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Bob McKenzie

TSN Hockey Insider

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The Tragically Hip announced Wednesday that lead singer Gord Downie passed away at the age of 53.

TSN's Bob McKenzie shares his own story of Gord, an excerpt from his book, Hockey Confidential, which was released in October, 2014.

Gord, and his younger brother, Pat, talk on the phone.

Every day.

They talk about what is near and dear to them: the Boston Bruins. During the playoffs, contact is even more frequent and intense, upgraded to a combination of phone calls, texts and emails on pretty much a shift-by-shift, running-time basis during every Bruin game. As it should be. When the Bs up their game in the postseason, so too do Gord and Pat.

Gord and his older brother, Mike, will speak to each other about the Bruins—it isn’t like they never break bread over the Bs; it’s not as if it’s forbidden—but it’s not as frequent, not as naturally simpatico as it is with Gord and Pat. You see, Gord and Mike know that sometimes, in the interest of peace and love, it’s best to steer clear of certain topics, at least since the infamous Ray Bourque blowup of 2001. That’s when Gord left Mike’s house in a huff because Mike was mad at Gord for not being happier for the ex-Bruin great winning his first Stanley Cup with the Colorado Avalanche. Gord and Mike are kin, flesh and blood, brothers in arms, but when it comes to the Bs, they sometimes tend not to see things the same way, so they will opt for the path of least resistance.

Now, whether it’s Gord talking to Pat, or Gord talking to Mike, or Pat and Mike talking to each other—they’re all Bruins at heart, dammit—it should go without saying, but needs to be said for emphasis nonetheless: the Downie brothers are not what you would call casual fans of the spoked B.

Their passion for the black and gold knows no bounds. It is deep and abiding, communal, maybe even tribal.

“It’s how we connect,” Gord said. “We have deep discussions every day about the Bruins or other stuff that may or may not be important in our lives. So, yeah, mostly about the Bruins.”

Could you really expect anything else from Gord and Pat, two boys who, when they were christened, had Harry Sinden, the architect of the Big, Bad Bruins and the team’s longtime head coach general manager, as their godfather?

Not every song the Tragically Hip sings is about hockey; it just seems that way sometimes.

The iconic Canadian rock band, which came together when five young guys from Kingston, Ontario, got together in 1983, writes a lot of music and sings a lot of songs that dissect, reflect or chronicle what it is to be Canadian, everything from Jacques Cartier to Tom Thomson to Hugh MacLennan to David Milgaard to Bobcaygeon. Hockey just happens to be one of those things, the organic by-product of, well, being Canadian.

Gord Downie, the front man and lead singer, as has been duly noted, is a diehard Bruin fan, but even before discovering the Bs, he was a goalie in Amherstview, Ontario.

Guitar players Paul Langlois and Robbie Baker are fervent fans of the Montreal Canadiens and Toronto Maple Leafs, respectively. Bass player Gord Sinclair describes himself as a “floater,” a Chicago Blackhawk fan in his youth but now quite content to cheer for any team that is contending for the Cup. Drummer Johnny Fay always liked the Philadelphia Flyers.

They all like hockey; they like watching it; they like playing it— or at least, to varying degrees, they did. In the early or middle years of the band’s existence, in the 1990s and early 2000s, the boys in the Hip would go to great lengths while touring to organize hockey games. Sometimes it was just ball hockey in an arena parking lot, but oftentimes it would entail finding ice and equipment to play a real game with the crew.

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Gord Downie is a diehard Bruin fan, but even before discovering the Bs, he was a goalie in Amherstview, Ontario.

“I remember when we opened for [Jimmy] Page and [Robert] Plant, we did two legs of America as their opening act,” Downie recalled, “and we had this ferocious three-on-three game on Rollerblades in the parking lot of the [Philadelphia] Spectrum right before we went on. I remember our tour manager coming out and yelling at us, ‘You’re on in eight minutes.’ When you’re opening for someone, there’s no pressure. It was like, ‘Okay, backstage, skates off, on stage.’ We would do that a lot.

“We had a lot of band and crew games [on ice], too. We’d rent gear, find ice, play a game. Not the band, but some guys would have a few [cocktails] and play. Or some of them hadn’t played in a long time. Someone would always get hurt. We haven’t done that as much in the last 10 years. To be honest, it feels like the right time to do this [convergence of Hip and hockey] interview would have been 10 years ago. I used to run the band hockey pool—regular season and playoffs. I would write weekly reports, which were meant to demoralize and diffuse enjoyment for others.”

