My flight from Nashville to Toronto was 5 hours including a 90-minute layover in Atlanta.
I spent it reading the first half of Bob Cole’s autobiography, Now I’m Catching On.Cole has been broadcasting games for Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC) since 1972. HNIC is Monday Night Football north of the wall except it’s so much more than that. Football on Monday night is for drinking 2-for-1’s with the boys at the corner bar and doubling down with the local bookie to salvage Sunday’s disastrous wagers. Hockey on Saturday nights is about being a kid in your living room. It’s the one night when your parents let you stay up late enough to watch the game. The Canadian musician, Dave Bidini puts it well. “In a young country still establishing our rituals and traditions, our rites and passages, Hockey Night in Canada was among the first. Saturday night was ours.”
For the players, playing on Saturday night meant the eyes of Canada were upon you. Eric Lindros remembers how he didn’t really feel like a legitimate NHL hockey player until his first HNIC intermission interview, when they draped the towel with the logo over his shoulder. It was the one he remembered from countless boyhood nights being on the other side of the screen. That was when he knew he had arrived. Wayne Gretzky recalls being in the locker room with the Edmonton Oilers before playing his first HNIC game. A trainer was going around, handing out new laces to all the players. Gretzky didn’t understand why. The trainer explained they were going onstage in front of the entire nation. They had to look like professionals.
For hockey fans across Canada, when they recall a great moment – their favorite team winning the Stanley Cup or a random electrifying moment ingrained on their memory – it’s Bob Cole’s voice that accompanies those images in their mind. He’s narrated childhood memories for generations of us.
Cole is my favorite announcer. Part of that is hockey being my favorite sport. Part of that was him consistently being assigned the Canadiens broadcast. The rise and fall of his voice is as recognizable as an uncle’s or a grandparent’s. When college, then life, brought me outside the scope of the CBC’s broadcast signal, I got withdrawal being forced to listen to American broadcast teams struggle to call the game with the correct mixture of panache, gravity, and restraint. It helped me understand why the game struggles for relevance throughout much of the United States.
Uncle Bob is 84 now. When Rogers Sportsnet acquired the rights to HNIC from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation [CBC (somewhat analogous to PBS)] in 2015, they began to slowly phase him out. At first, he was passed over for the Stanley Cup Finals. Then he was left on the bench for the Conference Finals. Last season, he didn’t call any playoff games at all. This will be his last season. He is only scheduled to broadcast 10 games. Hockey won’t be the same for me without Uncle Bob narrating. That’s no knock on Jim Hughson or the other broadcasters. They all bring their unique style and flair which brings hockey to life. There will just never be another Bob Cole.
I wasn’t in town to see Uncle Bob. That’s a pipe dream. I gave that a shot. I couldn’t find an email or postal address to query Uncle Bob. I did uncork a blizzard of correspondence upon every individual within six degrees of separation from the man. No dice.
I was in town to see Tim Thompson.
Thompson used to be the montage maker for HNIC when it was run by the CBC. Back then, every Saturday night broadcast was introduced by an opening montage. They were patchworks of hockey highlights set to music and voiceovers. Sometimes it was electrifying heavy metal music. Other times it would be a folk song or even a love song. It would often feature an obscure band from the home team’s city. There have been montages set to spoken-word poetry, even readings of novel passages. It sounds like something a stoner teenager posts to YouTube from their parents’ basement in order to kill time. It’s not. I don’t know if its highbrow or lowbrow. But it’s definitely art.
I hope to be able to convey that over the course of the following words. I shiver in my own sweat at the thought of not being able to execute this.
Thompson was fired by Rogers Sportsnet when they acquired HNIC. I’m not sure if it was a cost-cutting measure, he has one of those nasty artistic temperaments, or if there was another factor. I follow him on all different strains of social media. I’m always firing questions at him, asking him about some random midseason montage from a decade ago, or tagging him in posts. Quite often he’ll respond, generous yet vague with his words. On those social media platforms, he goes by the handle B0undless.
It was through one of these social media platforms that I learned B0undless would be coming out of exile to release one more montage. Since being fired he’s applied his gift in ways that transcend hockey. He still touches on sports, making montages for CBC’s presentation of the Olympic Games, but he’s made video for other wide-ranging topics: A tribute to Gord Downie, the Tragically Hip’s lead singer who died of cancer in 2017; raising awareness for the SwimDrinkFish initiative to combat water pollution; a tribute to Terry Fox, the Canadian who attempted to run across the country on a prosthetic leg to raise cancer awareness before succumbing to the disease; and countless videos for unsigned bands and live music venues.
But he was back releasing a hockey montage. And this one was going to be about the Habs.
The actor, Jay Baruchel is a die-hard Canadiens fan. He evidently got himself blacklisted from Hollywood. I’m not sure if its #MeToo-related or some other form of jackassery. For whatever reason, he found himself with oodles of free time at his disposal. He spent it cobbling together a book about the Canadiens. In an effort to salvage his so-called career, Jay’s agent manipulated a downtown Toronto drinking establishment into hosting a book release party. He also somehow cornered B0undless into creating a montage to mark the occasion. I didn’t concern myself with whatever nefarious tactics Baruchel had deployed to accomplish this. I was simply excited to have B0undless back making hockey videos, if only for one evening.
Pearson International Airport is located prohibitively far away from downtown Toronto. I’m fairly certain this was the result of a shady backroom deal between the Toronto Zoning Board and the Canadian Hackney Guild back in the day, but my taxi driver isn’t talking. He’s not talking to me. He’s talking to someone else.
It’s either his wife or his girlfriend, possibly a mistress. I have to work in probabilities because he’s speaking in Arabic. I like listening to foreign languages I don’t understand. The meaning of the words is stripped away. All that’s left is the melody of the conversation. It turns into music. Even though the words are incomprehensible, the flow of the music suggests the nature of the conversation – Whether it’s a heated argument or idle banter, playful teasing or passive-aggressive harassment. This cabbie was doing fine for a little while. He was telling her sweet nothings, setting himself up pretty good for whenever his shift was over. But then he went too far or not far enough. He started defending himself, trying to explain himself. He protested. He groveled. He didn’t play his cards right. She hung up on him. He kept the conversation going a few sentences longer, trying to save face in front of me. I could tell that. I knew that’s what happened. I could feel it in my bones.
