Patrick in Hockeyland

That rink smell. Cold, chemical, fungal.

Is this Canada’s national odour? Unflattering perhaps, but undeniably pervasive. Wherever you live in this country you know that smell whether you’re in a small town or big city, on either coast, or somewhere in between.

I know that smell too and recognized it as soon as I walked into a hockey school in the Toronto suburb of Oakville. But I’m that type of Canadian who never played, rarely went to arenas or laced up skates, and had only a passing interest in the pro game except during the Stanley Cup final and Olympics. At the invitation of an instructor at the school,  I’m here to watch while Canada’s national winter sport is being taught and learned.

It’s a bit like visiting a place you’ve seen on television or heard about from friends. You’re not surprised by what you’re seeing, but you’re attentive nonetheless.

A Zamboni rumbles around one of the two mini surfaces.  Sticks slap, skates scrape. Pucks hit the end boards with a  sustained boom. A sharp whistle call an end to play. It’s loud, all sounds echoing off the high walls and ceiling. The plexiglass muffles the instructors’ voices and you can’t understand what they’re saying.

The skaters cluster around centre ice. some flopping down on all fours. There are ten of them, aged 5 to 10. Judging by the long locks hanging underneath the helmets, there are two girls. The coaches explain the next game, and the kids get up and scramble off, each with a puck which the instructors will try to knock away.

Later at a Tim Horton’s, coach Eddie Choi and his kids Diane and Ryan say this game “thief” is a fun way to learn puck handling. Intent on their small cups of ice cream – Eddie rolls his eyes and hopes he won’t get in trouble with his wife – the children overcome their shyness and enthuse about their three practices per week, playing with friends, and winning.

Back at the rink, I go up to the mezzanine to get a better view of the action. Parents are there. Some lean forward in the bleachers, watching intently. Another paces between the video arcade and pop machine, smart phone in front of his face. Often, there are chuckles at the constant pratfalls. Whiff at the puck and fall down. Whiff at the puck and crash into the boards. Goalie whiff at the puck and it goes into the net.

The instructors divide the group for a scrimmage. The kids swarm the puck, swirling like an unpredictable school of fish. The girl with the red hair, red helmet and white Oakville Hornets jersey is in goal and fidgets in the crease. The opposing team gets the puck past her and she slaps her stick on the ice in frustration. Finally, she gets her turn forward and cherry picks shamelessly at the opposite end. She gets the puck, powers ahead, and scores.

Upstairs her mom cheers, raises her arms and looks down at the girl’s younger brother.

“Your sister scored!”

Not looking up from his iPad game, the boy answers:

“Why is that good?”

High-fiving coach Eddie after scoring, the girl falls down but quickly gets up again. Learning in progress.