He laughed.

So many of the venues the Hip plays are hockey arenas. So many of those who have come backstage to meet them after shows are NHL players. The Hip has always been an in-arena music staple at hockey games and in NHL and junior team dressing rooms, too.

“There is that connection,” Downie said of the link between band and hockey and vice versa. “We’ve met a ton of pro hockey players, got to know them, our music plays in their locker rooms. We’ve always taken pride in that.”

Maybe it’s become a bit of a cliché, too, this seemingly inexorable link between hockey and the Hip. Although maybe that’s a harder case to make when one of the band’s own iconic symbols is the official Tragically Hip hockey sweater, available for purchase ($150 Canadian). The Hip jersey has had multiple incarnations in colour and design, everything from traditional Canadian red-and-white with a maple leaf crest to the more recent Boston-style black and gold, emblazoned with Gus the Polar Bear (after the title of a Hip song) on the front.

“The jersey, yeah, it’s become kind of the trademark of the band,” Downie said. “It always changes [colours and style]. I had nothing to do with [the Boston colours] this time. If we were smart, we’d have one for every [NHL] town...on one hand, we’re saying, ‘Let’s exploit this love of hockey,’ but we’re also saying at times, ‘Hey, we’re not all about hockey.’ I guess we’re kind of sucking and blowing on that one.”

Edgar Downie, whose parents came to Canada from Belfast, Northern Ireland, was a traveling salesman based out of Oakville, Ontario.

He would peddle his wares—cutlery and flatware from Wallace Silversmiths, corsets and women’s underthings from Dominion Corset—all over Ontario and Quebec. He was on the road a lot, with his wife, Lorna, back home taking care of the family’s three children—eldest daughter Charlyn, son Mike and youngest daughter Paula. Lorna was pregnant with their fourth child when Edgar decided to get off the road and try to settle into a sales job with less travel.

So the Downie family left Oakville, moved to the Kingston area—Amherstview actually, on the north shore of Lake Ontario, just west of Kingston. (Between Millhaven and Collins Bay, if you’re into correctional facility geography.) Edgar got his real estate licence and a job selling new homes in a new subdivision, so it was there in Amherstview that the family put down roots. Soon after, on February 6, 1964, Gord was the first of the Downies to be born in Kingston, his brother Pat arriving four years later.

At the time, Harry Sinden was in the final stages of his playing career, as a player-coach with Minneapolis and then Oklahoma City in the old Central Pro Hockey League. In 1966–67, Sinden became head coach of the NHL Bruins, but whether he was in the minors or the NHL, he always returned home in the summer to Kingston, where he and his wife, Eleanor, became part of a group of friends that included Edgar and Lorna Downie.

Soon after Pat was born—Gord was four at the time—Lorna wanted to get her two youngest boys christened. A chaplain who lived across the street from the Downies offered to do it in the family’s living room. Lorna asked Harry and Eleanor Sinden to stand in as the boys’ godparents, an invitation they readily accepted.

“In the years since, I’ve sort of wondered about all of that, what is the role of a godparent?” Downie said. “They’re meant to be in charge of the spiritual development. In the definitive and traditional sense, that’s their job, to educate you in the ways of the Bible and the ways of the spirit. While [the Sindens] didn’t do that in the traditional biblical sense, they mentored us in a way just as meaningful to us. They have done that in spades. Really, I’ve always thought that, even though we’ve been in rare touch and rarer all the time. But I would see [Harry and Eleanor] at my brother’s wedding and they would ask me about my kids, remember all their names. It’s really been great. Harry has taught me a lot.”

Yes, the ways of the spirit; also, the ways of the Bruins. Sinden went on to be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame, an NHL coach and later a general manager, the face and vision of a franchise synonymous with Boston and the Bs.

“The Bruins have become so much more to me than some boyhood fascination,” Downie said. “That’s why I talk to my brother in Boston every day for more than 30 years, and I imagine we always will. Back in the day, we supported every move Harry made. It wasn’t just bias; we honestly believed in what he was doing...He had this sort of blue-collar budget, trying to compete with white-collar teams. He made competitive teams in his own image, that shared his work ethic, and he managed to walk that tightrope with ownership. Everyone has their stories about him, their thoughts on him, but every move he made, even trading Espo [Phil Esposito] was, in our minds, spot on. We really admire Harry in every way. He was a mentor. He taught us more than he will ever know. And I will always be grateful to him.”