Silence took over the cabin of the taxi. It wasn’t the usual silence between a taxi driver and his fare. It was an awkward silence. I needed to fill it with something, anything. I asked him about public transportation. He threw up the back of his hand with a guttural response that was a vocal scowl.
He explained to me how riding Toronto’s subway was a hit-or-miss affair. If you were lucky, your destination happened to be located along the line. Usually, people weren’t so lucky. Essentially, their subway has only two perpendicular lines. Most people find themselves deposited several blocks from where they really want to be. With winter eating up vast chunks of the year, this creates a reality of needing to utilize a taxi or rideshare app despite one’s egalitarian instinct to engage in public transit. Most commuters cut out the needless extra step, take the path of least resistance, and hail car transport from door to door. He waved his hand at the gridlock in front of us. “This is what we get. Half don’t know how to drive.”
I nodded. I told him my horror stories about Boston’s I-93 and how construction has manifested growing pains on Nashville’s economic boom. He said “These…politicians”, politicians came out of his mouth like rotten seafood, “they argue about everything, about nonsense all day long, it makes me puke, unless it’s something that matters…then they shut up and don’t talk about nothing.”
“Yeah, man…you’re preaching to the choir. I think that pretty much goes on everywhere.”
“You say you’re from the States, yes?”
Then he started laughing his ass off. It was loud, like the way a cartoon antagonist laughs while contemplating his evil plot to take over the world. He didn’t stop laughing until we got to my hotel. Even then, he only stopped long enough to take my money. I wanted to shut him up by disingenuously wishing him luck with the old lady when he got home but the guy drove away laughing.
I was staying at the Chelsea Hotel. It wasn’t much but compared to the Eskimo Hostel in Montréal it felt like the Taj Mahal. There was carpet in the room and I wasn’t even sketched out by it. After a quick shower, I was off to dinner. My Uncle Jan had suggested a place.
He knew I liked Korean.
Epicure City BOM was a block from my hotel. Their specialty is bi bim bap, a traditional Korean dish. It’s rice with a variety of steamed vegetables, sometimes meat, and a raw egg. It’s served in a piping hot stone pot. You stir it and stir it and stir. The heat of the pot cooks the egg, makes the rice crusty, and extracts all the flavor from the vegetables. It feels like comfort food but it’s actually healthy. It tastes nostalgic.
I ordered a Captain Morgan Dark Rum and Coke. Typically, I prefer Cuban rum. I never drink Coke. Uncle Bob does. That’s the only thing he drinks. That’s what he wrote in his book. I was surprised they actually had the dark variety in stock. He says most places don’t carry it.
Uncle Bob has this staccato delivery. He doesn’t just let the sentences breathe, he lets each word in the sentence breathe. If the action picks up, his frequency increases like a drum roll. He discusses this in the book, how you have to flow and have a feel for the game. There are four levels of emotional intensity. The first was for routine elements of the game. The second was like foreshadowing, a power play or a star player being deployed. The third was for a beautiful play: an odd-man rush or crunching hit. The top level was reserved for game-defining moments: the go-ahead goal, or clutch save.
Everybody has their favorite Uncle Bob call. I have several. As a Canadiens fan, a couple of my favorites came from the 1993 Stanley Cup Finals. Montréal reclaimed control of the series in Game 3 with an Eric Desjardins overtime winner. I hear his voice whenever I remember the sequence:
“Desjardins following the play andhemissedontheshortside. There he is again! Scores! Des! Jar! Dins! And the Canadiens win. In overtime. His third goal of the game. And the series is a brand new one.”
In Game 5, with Montréal in control and poised to win the Stanley Cup, he departed from his typical form, breaking into a conversational delivery as the clock wound down:
“They were not supposed to be one of the favorites to make the Stanley Cup Finals, these Canadiens, but Ronald Corey got Serge Savard. He hired Jacques Demers and, all together, they worked a young team to the top. And now a 24thbanner will hang from the rafters of the famous Forum in Montréal. The Canadiens have won the Stanley Cup!”
The way it transcribes into flawless grammar indicates this may have been a written. Uncle Bob goes to great lengths in his book to advise broadcasters not to plan their phrasing in advance. Him breaking his own rule may properly convey the weight of winning a Stanley Cup in Montréal. It even gave Bob Cole the jitters.
Usually he’s like a freestyle rapper. A shining example of this is Doug Gilmour’s double overtime winner against the St. Louis Blues in Game 1 of a 1993 playoff series. Gilmour’s behind the net in Gretzky’s office. He’s under duress. The crowd is frantic. He fakes left. He fakes right. He starts skating to the right post. He’s going to attempt to jam it home on a wrap-around. But he second-guesses. He doubles back behind the net. The goalie slides to the left post, trying to beat him to that side. But instead of doubling back, Gilmour spun in a full circle. He’s back on the right post, depositing the puck in the abandoned side. Uncle Bob’s call grows increasingly labored and frantic, mirroring the crowd:
“Gilmour back of the net. Andreychuk in front with Borschevsky. It is. Gilmour waiting. Waiting. Around the net. Waiting. GILMOUR! SOLO JOB! AND HE’S WON IT! IN THE SECOND OVERTIME PERIOD! How. About. That. Ohhh…my. Oh my. What a night…tonight…for the Toronto Maple Leafs.”
That’s freestyle rapping. Where does that line, ‘solo job’ come from? That’s not planned. Nobody keeps ‘solo job’ in their back pocket. But it came out and, when it did, it was perfect. You could have a team of poet laureates working around the clock on that for a week. They never would have come up with anything as poignant as ‘solo job’.
In 1997, the Edmonton Oilers found themselves in a Game 7 overtime with the Dallas Stars. The Stars GM was Bob Gainey. He would reclaim Montréal veterans Mike Keane, Guy Carbonneau, and Craig Ludwig in order to build a team that would go to two straight Stanley Cup Finals and win one. But in 97, they had the Oilers and Curtis Joseph to contend with:
“Here’s Sydor racing in. He’s aroundthenettryingtocomeout. There it is. OH MY GOODNESS! Curtis. Joseph. He’s made. The play. Of the series. You cannot. Believe. That save. By Curtis Joseph.
Minutes later, Todd Marchant would score the winner to complete the upset.
