When it was just a game

Where were you on the 28th of September, 1972
when with 34 seconds left, Henderson saved your soul?
Me, I found myself lost in the uproar,
desperate to join the catharsis
making the world perfect.
But try as I might I couldn’t join in,
it was just a game after all.

Look at my hands,
so much has changed since then:
the right one aches in the morning
and the left one still bears the scar
of that ring, sworn upon once
and then sworn upon again,
but broken now and long since ended.

And Henderson? They say he found religion
and if so I am happy for him, I am.
And while I still don’t understand the uproar
I am certain now it was all just a game after all.
Paul, would I think, agree.

The game referred to in the poem is the final hockey game of the 1972 Canadian/Russian “Summit Series” tournament. For those interested, a full description of that event is included at the end of this post.

The Summit Series is, however, incidental to the poem. As an event it was famous and intense in its day but time has reduced it in importance and influence. My intent was to use it as a mirror to, and in contrast with, the end of my first marriage.

This is not revenge poetry—I have no ax to grind with my ex-wife. Our marriage was difficult, but equally so for each of us. The simple truth of it is that although we tried, we were just not meant to be life long companions. And from our marriage we have two sons we both love and with whom, even as we dissolved our union, we worked very hard to assure that this was about us, not them, and about our failings and not anything they did or did not do.

What did I learn? That marriage is not a game, to be fought with a sense of strategy in the hope to be the winner. But no matter the course of a marriage, ending one should be an occasion for sadness: so much promise, so much effort, so much pain—it’s inevitable that there should be some reflection and questioning.

Thank you for reading When hockey was just a game. I sincerely hope you have enjoyed it and I humbly appreciate your visiting the Book of Pain. As always, I look forward to your comments.


© 2013 by John Etheridge; all rights reserved. This poem and accompanying notes are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License. This applies to all original work found on this site, unless noted otherwise. The attribution claimed under the license is: © 2013 by John Etheridge, https://bookofpain.wordpress.com.

The Summit Series

In 1972, Canada had long been held at a disadvantage in international hockey tournaments as its best players were professionals in the National Hockey League and therefore ineligible to play at the World Championship and Olympic Games. As a result, Canadian and Soviet officials negotiated a first everm eight game September “Summit Series” in which any professional or amateur player could play. The series was a shock to the collective Canadian psyche; broad predictions of a Canadian sweep of the series were quickly proven wrong as the tournament began. The Russian team was good, fast and dogged; their goal tending  in particular, was superb. In the fifth game Paul Henderson scored to give Canada a 4 to 1 lead, but also suffered a concussion, although he was able to return. The heroics were for naught, however, as the Soviets came back to win that game. At that point they led the series 3-1-1 and appeared on the brink of taking the overall win. But Canada dug deep and after being toughened in a two game Swedish series en route to Russia, won the sixth and seventh games there, both on game winning goals by Paul Henderson.

The series by then, and in those cold, pre-detente days, had taken on a cultural sub-text: it was West vs East, democracy vs communism, the good guys against the bad, the elemental “us versus them.” It’s ridiculous now to think of the tournament in that fashion, but in 1972, that was what it had become. This difference was only magnified by the contrast of the game audiences: the Russians sitting quietly and watching intently, the few Canadian fans creating an almighty uproar that was almost loud enough to be heard “back home.” In the final, eighth game—Canada was essentially shut down to watch it live—the Soviets entered the third period leading with a 5 to 3 score. But goals by Phil Espisito and Yvan Cournoyer tied the game and the series. With only seconds left, Paul Henderson, after an initially blocked shot, came back from sliding into the rear boards and scored the winning goal, in a shot said to have caused all of Canada to simultaneously stand and scream out in one united roar. The good guys had won—barely—but they had won, and Paul Henderson was the undisputed hero of the tournament. Surprisingly—but perhaps not—the sudden fame was hard on Henderson, who struggled to keep his life and his family together. But eventually he did, becoming a born again Christian and finishing out his hockey career with distinction and going on in retirement from hockey to join the religious ministry.


Filed under Poetry

5 responses to “When it was just a game

  1. This is a very thoughtful offering. And lovely phrasing as well. I felt the feelings in it, let us say. And it was tricky; which I also liked. Browning suggested that the virtue of poetry is to be cryptic (I am paraphrasing, of course.) This is one of the few such references that come to my mind fairly often, of late; as my last name is indeed not Bartlett, and as such, I am no “walking encyclopaedia” of quotations. : )

    As I read the first few lines I realised that a sporting event would be used as a metaphor. I know very little about such matters; and so I thought perhaps this was a reference to (American) football; until, of course I read your lovely illumination below–or, rather, above, I should say, relative to the position of this comment.

    I am a ‘Yank’ as well, but I use a British spellcheck which I have augmented somewhat, (with some measure of Elizabethan “geek-fu”) because I feel it to be a better match for the King James era English I often (however imperfectly and anachronistically) use. And, of course, my dear wife is from “across the pond,” so to speak, which may further muddy the waters.

    When I came upon the second grouping, My first thought was that the subject of the poem (and/or you) had the injury from the rough sport played perhaps at a lesser echelon, and the ring was game-related–as such things, I understand, often are–partly owing to the prayer/soul-saving imagery used in the first grouping, and that, perhaps Paul was the speakers name, I am terrible with names, I’m afraid, Unless I use multiple modalities to remember then, but I scrolled up and saw that your name was John–that these two names are different, of course, means nothing, particularly in the context of poetry. ; )

    Then I read your very carefully crafted explanation below, and read the poem again, and saw it all very differently. Which, in and of itself, whether intentional or not, was part of the joy of the piece–at least for me. As if one is getting “two for the price of one,”–or even three, I think.

    I greatly enjoyed this offering. Thank you so very much for posting it.

  2. Failure is a delayed victory.
    Thanks for sharing this story of John.


    • ‘Failure is a delayed victory.’ Mei, I may have to honor that beautiful line by stealing it someday for a poem! 🙂 Thank you!