Monday, 23 May 2016


Games Kids Play

About ten days ago I was asked to speak to a grade five class about Montreal. My hometown was a topic for their geography class and perhaps history too; I’ve no idea of current curriculum subject umbrellas and I haven’t attended grade five since 1971. I boned up on the facts as I was taught them and I boned up on everything else I’ve learned about Montreal since learning became a pleasure and not an institutional obligation.

Their teacher indicated to me that her class loved stories, personal ones. I was warned that if I started taking too many questions too soon the dynamic would shift and the kids would take over, overwhelmed by their curiosity. Sure enough, what I’d prepared quickly went out the window and we ended up talking about what it was like for me to be their age in Montreal way back when. The topic of sports came up because there were very few distractions from playing games back then, no colour TV, no cable TV, no computers. Most of the kids were shocked, shocked that my friends and I didn’t play soccer or much tennis, but they agreed hockey, football and baseball were pretty good sports too.

I was captivated by their enthusiasm. How they chattered on about their favourite activities and games, players and teams, as infectious as a hospital. Nothing was said about civic strong-arming for subsidized facilities, doping, cheating, graft, corruption, scandal, ticket prices, the machinery of global branding and growing the untapped Chinese market. Here was sport distilled down to its essence, the pleasure and joy it provides in its many forms; I’d forgotten those feelings.

The Port Ruppert Mundys, the nine featured in Philip Roth’s The Great American Novel (and it is) are legendary in the sub-genre of ‘baseball’ fiction for their homelessness. The withering Montreal Expos evoked the Mundys as they straggled to Puerto Rico for home games in San Juan. The Canadian Football League Toronto Argonauts were nomads last season, displaced by the Pan-Am Games and the baseball Blue Jays playoff run. The Argos wore home blues and hosted games in Hamilton, Ottawa and… Fort McMurray. The catastrophic wildfires up that way have bequeathed Alberta at least two new Mundys. Life imitates art, again.

The Alberta Football League Fort McMurray Monarchs will play this season in Spruce Grove, a community about 20 minutes west of the green Edmonton City Limit sign and about five hours south of where they should be. They will play their games wearing uniforms and equipment donated by the CFL’s Edmonton Eskimos, Calgary Stampeders and Saskatchewan Roughriders. Other AFL clubs have pitched in with fundraising efforts and additional equipment.

Here in the capital there’s a ballpark on the flats of the North Saskatchewan, beneath downtown. Picturesque, and to date it has avoided the high and inside wrecking balls pitched by developers. This season the Alberta Major Baseball League Edmonton Prospects will share their home grounds with the Fort McMurray Giants, their expansion cousins. Watching baseball, any game in any park, has always been one of those small, constant and consistent pleasures in my life: I’m in grade five again except I can have a beer though my back might not tolerate nine innings. And I find crowds, cheerleaders and cheesy contests increasingly annoying, but still… from my perspective I’ll have two home teams to support during the short season (two months) and twice as many games to choose from.

The sporting community taking care of its own in the wake of the social, economic and environmental disaster that was Fort McMurray’s fate may not seem like a big deal, but I got those old feelings about sports once again. The true teachings of competition are teamwork, fair play and a hand up if you’ve been knocked down. When the full extent of Fort McMurray’s miserable plight became apparent, Canadians, whether professionally or personally, exhibited those sporting qualities to the best of their abilities, gave it everything they had. These are the coached or raw personal and collective attributes we value in our society. Maybe some of them stem from kids playing games.

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