An obscure favorite came during a meaningless regular season game during PK Subban’s rookie season. They had PK paired with Hal Gill, a veteran defenseman. This happens a lot in hockey – a young D paired with a veteran in a mentorship role. Defense is a difficult position to manage the transition from being an elite amateur player to being tested by the best professionals in the world. They need to completely rewire their risk/reward instincts. It was a change on the fly. Two Montréal D left the ice. PK jumped on, followed by Gill:
“Subban out on the ice now. And Gill. Following him. To provide. The adult supervision.”
It was complete and utter deadpan. He moved along to narrating the play without any further commentary. Fucking Bob Cole, man.
If a moment ever had a chance of being too big for him it was overtime between Ottawa and Toronto in Game 5 of their 2000 playoff series. In the end, he was equal to the task but it was a hell of a task. It was like the teams had conspired, like they said “Who cares about winning this game. There’ll be other games. Let’s stress test Bob Cole!”
It wasn’t just overtime. It was a wild overtime. Both teams were selling out for the winner. There were glorious opportunities and tremendous saves at both ends. There was furious transition. Uncle Bob’s voice drums over the syllables in names like Barrasso, Sundin, and Clark like they’re musical notes. The ratcheting pressure foreshadows the surely looming goal and his delivery responds, rising to an emotional crescendo to meet the moment at that fourth level. But it doesn’t come. It’s dissolved by a save or turnover. He unscrews back down into machine gun staccato.
“Action. Terrific. Here.”
He never goes completely breathless. At one point, after the Leafs’ Steve Thomas is thwarted by a Barrasso desperation kick save, Ottawa brings the rush barreling frantically back into the Toronto zone:
“The Leafs are pouring on the pressure. But we’re still going. I don’t know how they’re going. But they are.”
Uncle Bob might have been talking about the players. He might have been talking about himself. He probably had his finger on the pulse of the entire building as well as the viewers back at home. Off another transition piece, Thomas finally capitalized, banging home a centering feed:
“Thomas. Scores. And. The Leafs. Win. This. Terrific. Hockey. Game. What a finish!”
I was full but not bloated after I ate. I felt just right. I walked around the urban core. It was even browner than Montréal. There were a lot of African faces but Asians were darting everywhere too. I used to have a Korean friend. I always would tease her, demanding to know why Asians could never be patient and wait their turn. They had to push and elbow their way around. I don’t think she ever even got the joke. She was a pusher and elbower herself.
I needed to kill time the next day. The Jay Baruchel event wasn’t until 7 pm. It was obvious where I was supposed to go. The Hockey Hall of Fame.
From the outside the building looks like a cathedral. It’s built in ornate stonework making it look like an ancient artifact amongst the antiseptic smooth glass buildings neighboring it. The doorways and windows arch. There’s pillars, columns, and stone braiding under the eaves. There are relief carvings on the façade. There’s a lot of other stuff but I’m already bullshitting my ass off, architecturally. It felt like stepping through the front door would take me back in history. But then I went to open the front door and it wouldn’t open. A sign instructed me to enter around the side.
Entering around the side brought me to one of those neighboring antiseptic glass buildings. This was the functioning entrance to the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was a mall. I got lost. I couldn’t find the Hall of Fame. I found Roots. I found Papyrus. I found a food court. No Hockey Hall of Fame. I walked the length of the mall concourse. I came back. I had missed it from the moment I entered. The Hall of Fame entrance was tucked in the corner.
The first exhibit I went to was the Canadiens locker room. It was reconstructed from the days of the old Forum with In Flanders Fields above the stalls in both French and English. It felt more authentic than when I had been in the actual locker room in the Bell Centre in Montréal. It wasn’t because this one was from the Forum. It was because they had equipment hanging in the stalls. They had equipment from all the different eras, from the cloth and leather at the turn of the 20thcentury when there was a Montréal Canadiens hockey club but no NHL, to the present-day with gleaming helmets with visors and carbon-fiber shin pads.
In 2013, B0undless employed Pavarotti’s rendition of Nessum Dormain an opening montage to tell the story of the Canadiens-Maple Leafs rivalry. Since the days of the Original 6, games between Montréal and Toronto had served as a proxy war for the French and English Divide. It was a patchwork of voices, plays, and moments drawn from 100 years of history. He was co-opting the raw emotional presence of the aria to make a singular point. For Canada, the Habs and Leafs on HNIC was an evening at the opera. It was not a scale-model version. Culturally, dramatically, and spiritually, these were equals.
Co-optation is the primary tool in B0undless’ toolbox. He co-opted the Tragically Hip song Fully Completely in 2013 to tell the story of Phil Kessel. Kessel had come into the league with the Boston Bruins but got traded to Toronto. With the Leafs, he continued scoring at a torrid pace but was always snake-bitten against his former club. In 2013, they met in the opening round of the playoffs. The montage’s opening frame captured Kessel isolated on the bench, staring off into space. Gord Downie’s lyrics haunted him. “Bring me back in shackles”. It didn’t matter what Downie meant when he wrote that. B0undless was using their art to tell his own story.
Kessel answered the bell that series. His play was critical as the upstart Leafs pushed the Bruins to the brink. Yet Boston was a championship-caliber team that season. They outlasted Toronto in 7, kicking off a run to the Stanley Cup Finals.
Before losing to the Blackhawks in those Finals, the Bruins ran over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Finals. The Penguins skill and depth was supposed to carry the day but they had no answers for Boston’s physical war of attrition. In order to capture Boston’s dominance and the total system failure of Crosby and the Penguins, B0undless co-opted the lyrics from Radiohead’s Karma Police:
“This is what you get…when you mess with us.”
“I’ve given all I can…it’s not enough.”
“I lost myself…I lost myself…I lost myself.”
These are examples of B0undless co-opting the themes of songs for his own purposes. He also co-opts individual lines to narrate on a granular scale. The best example of this is his legendary 2013 Playoff Opening Montage. The Saturday night installments were always heavily anticipated, but the playoff openers were big-budget blockbusters. HNIC would open up their purse strings, allowing B0undless to repurpose classic songs. In 2013 he redefined the meaning of Baba O’Rileyby the Who.