Downie doesn’t really remember the Big, Bad Bruins’ first Cup in 1970—he was six at the time—but vividly recalls the Bs beating the New York Rangers for their next Cup in 1972.

“It was May 11 when they beat the Rangers to win the Cup. It was my little brother’s [Pat’s fourth] birthday, and me and my older brother [Mike] were dancing in the rain, whooping and realizing how quiet it sounded—whooooo, whooooo,” Downie said.

But Downie didn’t just like watching the Bruins; he liked to play hockey, too.

His first year of organized hockey, in novice, he played defence. Wore No. 4, naturally. But when he and his brothers and friends would play road hockey, he always enjoyed playing goal. He was hooked on it and became a goalie in minor hockey, too.

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In his first year of organized hockey, in novice, he played defence. Wore No. 4, naturally. 

“I really got into the nobility of it, what Jacques Plante would call the noblest position in all of sports,” Downie said. “I felt it was the position where you could be the cause, where you could have the biggest effect on the game. I liked everything about it. You can’t play goalie harder or faster. I liked that aspect of it. Rarely would a coach say anything to me. Coaches never know what to say to the goalie. ‘Go stretch, we’ll get to you later.’ I liked that independence. It’s still the case, really; it’s just a very different game than what everyone else is playing.”

Downie was good in net. Good enough that the Kingston AA rep team came calling, but with a schedule that included travel as far away as Oshawa, Edgar Downie said no. He hadn’t moved his family to Amherstview to put down roots only to go back on the road for kids’ hockey. He was too busy trying to sell homes, to make a living.

But it wasn’t long before a rink was built in Amherstview, with a team that started in the small-town Ontario double-C loop but quickly moved up to the more competitive B level. Downie loved playing goal. It loved him, too. There was his dream season in major bantam, when Downie’s Amherstview team won the provincial B championship.

“It’s not like it happened yesterday; it’s not like I dined out on it,” Downie said, with a laugh. “But we played Picton, Campbellford, East Gwillimbury, Gravenhurst and Exeter to win the championship.” Downie seemed to recall that future NHL defenceman David Shaw, coached by his father [Bruce] at the time, was on the Exeter team Amherstview beat, mounting what Downie referred to as a “Hendersonian” comeback from a 5–1 or 7–1 deficit in the eight-point series, which was played to capacity crowds in each of their towns.

But he also learned it can be a cruel game, especially in the cruelest of positions.

“It was a game in that dream season, our run to the Cup year, and it was a very special weekend because everyone in my family—I mean everyone—was there to see me play,” Downie said. “My grandparents, my parents, all my brothers and sisters—and my sisters didn’t even care about hockey, but for some reason, everyone was there on that one weekend.

“We got up on this team 5–0 after two periods and there’s a break to flood the ice. We come back out for the third period and they score early in the third. It’s 5–1. Then it’s 5–2, 5–3, 5–4. I’m thinking, ‘This can’t be f---ing happening.’ Then it’s 5–5, they go ahead 6–5. They have scored six goals in less than 10 minutes, and something happened in me. My whole family is there, my grandpa is a huge sports fan, a hero in my life, and I’m like, ‘Wow, this isn’t really happening.’ So I take my stick and start whaling on the crossbar. I didn’t hit it seven times, I hit it 14 times until it broke. I was taken out of the game, to the bench—thank you, Coach, do you think it’s time for me to come out?—and I went to the dressing room. Our other goalie goes into the game, our team ties it up and we win it 7–6, but no thanks to me. The president of the league comes into the dressing room after and says, ‘I’ve never been more ashamed of a player in my life.’ I’m crying and my dad comes in and says, ‘Get your stuff, let’s go.’ It had all turned to shit. I went home and I was in the laundry room, the mud room, crying. My grandfather had to come in to talk me into moving to the kitchen. I think I’m still scarred by that game.”

It’s funny, but when the Toronto Maple Leafs collapsed in their historic meltdown against the Bruins in Game 7 of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, blowing a 4–1 lead in the final 10 minutes of regulation time and losing in overtime, Downie thought back to his own bantam-level apocalypse. Which one might think would allow him, love of the Bruins aside, to be empathetic or even a little sympathetic towards the Leafs and their plight that night.

“Feel bad for the Leafs?” he mused. “No. It happens. I know. But I really, really didn’t feel sorry for them.”

No one ever said a Bruin fan is necessarily benevolent.

In some ways, the Bruins have always existed on some higher plane, beyond even hockey, for Downie.

