He Shoots, Il Segnare

The tuxedoed violinist takes his position at centre “stage” and launches into heartfelt renditions of the Canadian and Italian national anthems. The gentleman to his right, fittingly dressed in formal black with white, reverently places his hand over his heart. When the last notes of Il Canto degli Italiani waft up to the rafters, respectful claps of wood against ice echo throughout the empty arena, and it’s game on at the always entertaining, sometimes curious, and so very Italian Taddeo’s Monday Night Hockey.

A tradition for almost 35 years, TMNH is made up mainly of ex-pat Ville-Emard Italians — many of whom nowadays find themselves comfortably ensconced in nearby LaSalle and Montreal’s leafy suburbs on the West Island and the South Shore — and a few non-Italians, like me, who come by their borrowed heritage through marriage, and for whom mangia cake, I’m reasonably sure, is meant as a term of endearment.

Three and half decades of Monday night hockey (a run that rivals Monday Night Football), Concordia University Arena, white team against blue team, trades every seven games or so (depending on how things are going), 22 players, 16 Italian, two married to Italians and four who somehow snuck by the Swiss Guard.

It’s been three years for me, which means that I’ve pretty much found my stride on the ice — shoot, go to the net for the rebound, piano piano on the back-check — and, more importantly, in the dressing room, where important matters of the day are deeply discussed: best team in the NHL? top players? trades? no, no and no. It’s more like the subtleties of a good prosciutto, long versus short espresso and the best restaurants.

And then there’s the “S” names.

In Year 1, my rookie season, I was introduced to Sergio, Santo, Sal, and Sabba, who is really Sabatino and who sometimes goes by Moose, Sam, Sebastian, but is really Sebastiano. I’m no Dale Carnegie disciple, so it took me a full three years to get it straight, and not just mumble “Hey, Saa….” every time one of the “S” boys would first offer, “Hi, Jimmy.”

Of course, now that I have it all straight, they tried to trip me up by giving me two Brunos for linemates: one first name, Bruno the door guy (he makes doors), and one last name, belonging to Mike the baker. It would seem easy enough just to yell out Bruno in the heat of battle, but I would never be so rude as to use someone’s family name, especially when Mike the baker makes an Italian sub with hot peppers that you would skate through an ice storm for.

Of course, food is among the most common topics of conversation most nights (more on that later), but so are stories of characters from the old neighbourhood, renovations, wine, grappa or other basement concoctions of nonnos and zios from years past, and, once in a while, hockey. All of the above are discussed week after week at any time before, after and even during the game — often in the middle of the action.

“Hey, Peter,” Tony the business consultant yells to Peter the electrician during a three-on-two rush up the ice, “I thought you were supposed to come over and look at my lights!”

“Yeah, yeah, when I have time,” Peter yells back, with barely enough time to get back into the play.

Michel the linesman (not an Italian: opening scene, Godfather 1 – you don’t know how many times this movie is discussed) runs telephone lines for Bell and is a bull of man who, when at full stride, could be downright terrifying, yet still exhibits a surprising soft side.

“Hey, you smell nice,” he once complimented me while battling for the puck.

Turns out, my wife’s choice of soaps and fabric softeners, with which she scrubs the hell out of my equipment every week, are somewhat pleasing to his discerning sense of smell. How do you say embarrassing in Italian!?

It’s not hard to win the battle for freshest scent at TMNH. You’re up against either ubiquitous hockey-bag reek or mothballs. Ron the organizer and league patriarch, is also known as the “Commish” who, when not looking for spare players or backup goalies at the last minute — or playing violin or piano, or cutting and jarring peppers, or making wine – takes care of all the league’s housekeeping, including mending socks, and washing and storing jerseys between seasons. In mothballs, is my guess! (By the way, rule number 1 for the Commish is call if you have to miss a game. Break rule number 1 and you get a fish in your hockey bag.) Every time I pull on my No. 11, the smell immediately takes me back to all those special dinners at my wife’s nonna’s house when the classy lace tablecloth was pulled out and the chemical smell of naphthalene mixed with the dreamy aroma of sauce, deep-fried zucchini and cutlets.

OK, food. There’s just no escaping it, especially not in a TMNH dressing room, and especially not around the likes of Benny the hunter, who is also Benny the lawyer, and who luckily doesn’t hunt with Sabba, a.k.a. Moose (lucky for Moose), who takes care of a lot of the finer items on the dressing room Christmas menu each year, like sautéed duck, venison pie, giardiniera, and on and on. Others pitch in with homemade pizza, sausage, prosciutto, of course, provolone, panini (thanks, Mike the baker), biscotti, tarallucci, homemade wine, beer, soft drinks, and about a dozen other treats I can’t remember.

The Zamboni driver, also not an Italian (see Godfather reference above), is always invited. You’ve never seen a sheet of ice get cleaned so fast. We’re talking pedal-to-the-metal-lean-on-the-horn-get-me-to-the-goodies fast. And there he sits, smiling, front row centre in the dressing room where two fold-out tables strain under the weight of enough food to feed both teams’ families.

And who could blame him? First, he qualifies as some sort of honorary Italian by virtue of driving a Zamboni. Second, he, me, nobody could help getting caught up in this ultimate expression of Italianness. Watching the boys partake of the festa each Christmas, I can’t help but think it’s not about the hockey. It’s about being Italian. A sociologist might explain how hockey is the mechanism by which this particular tiny sampling of the Italian diaspora gathers to reinforce their already strong identity, and how we could be in Buenos Aires or Sydney, Australia, and the gathering would still occur. Although the sport or social activity would be different (do Italians play rugby?), the chatter would be similar and the food, if not identical, would be as familiar, and certainly as abundant. But this is Canada, so it’s hockey.

I’ve played in a lot of different leagues in my day, and the one common denominator in joining them was you needed to know how to play hockey. You could be Irish, French or Scottish, like me, but you were a hockey player first. At TMNH this essential criterion is no different, except that if you can contribute to the Christmas buffet in a meaningful way, or join in the warmth being so generously offered… well, let’s just say they wouldn’t even mind being called “Saa …” for a few years.

Back on the ice, Mario the Sartorro, aforementioned, in black and white, is also Mario the referee, and is always fashionably turned out, even as arbitro. Once, while leaning over to take a face-off, I remarked: “Mario, your pants have cuffs.” And they did. And they were perfectly pressed, too, with pleats, falling elegantly mid-boot on his skates.

Mario’s reply? “Sure.”

The ref’s pants have pleats. The organizer plays the violin at centre ice. The players are as likely to yell pass the prosciutto as pass the puck. It’s all part of the charm of the TMNH.

After each game, most of the guys go home, but a handful of us sit around and talk, argue and laugh. Mostly, it’s the same old stories told and re-told, even though some of us have been pleading for new material of late. But there’s comfort in old stories, especially those heard for the second, third, or seventh time, and especially when they deal with the important things in life like food, family and sense of place. I figure it’s the essence of being Italian, and that is why I say, cent’anni to Taddeo’s Monday Night Hockey.

Jim McRae lives in Montreal where he runs a publishing and communications firm, Griffintown Media, which recently conceived and produced the best-selling book, Saving Face, The Art and History of the Goalie Mask, (John Wiley and Sons Canada, 2008). Jim is married and has two daughters, both of whom are hockey fans.

First published in Accenti Magazine, Issue 16.

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