By intersecting specific lyrics with specific clips, B0undless used it to elevate hockey fans’ anticipation for the playoffs: the soaring highs, the crushing lows, and all the changes of fortune:
“I get my back into my living”. Ovechkin spinning on his back, celebrating a goal after being knocked to the ice.
“I don’t need to fight to prove I’m right”. The Broad Street Bullies, clearly needing to fight.
“I don’t need to be forgiven”. Mini-compilation of Scott Stevens headshots over the years.
“Don’t cry…don’t raise your eyes”. Mini-compilation of players crying after heart-breaking losses.
“The happy ones are near. Let’s get together before we get much older”. Mini-compilation of big plays getting players and teams ever so further along the path in their quest for the Holy Grail: Messier with the Oilers; Lemieux and the Pens; Yzerman’s Red Wings.
Then there’s that violin solo that brings the song home. It’s foreboding. It anticipates. But then it just stops. It leads to silence and an elongated still shot of nothing but the Stanley Cup, sitting alone and unclaimed at center ice.
And then the playoffs start.
After the Habs dressing room, I entered the Great Hall. Just inside, along the left wall were the broadcasters who had been presented with the Foster Hewitt Memorial Award. It’s a lifetime achievement award. It’s their way of getting inducted. I walked down past Foster Hewitt himself, Danny Gallivan, and Dick Irvin Jr until I got to 1996. There he was, Bob Cole. Uncle Bob.
I saw the Stanley Cup out of the corner of my eye. I didn’t turn my head. I wasn’t going over there. Not yet. The plaques of the Hall-of-Famers are around the wall on the outside. The trophies honoring excellence in different aspects of the game are encased in Lucite leading up to the Holy Grail itself. For some reason I’m reminded of Richmond, Virginia. Outside the statehouse, the statues of the confederacy’s most revered soldiers lead up to a massive rendering of Robert E. Lee.
Keeping on the periphery, I made a point of finding Gretzky’s plaque. They waived the waiting period for him. I found Jean Béliveau too. I moved into the center of the room. The trophies are ornate, but time has revealed them to be gaudy. Hardware today, like football’s Vince Lombardi trophy, is sleek. It echoes the Hall of Fame’s architecture standing out on the cityscape. The Hart Memorial Trophy is awarded to the player deemed most valuable to his team. I circled it until I found Martin St. Louis. He was a graduate of UVM. I also located Carey Price’s name. The Conn Smythe trophy is awarded to the most valuable player during the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I found Tim Thomas. He was at UVM the same time as St. Louis and me. He won the Conn Smythe as a damned Boston Bruin. The Bill Masterson Trophy is awarded to the player who best exemplifies the qualities of perseverance, sportsmanship, and dedication to ice hockey. Saku Koivu. The James Norris Memorial Trophy is awarded to the top defense player who demonstrates throughout the season the greatest all-around ability at the position.
I was finally ready for the Stanley Cup. There’s a short ceremonial staircase and you’re standing right in front of the cup. There’s no lucite. You can touch it. I didn’t touch it. You’re not supposed to. They say it’s bad luck. They say if you touch it before you win it, you’ll jinx yourself from ever winning it and getting your name inscribed on it.
I looked real close at it, though. On television, when that keeper of the cup dude brings it out, it looks real shiny and pristine. In real-life, it’s still shiny but it’s definitely not pristine. It’s all dinged, dented, and beat-up. The Cup’s been around the block. The Cup’s seen a thing or two. The Cup’s got stories it could tell. I was looking real close and circling around it. I found 1986. I found Chris Nilan’s name and I couldn’t help but chuckle. Not only did he wander his ass onto the Montréal Canadiens, Les Glorieux, he got his name inscribed on the Stanley freaking Cup, the most revered trophy in all of sports. The NHL Board of Governors must be aching for the day when they can remove that particular ring from the trophy. After ’86, I found 1993. There was Patrick Roy. Guy Carbonneau. Eric Desjardins.
I probably should have left the Great Hall for last. There was something surreal about seeing Chris Nilan (of all people!) and John LeClair’s name on the Stanley Cup. I kind of slept-walked through the other displays. There was something about International hockey. There was a room where you could sit and listen to different broadcasts from different eras. I would have been into that if I had been more present. There was a Hometown Hockey exhibit which explores amateur hockey. It also features the rise of women’s ice hockey.
In between the Hall of Fame and Jay’s book release, I went for more bi bim bap. I had not read Jay’s book yet. I was trying my best to avoid any and all hockey writing while I was writing these essays. Reflecting on hockey and the Montréal Canadiens had instilled a strong urge to reread Ken Dryden’s classic, The Game. I resisted. I didn’t want Ken Dryden’s words and insights rattling around in my head while I was trying to squeeze out coherent thoughts of my own. I certainly wasn’t going to stand for Jay Baruchel taking up any space in my head.
That made me wonder if it was a good idea to be saturating myself in B0undless. Or Uncle Bob. Or even the Hockey Hall of Fame. Jay Baruchel and Ken Dryden’s books tell stories about hockey. But B0undless’ montages tell us stories about hockey too. So does Uncle Bob. So does the Hockey Hall of Fame. They all conspire to turn hockey into a story. B0undless captures the setting and applies the context with his opening montages. Uncle Bob narrates the play, transforming the chaotic action into an unfolding narrative with his freestyle rapping. On the fly, he teases a plot from each game with highs, lows, and unexpected twists. The Hockey Hall of Fame collates and records the best of these stories for posterity. It turns the greatest hockey stories ever told into hockey mythology.
Hockey doesn’t weave itself into the cultural fabric on its own. It needs people telling these stories at all these levels in order to romanticize it. Without this, the Montréal Canadiens are never a great dynasty. It doesn’t matter if they won 24 Stanley Cups or 100. The Cups don’t really matter. They’re just a plot device, a MacGuffin. They allow us to tell stories about Jean Béliveau and Maurice Richard, even Chris Nilan. Without the stories, hockey is just a series of meaningless games being played by men behaving like children.
Stories are how we ascribe meaning to everything. Democracy in the United States doesn’t exist without the stories. Those stories were told by people like Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and Abraham Lincoln. They are told by Ken Burns. They are even told by Saving Private Ryan. Democracy didn’t flourish in America because scores of people across the march of generations calculated that it was the most efficient methodology for navigating the administration and bureaucracy of government. It grew because it allowed us to tell stories about ourselves which we believed properly reflected the people we were, and the society we wanted to be.