That championship bantam season was his personal zenith as a player. The next year, in minor midget, he played on what he termed a “super-struggling team.” He quickly started to lose interest in the game, and when his family moved from Amherstview to Kingston after that season, he knew it was time to quit, in part because he didn’t want to start all over again with new teammates and a new team, but also because he simply had so many other interests beyond hockey.

“Living in Kingston, instead of Amherstview, there was so much more to do,” he said. “Hockey just fell like a coat off my shoulders. I never looked back.”

Downie had always been fascinated by music. He would listen to his sister’s 45-rpm records. In Kingston, he got into a band.

“It’s all I wanted to do,” he said.

Downie met Paul Langlois in Grade 11 and they became best friends. Downie joined a band called the Slinks. Meanwhile, that same year, Robbie Baker and Gord Sinclair were in Grade 13, in a band called the Rodents, but they didn’t know Downie and Langlois at that time. Johnny Fay was still in Grade 9 then, unknown to them all.

Between high school and Queen’s University, there was for Downie, briefly, a band called the Filters, but that soon gave way to the Tragically Hip forming in 1983. And they’ve been together ever since. It’s not lost on Downie that his desire to be a goalie, rooted in wanting to be the individual with the greatest cause and effect on the game, was likely the same motivating force for him wanting to be the lead singer and front man of a band.

Downie was thirtysomething before he started playing hockey again. He played in a regular pickup game on Friday afternoons in Toronto, returned to his roots and played goal. He and his buddies would also play shinny when they could—he’d be a skater in that— climbing the fence and sneaking into Toronto’s Withrow Park in the Riverdale area of Toronto on Sunday nights when the lights were on but no one was home.

But he soon got tired of the rigours of even once-a-week Friday afternoon goaltending.

"I’d be gobbling Advil until the next Wednesday,” he said.

Not unlike when he was a teenager, playing hockey just more or less fell off his shoulders like a coat once again.

With 15 albums, more than 150 songs, countless tour dates all over the world, multiple No. 1 hits in Canada, all spanning parts of four decades over 30-plus years, the Hip is a national treasure. Downie and Fay reside in Toronto; Langlois, Baker and Sinclair live back home in Kingston.

The band that plays songs about hockey.

It’s a funny thing to be known for, especially since there have been only four Tragically Hip songs with a hockey connection. (On the flip side, that’s four more than many popular bands). Well, five if you count Downie’s live freestyling lyrical treatment of their old standby “New Orleans Is Sinking,” where instead of singing, “I had my hands in the river / My feet back up on the banks / Looked up to the Lord above/ And said, ‘Hey man, thanks,’” he would sing, “I had my hands in the river / My feet back up on the shore / Looked up to the Lord above / And said, ‘Hey man, thanks, it’s Bobby Orr.’”

The first Hip hockey reference, and arguably its most famous, was “Fifty-Mission Cap,” a single from the 1992 album Fully Completely:

Bill Barilko disappeared that summer

He was on a fishing trip.

The last goal he ever scored

Won the Leafs the Cup

They didn’t win another until 1962,

The year he was discovered.

I stole this from a hockey card,

I keep tucked up under

My fifty-mission cap, I work it

To look like that.

Downie had been unfamiliar with the legend of  Barilko—the Maple Leaf defenceman who scored the game-winning goal in overtime of the 1951 Stanley Cup final, only to disappear the following summer in a plane crash—until he read about it on  a  hockey  card. Around the same time, the Hip were in Washington, D.C. Downie was visiting the Smithsonian National Air  and  Space  Museum, where  he saw the cap worn by World War II American pilots, who would “crush” the standard-issue air force cap to make themselves look more experienced than they actually were.

“Back in those days, I was into collage or cut-and-paste writing,” Downie recollected of his melding of the Barilko story and the fifty-mission cap. “I wrote ‘Pigeon Camera’ from the same visit (to the Smithsonian) because I learned pigeons with cameras attached to them were used to spy during the war. So I took the fifty-mission cap and the Barilko hockey card ideas, mashed them together.

“I was taken with the idea of a veteran pilot whose ultimate goal is to stay alive, to fly fifty missions, that in itself is its own glory and contrast that with Barilko’s flashing moment—that ‘is it better to burn out than to fade away’ sort of thing. I wasn’t comfortable with doing just a straight narrative of what happened to a hockey player.”

It’s a song that packs a powerful punch, most notably for Maple Leaf fans and especially when the song was played in Maple Leaf Gardens or at the Air Canada Centre, with a single spotlight shining on Barilko’s retired No. 5 banner in the rafters as the Hip launched into the hard-driving but haunting song.

