eye among the NBA box scores and the strip-joint ads and the PGA Tour money list, the story is just another messy collision between sports and the law, a not very memorable footnote to an age in which athletes seem to spend as much time in court as on it.
But to understand any part of this story, you have to understand all of it.
There is no analogue in the U.S. for the almost chromosomal role hockey plays in Canada's national life. It is omnipresent—everywhere and in everyone—at such a molecular level that even Canadians who hate the game (and there are a few) understand its nuances. In a nation with so much winter and so much ice, hockey is an inevitability; it is as inexorable as the weather. In Canada hockey is the manufacturer of good character. It is myth and science. It is a kind of national dream state. Baseball, the only fitting point of comparison in America, has always been optional, no matter what George Will says. Hockey is to Canada what capitalism is to America: a functioning ideology.
Hence Major Junior hockey.
MAJOR JUNIOR. JUMBO SHRIMP
There are as many divisions in organized Canadian hockey as there are diminutives in the language.
Before a Canadian is old enough to lace up his own skates, he has a league to play in. (Yes, the sport is still mostly about boys, although girls' and women's hockey is growing.) By the time a boy is 10 or 11, it's time for him to start taking the game seriously. His family should, too, because that's when it gets ruthless. And expensive: Equipment. Gas. Registration fees. Food and a room for those weekend tournaments. If you've got more than one child playing the game, better buy a minivan because the average hockey bag is now the size of a Lake Louise summer cabin. And bring a book, because your kids are going to be playing more than 70 games a year by the time they're 12. And don't forget to set aside some cash for power-skating camp next summer. Little Pierre and Gump Jr. and Sue had better attend; by the time they're 13, if they're any good, they're already being scouted.
At the top of this food chain is Major Junior, last stop before the pros. It is made up of 53 teams in three leagues: the Western Hockey League, the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and the Ontario Hockey League. Together, they make up the Canadian Hockey League, which advertises itself as the largest hockey league in the world. If it is not, it is at least the most complicated.