Culture is who we are; culture is who we become.
If we didn’t believe in those stories, the United States would never have endured all the obstacles history has thrown at her: The Civil War, labor unrest, civil rights movements, presidential assassinations, endless culture wars, and terrorist attacks. The ground beneath us remains shifting and unsteady. The stories we tell about ourselves are the fixed point in the distance we can focus on to find our balance amidst all the turmoil.
At the bar, the opening act of the book release was a panel discussion hosted by The Athletic Toronto featuring Hailey Salvian, Justin Bourne, and Scott Wheeler. The Athletic is a subscription-based online publication. It’s another attempt, in the Information Age, at returning journalism to a means of gainful employment. It’s odd. Me, of all people, a struggling writer, should be patronizing these types of endeavors. But I don’t. It’s hypocritical. I want to be paid for my words, but I don’t want to pay for other people’s words.
I justify this by telling myself that the business model hasn’t properly evolved yet. When I was a kid, my parents had subscriptions to the local newspapers and a national news magazine. We would purchase other periodicals at the newsstand sporadically. I would buy the Hockey News on the eve of the playoffs. Or maybe I would grab a Sports Illustrated if there was a feature story about Bo Jackson or Rickey Henderson or someone else I wanted to know about. Today, I have an online subscription to a national newspaper and a Nashville one. However, when it comes to reading about hockey, sports, or other entertainment, I don’t want to subscribe to a single auto-renewing media publication. I want to pick and choose; come and go as I please. I should be able to subscribe to a clearinghouse which allows me to sample articles from a vast and diverse array of online publications. I pay the clearinghouse. The clearinghouse pays the publication a royalty when I read an article, like a radio station pays royalties to bands for playing their songs. Maybe there’s already something like that and its just poorly marketed. Maybe I’m unforgivably ignorant.
Justin Bourne is a decent hockey writer based on the miniscule amount of access I’ve had to his work. He played minor league hockey, so he has those insights. His Dad was Bob Bourne, a member of the New York Islanders during their dynasty years in the early 80’s. That childhood background provides him with a wealth of anecdotes. He also tends to embrace the new school of hockey coverage – data analytics from outsiders. Usually, writers who played the game are dismissive of the outsiders. Outsiders are dismissive of the former players who can’t demonstrate any aptitude for statistical thinking.
This is Toronto. Even though the bar is full of Habs fans waiting to hear from a guy who wrote a Habs book, all the panel wants to talk about is the Leafs. Mostly, it’s all about the Auston Matthews injury. Their young phenom, born and raised in Arizona, injured his shoulder. I’m barely paying attention. Mostly, I’m wondering how I’m going to track down B0undless. Despite watching all of his montages at least 6 times, I don’t really know what the guy looks like. I’ve never seen him before in my life. His production company’s web site features a picture of him on the home page. The picture utilizes an odd filter which creates a graininess that obscures his features. The video geeks he runs with probably think it’s bad-ass but it seems counterproductive to the primary objective of a picture. I’m looking at one guy at the bar paying for his beer. That could be the guy behind the filter. Then again, so could the bartender.
I’ve been debating what I should say to him ever since I booked the flight. I consider him a true artist. I don’t think there should be a B0undless exhibit in the Hockey Hall of Fame. It should be housed in some Canadian city’s museum of fine arts. All the major cities across this sprawling half-continent would engage in a bidding war for the rights. It would build up so big that he would have to secure my services to represent his interests. I would pull a fast one and cut a deal in New York with MoMA. All of Canada would go batshit crazy – screaming about how the ugly Americans were at it again, co-opting the best parts of their culture. In order to keep the dissent to a dull roar, we would have to take the exhibition out on the road. We would tour Canada, hitting museums of fine art, halls of fame, the Bell Centre, and other select arenas and stadiums. I would also investigate the economic viability of a Scandinavian leg of the B0undless Road Show. Its merit would probably hinge on B0undless’ appetite for incorporating Norwegian Black Metal into his work.
Nothing good can come from revealing all my plans upon introducing myself to him. It would creep the ever-loving shit out of him. Either that or he would steal all my schemes and cut me out of a fantastic middleman opportunity. It’s better to slow-play him.
I’m going to ask him about the missing montage.
In 2010, during the Halak Run, it was the opening montage for Game 7 of the Canadiens-Penguins series. Nobody expected much from Montréal that season. They barely squeaked into the playoffs, lost Andrei Markov [Puck moving defenseman (!!!)] to a career-threatening knee injury, and a young Carey Price had a bad case of the yips. But they found timely scoring all up and down their lineup. Journeyman goalie Jaroslav Halak went and decided to become the best goalie in the world for a few weeks – and chose just the right time. To fill the Markov hole, they called up some young kid from the minors – Pernell Karl Subban – assigning him a random #76. Subban tabled his growing pains and rookie anxiety until the following season. During that playoff run he executed like the player he wouldn’t become for another four years. Subban, Halak, and les boys shut down Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in the first round. St. Catherine’s Street was filled with the jubilant chant “OVIE SUCKS…OVIE SUCKS…OVIE SUCKS!”
They shocked Sidney Crosby and the Penguins in the second round. The clock finally struck midnight against the physically imposing Flyers in the Conference Finals. There were plenty of great memories from that run: Michael Cammalleri’s one-timers from his spot on the right face-off circle; Travis Moen’s shorthanded goal to seal the Pens fate; The Bell Centre erupting in a defiant standing ovation in Game 6 when Eric Fehr scored a meaningless goal late in the 3rdto break Halak’s shutout bid. Still, my greatest memory of that Spring was B0undless’ Game 7 opening montage featuring DJ Champion’s No Heaven.
