Bidini, David: The Tropic of Hockey

Bidini, David: The Tropic of Hockey
McClelland & Stewart Ltd., 2000
Hardcover; 288 pages
First published in: Haliburton Country Echo, County Life, 2001

Review by: Kerry Riley

Dave Bidini, for those who don’t know, is an ubiquitous Canadian talent who, besides solid rock music credentials as the rhythm guitarist for the band, the Rheostatics, is in the process of establishing himself in the writing business as well.

His first book, published in 1998, On a Cold Road, chronicled the experience of touring Canada with a rock band and gained critical praise and word-of-mouth recommendation, reaching beyond the music world, for the quirky humour and intelligence of the writing. The Tropic of Hockey, his follow up effort, will do nothing to diminish his growing reputation as a funny, smart and eminently readable observer of the human condition.

Bidini, whose own personal hockey odyssey had begun with a strange late-night meeting with an old hockey pro in the American deep south, grew to become an avid amateur hockey player and fan, and had, like many Canadians in recent years, begun to sense that something essential had been lost from the game. At the same time, he had been intrigued by reports of hockey being played in far off, and unlikely places. Places like Saudi Arabia, the Ivory Coast and the Himalayas.

“If I were to travel to look for the game in distant lands, would I glimpse our game being born?” he wondered.

“Would I see it as it had existed at the dawn of the last century? See hockey as it was before it became complicated by economics, corporate lust, the ravages of progress; before the pro game had betrayed tradition for quick-buck teams and a style that relied more on chalkboard patterns than spontaneous, tongue-wagging, river play?”

“Maybe,” he thought, “I could see hockey the way it was once played here: a game of passion, of the people.”

Still dithering about whether to go see for himself, he found, one June day, that the decision was made for him. That day he found himself turning to a Martha Stewart TV cookie baking episode, in an attempt to ease the ennui of the current Stanley Cup finals game, and actually found it more interesting. At that point he realized he had, “no choice but to leave.”

So, off he went – to three hot-beds of hockey, China, the United Arab Emirates, and Transylvania, searching out a place, where like an old language form preserved by its isolation from evolutionary forces, hockey could be found in all its original innocence — pure game, free of big-business, big entertainment considerations.

So readers get to take the trip too, to tag along as Bidini visits the surreal, pocket-sized SkyRink, on the eighth floor of the Dragon Centre mall, in Hong Kong, complete with a turquoise dragon roller coaster which zoomed only slightly more than an arm’s reach over the ice. Or to meet the hapless Darwish, a short notice replacement goalie on the United Arab Emirates team who “wore his equipment like a costume,” and “whenever a puck was lofted towards the net, …struggled like a person trying to fight off a swarm of bees,” to watch games where the players’ equipment is begged, borrowed, ancient or scrounged, or just not there, but the game is played with heart, or to play with the Chinese National Team Old-timers, in the northern Chinese city of Harbin, where hockey has flourished for over 1400 years, or to pant along with him as he’s given the run-around, by a group of senior Transylvanian hockey ringers.

His combination of wit and wide-eyed ingenuousness, provides the reader with a fresh perspective on the game, and an entertaining review of faraway people and places, memorable characters, and hockey exotica. My only complaint is that he, perhaps, carries the “big goofy canuck loose in the world,” routine, on for a game or two too long. As entertaining as they are, by the end of the book the exchanges and revelations are becoming repetitive.

So, the big question remains – does Bidini discover the meaning of hockey on his pilgrimage? Perhaps not precisely, but he does paint a lovely metaphor, based on a pass he received from an aging Romanian hockey Olympian, of the game of hockey as a sort of continuum, which is never won, only played, linking pros and amateurs, the greats and the hackers, the past and the present – a “tropic” in other words, where regardless of equipment, money, or the state of the arena, the spirit of hockey reaches its zenith. It’s worth considering.

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