Dear Friends

Letters home from Prince George.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Dear Friends 14

Written: October 15, 2006
Published: October 17, 2006

Dear Friends,

All of a sudden it’s October. The days are noticeably shorter, and we have several times had to dig the boys out from under huge piles of leaves in the front garden. The whole worrying concept of Halloween is looming large now, and I’m really not sure where we’re going to come up with all the candy we’re supposed to need to hand out to the several hundred costumed children we’re expecting to be knocking our door down. I’ve rather cunningly booked the boys in for a dental appointment that afternoon; perhaps they’ll be on a candy ban!

The other indicator that October is here is that sport has suddenly become a much more serious topic of conversation. And, since we’re in Canada, by ‘sport’ I mean ‘Hockey’ (I’m pretty sure it has a capital ‘H’). Just to be clear, this is the terrifyingly fast sport played on ice, not the one I used to play on muddy fields with a ball seemingly carved out of granite. We like to think that Britain is football (or ‘soccer’) mad, but we know nothing when it comes to being fanatical about a sport. Everyone is hockey crazy – even the ones who don’t like it know all about it.

I’m afraid to say that we haven’t really got the hockey bug yet; from the action we’ve seen on TV, all I know for sure is that it’s so fast, you can’t really see the puck at the crucial moments. My Canadian acquaintances tell me I need a bigger TV, but it seems somewhat extravagant to spend all that money just to see if we can follow hockey a bit better. I suspect that, like anything, we need to see it in the flesh first.

I did this with Canadian football when I was in Vancouver in August; up until then, I had struggled to understand the differences between the football played south of the border (which I was at least familiar with) and the local version, but an evening spent watching the BC Lions quickly got me up to speed, and I have to say I really like the CFL version of the game; it seems faster and more enjoyable – I’ve even caught myself watching games on a Friday night from time to time, trying to explain the finer points to the boys, when I’m not entirely sure I understand them myself.

Baseball, on the other hand, I was already a fan of, and I’ve needed very little excuse to tune in over the summer – given the number of time zones involved, there’s pretty much always a game on somewhere, and it can be quite hypnotic. It’s also nice to watch a sport where I don’t have a favourite team, and can just enjoy it for what it is.

But, contrary to what you might expect, soccer has been our main sport since we arrived. We decided long before we moved that getting the boys involved in teams would be an excellent way of helping them settle, and a good way of making friends outside the school environment.

On top of which, I decided that I should try my hand at coaching, which turned out to be an even better idea, if a little all-consuming at times. During the season, we had two games on a Saturday (one watching, one coaching), one on Monday evening, one on Tuesday evening, and a practice session on Thursday evening. Tiring it may have been at times, but great fun as well – the boys in ‘my’ team (actually, there were two of us coaching, but they still felt like ‘my’ boys) were all full of enthusiasm and willing to learn, even if they did do their best to confuse me with all their hockey terminology, and I’m happy to say that my worries after our first game, a 4-1 defeat, were unfounded, and we won as many as we lost through the season. In fact, one Monday evening in September, with the floodlights on and the temperature dropping, Marty, my co-coach, and I urged our boys on as they twice came back from a goal behind to eventually win 3-2. I can honestly say that it was one of the best sporting evenings of my life.

The youth soccer setup here is extremely impressive, with a thriving organisation overseeing somewhere in the region of 2,800 players, all on one huge facility. It was easy to believe on game days that all the players were on the field at once, as I looked around: soccer players in all directions as far as the eye could see.

But you can’t play soccer during the winters we have here, and in any case, it’s Hockey season, so everything else is put to one side. All through the town, kids are practising in portable nets in their driveways, and breaking out last year’s skates to see if they still fit. Our boys are signed up for skating lessons (and I guess we’ll have to learn, too), and they have their eyes on some extremely expensive-looking equipment – let’s see if they can stand up on their skates first, though.

And I have promised to take them down to see a game – just as soon as we can find a gap in our increasingly hectic social schedule. The hockey teams here in Prince George are not, of course, playing at the highest level (and it is strange, for those of us used to the soccer way of doing things, to realise that there is no way that they ever could), but the dedication and devotion to hockey here is such that a game here will draw a big crowd, and the atmosphere should be every bit as good.

And once we’ve done that, we’ll be another step further along the road to being Canadian. And perhaps by the time I’m coaching soccer next year, I’ll understand some of the strange things my players talk about.