DJ Champion is a local DJ in Montréal. No Heavenis an EDM track heavy on guitar licks and a soulful female voice belting out “Oh Lord…there ain’t no heaven”. The track is laid over visuals of players, like Pittsburgh’s Evgeni Malkin, kissing their cross necklaces and others, like Montréal’s Josh Gorges, making the sign of the cross. I remember a shot of a Catholic priest outside the Bell Centre, making a sign of the cross in front of a kneeling Penguins fan – converting the heathen. There is an image of Maxime Lapierre whooping it up in front of an opposing Penguin with his signature brand of antagonism. There was stock footage from the 70’s of smokestacks and steelworkers in the steel city. It was interwoven with contemporary footage of Canadiens and Penguins fans carrying on outside the Bell Centre and Mellon Arena. One Habs fan brandished a sign reading “YOU GOT HALAK’D”. The guitars and vocals taper off over the visual of Glen Metropolit shaking hands with a dapper Jean Béliveau. Béliveau gives the elite 4th-liner a nod of encouragement and walks away pumping his fist while Metropolit looks on in awe.
It’s not on the internet anymore. I used to be able to locate it with even the vaguest of search terms. Even if I was watching other B0undless videos on YouTube, that one would inevitably come up unsolicited in the queue. It’s like it was scrubbed away. I’m thinking maybe B0undless deleted all traces of it after he got fired from HNIC. He needed a job and didn’t want his subversive little message about religion hampering his employability. Or possibly he was accommodating a change of heart in his own spiritual journey. Maybe I’m overthinking this.
When the Athletic panel wrapped up, B0undless finally revealed himself. Hayley Salvian introduced him to the stage. It turned out he had been standing right behind me the whole time. He’s a big guy, 6’2 or 6’3, with a solid frame. He used to be a minor league hockey player. Even if he couldn’t skate so well, or had a propensity for puck-flinging, he would have made a decent stay-at-home defenseman.
He’s soft-spoken. Not shy. Just soft-spoken. He has that quiet presence common to people who have been put through the test by life, the ones that don’t feel obligated to promote or impose themselves on the rest of us. On stage, he discussed his process for creating this new montage. It was different because it wasn’t an opener for HNIC. He wasn’t bound by the rigid time constraints of a network broadcast. He explained that, years ago, he had done an opening montage featuring Jay reading lines from the Great Canadian Novel, Two Solitudes by Hugh Maclennan. I remembered it well. I wasn’t sure if it was the passages being trumpeted by a professional actor or the sense of wonder generated from watching any B0undless montage. I just knew, after watching that montage, I had to read that book. I was worried that, divorced from Jay’s oratory and the B0undless Effect, the reading would be boring and dry. That wasn’t the case. It was engaging, thought-provoking, and helped me see aspects I already knew about Canada from a fresh and different perspective.
B0undless explained that he took that montage and blew it up, adding more and more Habs footage, overlaying more and more voiceovers. Then he shrunk it back down. I think I knew what he meant. Writing can be the same. You write and write and write. Even if it feels like gibberish, you write it. Then you shrink it back down – weeding and revising until it feels like you feel. Maybe he meant something different. I don’t know.
He let the montage play.
For this montage, B0undless didn’t use a particular song. He scored it like a movie, featuring a pipe organ throughout the piece. Jay’s readings from Two Solitudesare interspersed throughout, along with snippets from interviews he’s given about his Habs fandom [(“I’m a die-hard Gainey-ite.”) ~ (We’re flamboyant in Montréal when nothing’s happening, so you can imagine…)]. There’s also voices from beyond the grave of legendary Canadiens – Jean Béliveau (“I always thought that a great hockey player is like a great artist.”) and Maurice Richard (“When I was a little boy, I used to like hockey a lot.”). The pipe organ is an allusion to the Canadiens heritage. The Bell Centre is one of the last arenas to employ one. It’s a thread connecting the modern arena to the old Forum and the glory years. B0undless diligently splatters other Habs symbolism throughout the piece. There are multiple clips capturing the torch carried onto the ice by a young child before every home game. The torch itself is a reference to In Flanders Fields by Lieutenant-Colonel John McCrae a poem honoring those that sacrificed their lives in WW1 and urging future generations to continue fighting and striving for the progress and freedom they died for. It is inscribed in French and English in the Canadiens locker room. An image of this is also portrayed. He captures the fans. He captures the players celebrating big goals. He captures them celebrating Stanley Cups. He employs a signature B0undless tactic. He interweaves images from all different eras of fans cheering. He mingles players from many different generations celebrating. He overlaps Stanley Cups being hoisted in different years. He blurs the lines. He creates the illusion that all those players are working together for the same team and all those different fans are celebrating the same goal across the generations. It’s the same goal and it’s the same Stanley Cup being hoisted. It’s all of history and it’s happening all at once – right now.
Thompson brings the montage home with the camera settling on a still shot of Maurice Richard’s statue and Jay reading one final passage from Two Solitudes.“It’s the music in you. I knew it the moment I saw you. You don’t ever guess how wonderful you are. I’ve never seen anything more beautiful.”
After the montage, it was Jay’s turn to take the stage. Hayley Salvian interviewed him about the book, great moments in Habs history, and the current team. Jay gave some interesting answers. He’s a charismatic and engaging guy and it was his night. Still, it seemed like poor strategy to deploy him after the montage. It was analogous to Metallica opening for a garage band.
When B0undless left the stage, he reclaimed his spot right behind me. I couldn’t really focus on Jay’s answers. B0undless was right there. I didn’t know what to do. Should I get up and introduce myself? Would that be rude while Jay was speaking? I pictured myself chattering incoherently about some 10-year old montage he’d probably forgotten about. He’d be doing his best to ignore me, like one of the Hanson brothers during the national anthem. Finally, he’d lose it. “I’M LISTENING TO THE FUCKING DUDE!”
The overthinking, the nerves, and the beer conspired against my bladder. I had to use the restroom. I stood up. B0undless was looking right at me. Right at me. I had been planning to keep my head down and just walk to the bathroom. But he was looking right at me. I stuck out my hand. He shook it. “Um…thanks for making that montage, Tim…it was…awesome.”
“Thanks. Thanks for coming out.”
“Okay…um, thanks…thanks again.”
I blew it. When I returned from the restroom, I retreated to a spot on the exact opposite side of the bar. I stuck around for one more beer to save face. Then I executed an organized yet hasty retreat back to the hotel.
I caught the end of HNIC in my room. Toronto, without Auston Matthews in the line-up, lost 3-1 to Calgary. Uncle Bob wasn’t on the broadcast. Jim Hughson was making the call. Hughson appears to be who Rogers Sportsnet has selected to carry the torch. He’s the one who calls all the marquee games now. He calls the Olympics. He calls the Stanley Cup Finals.