“I remember performing it at Maple Leaf Gardens—it was February 10, my sister’s birthday, I don’t recall the year [it was 1995] and we played that song with the light on the banner at the Gardens, in the building where the goal was actually scored. I know my dad was there. I think he fell to his knees on that one and he doesn’t even play hockey. That was a special moment.”

The Hip’s second hockey reference in a song was “Fireworks,” from the 1998 release Phantom Power. Most Hip hockey fans can instinctively sing the words:

If there’s a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol’ 72

We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger

And all I remember is sitting beside you

You said you didn’t give a fuck about hockey

And I never saw someone say that before

You held my hand and we walked home the long way

You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr.

The curious aspect of “Fireworks” is how the song is so often interpreted as an ode to hockey, notably international hockey, when in fact the song is actually about an opposite ideal (“Isn’t it amazing anything’s accomplished when you don’t let the nation get in your way”) and represents that period of time when Downie quit hockey as a teenager.

“Yeah, there actually was a girl who said [she didn’t give a f--- about hockey],” Downie said. “On that song, I was thinking about hockey falling off my shoulders like a coat to the floor. Girls do that to you. All of a sudden, you don’t want your Saturdays tied up with the sweaty game. And I had never heard a girl swear and I’d never heard anyone say that before, that they don’t give a f--- about hockey. It’s like there’s a whole other world out there, which is hard to fathom sometimes.”

Six years after “Fireworks,” from 2004’s In Between Evolution, there was a third foray into hockey, with “Heaven Is a Better Place Today”:

Here’s a glue guy performance god

A makeshift shrine newly lain sod

Hardly even trying gives the nod

I sure hope I’m not the type to dwell

Hope I’m a fast healer fast as hell

Heaven is a better place today because of this

But the world is just not the same

If and when we get into the end zone

Act like you’ve been there a thousand times before

Don’t blame don’t say people lose people all the time anymore . . .

It’s just not the same because of this

It’s not the same.

This is a song that Hip fans know was written in honour of the late Dan Snyder, but it’s also very much for Dany Heatley. Snyder and Heatley were teammates with the NHL’s Atlanta Thrashers in the fall of 2003. On September 29 of that year, Snyder was a passenger in Heatley’s Ferrari. He suffered head trauma in a high-speed car crash and died six days later. Heatley, who had some broken bones and non-life-threatening injuries, was charged with vehicular homicide in the first and second degree, reckless driving, driving too fast for conditions, failure to maintain his lane and speeding.  Heatley had alcohol in his system, but it was below the legal limit in Georgia. He later pleaded guilty to four of the six charges, with vehicular homicide in the first degree and reckless driving being dropped. He was sentenced to three years’ probation.

“Like everyone else, I watched all of that pretty closely,” Downie said. “Dan Snyder, I didn’t know at all. Dany Heatley, I didn’t know him too well but knew of him. It seemed to me that Dany Heatley needed a friend after that. It was a tough time for him. We weren’t in that vehicle—none of us were. They were in that car together, they were buddies, that’s something [Heatley] doesn’t need a reminder of how it’s going to bother him for the rest of his life. He can pay whatever debt to society that society feels it needs him to pay, and that makes [society] feel better, but that doesn’t help him. That’s not the real punishment here.”

Downie was also greatly influenced by the Snyder family—Dan’s father, Graham, and his mother, LuAnn—and how, amid their grief over the tragic loss of their son, they still managed to find forgiveness in their hearts for Heatley.

“They’re such a beautiful family,” Downie said. “I was struck by their reaction. That’s a big part of the song, too. It was like, 'We’re going to handle this between us all,' all that pain, but what they did outwardly and inwardly, I was so impressed.”

Even years after the fact, Downie will still occasionally get text messages from Heatley.

“It may be odd hours—I envision him on a dock somewhere and maybe the Hip has come up on someone’s iPod,” Downie said. “He’ll hit me up with a text, which I love. I love getting those texts from people, love those little friendships with people we’ve met along the way, who might hear [a Hip song] and decide to reach out.”

Without question, though, the most meaningful Hip-to-hockey connection for Downie is “The Lonely End of the Rink,” from 2006’s World Container:

I looked up and you were there

Just sitting there all alone

Holding your fist in the air

Like, if you need me you’re on your own

You drove me home through a snowy tomb

I fell asleep in my seat

I had the dream of having no room

You were there just staring at me.

