My first memory of hockey was the 1987 Canada Cup. It was September, and Canada and the USSR were in the thick of battle, tied 1-1 in the three-game final. Some other neighbourhood kids and I liked to play hockey on the tennis courts. As I recall, the weeds growing out of the cracks often played better defence than we did.
I remember leaving in the middle of a game and running home crying. Now, I would like to tell you that I was crying because I missed an empty net or gave up an errant pass, which led to the other team scoring a goal. The reality was far worse than that. During a break in play, the six or seven of us were talking about the Canada Cup. I mentioned that I would be praying Canada would win the next night. That’s when one of the boys said something I would never forget.
“Who are you going to pray to? Those bearded guys with the towels on their heads?” he sneered. (I won’t mention his name since I would like to believe he has changed his attitude in the past 20 years.)
I wanted to punch that kid in the face. “Hey, I can pray to whoever I want!”
He laughed. “Doesn’t matter anyways, it’s not like you’re Canadian. You can’t cheer for Team Canada, you Hindu! Go cheer for India if they ever get a team.” That made all the other boys laugh.
I am a Sikh, not a Hindu, but people who are racist don’t really care. To them, they think they are insulting me by calling me names. Instead, they’re proving how ignorant they are.
Telling them that I was born in Canada and just as Canadian as any of them would have been fruitless. So I picked up my red and white Titan hockey stick (the one just like Wayne Gretzky used to use) and ran home. Somewhere between the tennis courts and my house four blocks away the tears started to flow.
Now, you might think I was crying at the rude comments, but what hurt me most was the remark that I couldn’t cheer for Canada. Not being able to cheer for players like Gretzky, Mario Lemieux and Mark Messier was an unbearable thought for me. It was more depressing than anything else the young boy had said.
The next night my sister Jas and I were two feet away from the television. The score was 5-5 with about two minutes left in the game. I didn’t want the game to go to overtime, so I started to pray to the Ten Gurus of Sikhism. I asked them to let Canada win this one and I would never pray for anything again. That’s when I heard the announcer saying “…and now here’s a two-on-one, Lemieux to Gretzky, he’s got Murphy with him, to Lemieux . . . HE SHOOTS, HE SCOOOORES! . . . MARIO LEMIEUX!”
Whenever I look back at that episode in my life, I always smile. Not because Canada won the tournament (it’s a given I was happy about that). No, I smile because I think about the idea of a young Sikh boy born in Canada praying to “bearded guys with towels on their heads” for a hockey team he apparently could not cheer for because he was “not Canadian”.
Relive the final moments of game 3 … Canada vs. USSR – Canada Cup 1987
Canada Cup © Alexey Chernyadyev – Creative Commons