It wasn’t Uncle Bob but at least it was in English. In Montréal the hotel television didn’t offer any English-language sports channels. I had to watch hockey in French. I actually don’t mind that in small doses. Like listening to the taxi driver, the language dissolves into music. It’s frustrating on a nuts-and-bolts level: discerning the new line combinations if the coach is juggling the lineup; ascertaining whether an injured player is out for the game or just a few shifts.
Missing out on Uncle Bob and reflecting on how French broadcasters sound like music made me reconsider B0undless again. He works with images. He maintains a well of certain images. He goes back to those again and again from montage to montage: Jacques Plante walking out of the tunnel wearing his prototype goalie mask; An elder statesman Jean Béliveau shaking Glen Metropolit’s hand then pumping his fist; Leafs goalie Turk Broda taking, not one, but two pucks directly to his face in the pre-mask era; Danny Gallivan leaning back in exultation, looking much more like an opera singer than a hockey broadcaster; A black and white shot of a crowd, all sitting in rapture except one fan who rises out of seat and motions, urging the home team on; Bobby Orr flying through the ice after scoring the Cup-winning goal; Maurice Richard and Boston’s Sugar Jim Henry shaking hands in a gesture that would precipitate the post-series handshake lines that are customary and standard today.
B0undless co-opts these images because they allow him to tap into the emotion and nostalgia of his viewers. These are well-known images that resonate with all hockey fans, from the casual to the hardcore. These images provide a shorthand, triggering recall of a wealth of memories and associations in the viewers. B0undless knows this and uses the images to trigger the viewer’s imagination so it can do the heavy-lifting of applying depth to whatever story he is telling during a given montage. He invests just a split-second of screen time to achieve a return of a childhood’s worth of meaning.
He doesn’t do this with just the visual images. The songs he selects tap a nerve that runs deep and hit several different levels of memory and emotion. In fact, his montages reach out in three dimensions. Along with the visuals and the song, he uses voices. Voices overlay the music and the images. They are voices drawn from across hockey spanning the ages. Just like with the images, there are certain ones he returns to endlessly:
Foster Hewitt: “Hello Canada, and hockey fans in the United States.”
Don Cherry: “There’s nothing like it, folks. Heavyweight championship fight. Beauty to watch.”
Ron MacLean: “This is what you’ve worked for. Your audience awaits. Believe in your gift and you’ll have no regrets. It’s Game 7. Be great.”
Jean Béliveau: “The only way we’re gonna win the Stanley Cup is if we play as a unit.”
Brett Hull: “The pressure. You think you can’t handle it, but then you thrive on it.”
Jim Hughson: “The nervous energy in this building could power a 747.”
Gord Downie: “I believe goaltender is the most noble position in all of sports.”
Dick Irvin: “I think that mist that’s rising here, Ron, might be a last skate around the ice by the ghosts.”
Bob Gainey: “I think we were scared as hell.”
Conn Smythe: “Defeat does not rest lightly on their shoulders. That’s the way my teams always play.”
But there’s one voice he returns to over and over, much more than any of the rest. That’s the voice of Uncle Bob. If B0undless, sampling all these images and hockey voices, is the DJ, that makes Uncle Bob his favorite MC.
“There is a terrific buzz in the building tonight.”
“You better get ready. The Boston Bruins are coming to town, fellas.”
“It can be a long long series.”
“The Stanley Cup will be won tonight!”
“There’ll be a noisy building tonight for this hockey game.”
“Scramble for it!”
“He’s starting to heat up.”
“Oh my heavens!”
“What a game. It’ll give you goosebumps.”
“Shoots. He scores! Oh! What a goal!”
“This is hockey, baby. This is the playoffs. This is Montréal.”
“The chances. They’re giving it their all.”
“Can you believe this? This is unreal folks.”
“The pressure mounts. By the minute.”
“I know. It can kill ya.”
“Wendel Clark! Third goal. Of the game!”
“This. Has been. An unbelievable turn. Of events!”
“Hang onto your hat, folks. We’ve got a heck of a finish coming up!”
“It’s the same old drama. And tension.”
“This is so exciting. I wish. It could go on forever.”
“You wanted it so badly.”
“What a finish!”
Uncle Bob’s words are divorced from the actual moments they had narrated. They become lyrics. They aren’t narrating specific electrifying moments anymore. Standing alone, Uncle Bob’s calls dissolve into poetry. If they’re calling any action, they’re calling the action of the game in our mind’s eye, the one that might unfold in reality once the puck drops after B0undless’ opening montage is complete.
I didn’t have much time in the morning before I had to depart for the airport, but I made the walk to Kensington Market. I wanted to be able to say I had been there. It’s become gentrified lately with corporate retail outlets scattered throughout the outdoor marketplace. In spite of that, it seemed to maintain its vibe as an interlocking directorate of cultures and artists in the heart of Toronto. There are independent bookstores, restaurants, and recording studios. I grabbed a cappuccino and a pastry to wander with. I found the sign paying honor to Ron Hawkins’ song Peace & Quiet. It was the songs opening lyrics. “Hey there tragic one. I saw your ghost in Kensington. The sly sentry of an alleyway.”
It’s a song about lost love. More precisely, it’s a song about squandered love. It’s about star-crossed lovers who just walk away without achieving any degree of closure. It does end on a bright note, proposing the possibility of a rapprochement and getting it right this time. B0undless used the song in a montage to paint a picture about the Toronto Maple Leafs and their relationship with the fans over the generations.
I couldn’t waste all day sightseeing and reminiscing on certain someone’s in Kensington Market. I needed to get to the airport which was located on the outskirts of town across a sea of traffic.
I exited the taxi unsure if I’d been screwed by the driver, the length of the drive, or the exchange rate. I reasoned that, at the very least, I wouldn’t need to go the bank in Nashville anymore to change my money back to crisp American greenbacks. I navigated through an endless series of lines: At the airline reception when the automatic kiosk wouldn’t process my passport; At airport security where I forgot to remove my belt triggering a decidedly intimate exchange with a rather portly fellow on security duty; at customs where I still admonish myself to ‘play it cool’ even though I have nothing to hide these days. I arrived at my gate in the international terminal with plenty of time to spare. My plan was to settle back into Uncle Bob’s autobiography. That would keep me occupied throughout my return voyage.