At the lonely end of the rink, you and me

At the lonely end of the rink, you and me

Oh to join the rush

As the season builds

I hear your voice ’cross a frozen lake

A voice from the end of a leaf

Saying, “You won’t die of a thousand fakes

Or be beaten by the sweetest of dekes.”

This song is deeply personal. It’s about his father, Edgar, who was far too busy selling homes to be involved in any regular way with Gord’s minor hockey, yet they still managed to connect on some deep level.

“My dad wasn’t a hockey dad—he was the furthest thing from it,” Downie said. “My dad could never drive me, but it never bothered me. I’d walk to practice with my gear—I kind of liked the independence of that. And my friend Phil, for games, we never had to call him, but his dad would pick me up, it was automatic. They just knew I needed a ride. But I’d be playing in a game, I would look up and my dad would just appear there. He wouldn’t be with the other parents, grouped under the heaters. He’d be alone, down in my end, and I would look up at him. He would just go like this [he raises a fist in the air]. I’d make a flurry of saves, I’d look up and he would be gone. He had places to be. He’s a very good dad. I was always very hard on myself; he would listen. I never really was told [by him] what I could have done better, but he always listened...when he showed up, when he raised that fist in the air, to me, it meant, ‘I’m here, I’m with you, maybe no one else in the building is, but I am.’ That’s what [‘The Lonely End of the Rink’] is about.”

What Downie will also never forget about that song is playing it for the first time for his older brother, Mike. Gord picked up Mike, and, as is their custom when Gord wants Mike to hear some of his music, they drove to Toronto’s Cherry Beach and played it on the car stereo.

“Mike heard the song and he started to cry,” Downie said. “We cried together, thinking of the old man. I just admire my dad so much and how he approached things. By design or neglect, he was the perfect hockey dad, and he let me do it. I could learn from him...My son plays basketball, he’s a good player, but I got pissed off recently after one of his games. I was a bad basketball dad that day. I should have been more like my dad and said nothing.”

Downie's passion for the Boston Bruins is impenetrable.

He knows this to be true because, as much as he loves the Bs, he isn’t sure sometimes how much he really loves hockey. If that makes any sense.

“In ways I don’t even like the game anymore,” he said, “I still do like the Bruins.

“There is a normal level of violence that erupts from the game, just from two guys who want something really badly,” he added. "That, I understand. But I see some things happening now [line brawls off opening faceoffs] and it strikes me that it’s nothing more than organized brutality. It’s organized intimidation and it comes from the highest echelon of the game. That dude in baseball [Boston Globe baseball writer Peter Gammons, who said the NHL remains a fringe sport in America because of a game-opening Vancouver–Calgary brawl in the 2013–14 season] was right. It is bush.”

Many of Downie’s fellow Bruin supporters would no doubt strenuously object to those views—“heresy” is a word that might come to mind for some—but Downie the deep thinker has reconciled his love of the Bruins, however big and bad they may be at any given time, with his own feelings.

“I don’t like fighting,” Downie said. “I just don’t. I don’t think it does what people [who support it] say it does. It’s a tired conversation. I don’t think I like the NHL’s version of hockey as it is practised at times. Shawn Thornton...I know he fights, but he can also play. You should have fourth lines who can play, like the Bruins’ fourth line can play. You want to be tough like the Bruins? Fine, then have a fourth line you believe in. And have them play hockey.

“Harry [Sinden] was one of the early [old-school] guys who came around and said fighting had become too much, even for him. What the NHL is facing now is, ‘Can you give up two dollars to maybe make five? Would you risk alienating a core group of fans to bring in twice as many [if there was less fighting]?’ I think there’s a big bait-and-switch going on in the NHL right now. It’s like, 'Parents, bring your kids to the game, the kids eat half-price.’ It’s like taking your kid to a Disney film, and halfway through it, a porn scene breaks out. Bare-knuckle fighting scares kids more than almost anything on earth, at least until they become inured to it. I’m sorry, I don’t see it. To me, sports are meant to hint at man’s ideal, not just mirror our reality, which is, ‘This is how we solve things in life: we fight.’ There’s got to be a better way.”

In the absence of that, Downie will always be able to take from hockey what is forever embedded in his heart and soul—the image of his dad, Edgar, fist in the air, at the lonely end of the rink, to say nothing of brotherly love and the Downie boys’ spiritual connection that includes the Bruins.

“We will,” Downie said, “always be carrying on Harry’s work.”

Excerpt from Hockey Confidential by Bob McKenzie copyright 2014.

Published by HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.