But that was when I saw the departure board and noticed my flight was delayed. It was delayed by 3 hours. I actually didn’t mind. I was quite willing to sit in the terminal with nothing to do but read about Uncle Bob. The problem was that I was going to miss my connection in Atlanta. I approached the receptionist at the counter and explained my situation. She told me there was good news and bad news. “Well…what’s the good news?”
“I can get you on a flight that leaves in a half-hour.”
“That’s great! What’s the bad news?”
“Bad news is that you have to make a connection in Montréal.”
“What in the hell?! Why do you gotta go and be like that?! I love Montréal! Go Habs go!!!”
“No sir! That’s not what I mean! The connection’s in Montréal! That means the flight departs from the domestic terminal…you gotta go and get there.”
“Wait…you mean I went through half of them lines for nothing?!”
“That’s what I mean…and you’re gonna have to deal with all kinds of other bullshit now too…and you only got a half-hour to do it.”
“Sheee-it…What kinda bullshit are we talking about?”
“Damn, to be honest with you…I don’t even know…I just know there’s a lot of it…and it’s all down that way.”
“Down that way?”
“That’s right…and you only got a half-hour…so I’d get my ass in gear if I was you.”
I moved fast but deliberate in the direction she had indicated. I had to get somewhere quick, but I didn’t really know where I was going. In order to insure I hadn’t overshot, I kept asking random airport employees for directions to the domestic terminal. Some of them stared back at me blankly. Others urged me onwards. I finally came across a gate for a rival airline. I asked the guy manning the booth how to get to the domestic terminal. I told him I had to catch a flight to Montréal in under a half-hour. He started cackling. Then he composed himself. He looked over both his shoulders then motioned for me to follow him. He used his ID badge to key me through a door into some back hallway. He advised me on a series of lefts and rights then left me to my own devices. I wondered about my exposure level. I considered the merits of just sticking with my delayed flight and living to fight my connection battle in Atlanta. Then I remembered I was in Canada. If airport security caught me back here, they’d probably find a way to blame themselves. Worst-case scenario was missing my flight due to a stream of unrelenting apologies.
I navigated those lefts and rights and found myself coming the wrong way out of an employee-only entrance into another customs checkpoint. The customs agent screwed up his face at me. He asked me if I was entering Canada directly from the United States. I stammered, hemmed, and hawed, trying to explain to him that I’d been in Canada for days now. I hadn’t left Canada, just went into the international terminal. Now I was back because my flight changed. He asked me about my boarding pass. I told him I didn’t have a boarding pass, that they were going to print it at the gate. He shook his head and muttered something under his breath. He told me I needed a boarding pass. He directed me to a desk out on the horizon. I scrambled to the desk. I told that lady my story. I told her I needed my boarding pass – jabbed my thumb over my shoulder – to deal with that customs agent. She shook her head while printing out my boarding pass. She explained that I couldn’t go straight back to that guy. She described a labyrinth of other lines and checkpoints which I needed to satisfy before getting another crack at him. I knew I didn’t stand a chance if I played this one by the book. I went right back to the guy. I didn’t even dignify that little rope maze they erect for their own amusement, just walked straight up the line of customs desks to my guy. There was a middle-aged man emerging from the rope maze, clearly intent on engaging him first. When he saw me step in front of him, he assaulted me with a tapestry of doublespeak, some kind of incomprehensible familial patois. He must have been from one of the maritime provinces. The customs agent rolled his eyes and let me pass. I’m fairly certain I didn’t come anywhere close to meeting his entrance requirements. He just succumbed to the attrition.
I made the plane to Montréal. At Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport, I had to go through customs yet again. Evidently, my jab-step across an international border in Toronto had created all kinds of conflicting information on my permanent record. The Customs Agent in Montréal was hopelessly confused about my activities back in Toronto. I had to indulge her endlessly. Luckily, my layover provided me ample time. I made it to my gate with time to read some of Uncle Bob’s book surrounded by comforting French chatter and mandated French signage.
I was reading the book. I was looking up at the signage. There was something on the periphery of my thoughts but it remained outside my grasp. I was reading the book. I stopped and tilted my ear toward the French chatter. It was like having someone’s name on the tip of your tongue. The harder you think on it, the more elusive it is. I went back to my book and forgot that nonsense.
We were taxiing down the runway. The attendant was lackadaisically administering the safety lecture. I was totally ignoring her, fully immersed in Uncle Bob’s remembrances. He was talking about his first job. It was on the Fort Amherst, a passenger ship. He was a bellboy. One of his responsibilities was to go around chiming this mini-xylophone to notify the guests when it was time for the ship to depart. I couldn’t help from laughing, interrupting the safety lecture. My Uncle Jan had gotten me a job once at the Mandarin Oriental in Boston as a banquet server. I had to play one of those mini-xylophones, too. It was to notify guests that dinner was being served in the ballroom. I figured out how to play the Kentucky Derby theme on mine. Uncle Bob preferred to play Sailing, Sailing, Over the Bounded Main on his. It worked out pretty good.
That’s when it hit me.
They’re French. In Montréal everybody speaks French. That was the thought that had been teasing me. Uncle Bob didn’t call their games. B0undless didn’t open their broadcasts with his opening montages. They had a French version of Hockey Night in Canada. It was called Soirée du Hockey for a while. As corporate partnerships diced up broadcast deals finer and finer it branded and rebranded. I’m not sure what they called it now. Whatever it was, it was the same players and the same teams. It was the same scores and the same Stanley Cup champions year in and year out.
But it was completely different. There’s was a different legend composed by a different network of storytellers.
They didn’t have Uncle Bob. They hung on some other guys words as the play unfolded. When they were struck by a childhood memory of the Habs winning the Cup in ’93, it wasn’t Uncle Bob’s voice that played in their mind’s eye. It was someone else. It wasn’t opening montages by B0undless that got them all keyed up at precisely 7 pm on a Saturday night. They must have montages, but they were someone else’s montages. There were probably voiceovers and maybe one of those voices was Jean Béliveau but it wasn’t about hockey players being artists. It was another line and it was probably bad-ass too, but it was in French. And it was about something else. I had no clue what it was.
“Two separate races and religions meet here and live their separate legends side by side.”