The stories behind great songs about Canada.
Hockey has always been a part of my life. There is something almost mythical about being a young boy and having a stick in your hands, your words a fog of vapour in the air, the camaraderie of scoring a goal and celebrating with your friends and teammates. I was never a skater on a league team, but I spent countless days and nights playing road hockey on my street or in boots on the backyard rinks of my friends. All of us had plastic blades attached to our stick handles, all curved and sharpened into scythes in the belief that it made our shots trickier to stop for the goalie. We played under the sun. We played under the stars. We played in the snow. We played on the ice. We played until our cheeks burned red and our Moms called us in for supper. We were our heroes, only tinier. I liked Paul Henderson of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Many of my friends were Guy LaFleur of the Montreal Canadiens. We heard the voice of Danny Gallivan in our heads as we attempted our own version of the Savardian Spin-o-rama. Hockey was our world in the winter in Canada.
The importance of hockey in Canada was captured very well in a children’s book called The Hockey Sweater written by Roch Carrier. This book describes the all-or-nothing mentality of hockey life in small towns. The games all played out on sheets of ice or streets of asphalt by young boys and girls who were emulating their favourite players. But more than this, Carrier’s book showed how important hockey had become in a political and cultural sense. For those unaware, The Hockey Sweater takes place in a small French community in Quebec. It concerns a group of boys who are all fans of The Montreal Canadiens, and in particular, they all idolized one player, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard. In the story, one boy’s Richard jersey develops a tear and needs to be replaced. His mother, who does not care about hockey, orders him a new one from the Eatons catalogue. When it arrives, the boy is horror struck to discover the new sweater belongs to the dreaded Toronto Maple Leafs. That the Leafs were the professional rivals of the Montreal Canadiens was one thing, but, in the much bigger picture of life in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs represented English-speaking Canada while the Canadiens represented those who were French. The “two solitudes” of Canada as it existed in the 1950s were laid bare in this classic children’s book. In that light, Maurice “The Rocket” Richard was much more than just a hockey player, he was a powerful cultural symbol of strength to many in Quebec. To wear a Toronto Maple Leafs sweater in Quebec was sacrilege of the highest order. The boy’s mom makes him wear his new sweater to the next game. The boy ends up being shunned by everyone, including his coach and the referee. Sometimes moms just don’t understand. Hockey means everything.
Flash forward to a decade or so ago. Hockey Night in Canada is no longer reserved just for Saturday nights. The six-team league of my youth has grown to over five times that number. Montreal and Toronto are still rivals, but generations of poor Leafs teams had watered down that rivalry quite a bit. In the 2000s, the biggest rivals the Montreal Canadiens had were the Boston Bruins. The “Big Bad” Bruins had been a good team since the 1970s and had enjoyed just as much success on the ice as the storied Montreal Canadiens had. In 2012, the two teams were slated to meet in the Stanley Cup playoffs. The Bruins were fast and tough and highly skilled. The Canadiens had two exciting star players in all-world goaltender Carey Price and hotshot young defenceman P.K. Subban. I tuned in to watch the sixth game of a tight series with much excitement and anticipation. The broadcast began with the announcement that “the following is a live presentation of CBC Sports”, but then, instead of going live to a rink side commentator or the in-studio host, music began to play and a film started. The film was created by an ex-hockey player turned filmmaker, Tim Thompson. It was a montage of tightly edited images and video clips that showed the entire history of the Boston-Montreal rivalry, including the series up until that point. The images were shown over the soundtrack of a song called “Avalanche” by Canadian singer Matt Good. The song itself speaks of the enormous effort it takes to move through life sometimes (Matt Good battles mental illness and addiction, so he knows of what he speaks). Against the backdrop of the whole history of both teams, the song took on another meaning about the sacrifice it took these players to make it to this point in their careers and specifically, to that point in the series and how much of a battle it is to win in the playoffs. Thompson does a stunningly good job of showing both sides of the rivalry equally. There are images of Bruins legends like Bobby Orr and Phil Esposito, as well as the fiery eyes of Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and the stoicism of Canadiens goalie Ken Dryden leaning on his stick, seemingly without a care in the world. The respect for the history of the teams was only matched by Thompson’s gift for storytelling and his skill as a film editor. While I had always been a fan of Matt Good and the Matthew Good Band, this musical hockey montage took “Avalanche” to a whole new level of meaning for me. To say I was pumped for the game is an understatement. I really, truly believe that you should stop what you are doing and watch this montage before going on. I have watched it dozens of times and get goosebumps with every viewing. It is the very best example of combining my love of storytelling with my love of music and of hockey, too. Simply excellent work! So, click here and let’s see what all the fuss is about.
We are linked together as a nation by our love of hockey and linked together in the present because of all that has come from the past. Tim Thompson understands this and has created many other wonderful hockey montage films that capture the enormity of the effort that it takes to win at any level. He was also the man who created the montages for the CBC coverage of the summer and winter Olympic Games. He is a very talented young man who lives in Port Hope, Ontario which is just one town over from where I live in Cobourg. We follow each other on social media. He knows me enough from that to call me Tom. You can watch more of his great work on YouTube by searching for Hockey Films by Tim Thompson. There are dozens. He tends to use cool Canadian songs by great Canadian singers and bands which is just one more reason to love his work.
As for Matt Good, he does not know me enough to call me Tom. Matt Good was born in Coquitlam, British Columbia, and still lives in B.C. to this day. I have always been a fan of his music from his very earliest days when he performed under the moniker of The Matthew Good Band. Songs like “Apparitions”, “Hello Time Bomb”, “Everything Is Automatic”, “Rico”, “Weapon”, “Non Populus” and “Avalanche” all have a place on my own personal playlists. Good has been nominated for many Juno Awards and has won several as part of a band or as a solo artist. Many of Matt Good’s song lyrics contain terrific imagery and pack an emotional punch. His singing voice can be strong and powerful when it needs to be, but it can also be whisper-quiet, too. Good sings with a lot of emotion and plays guitar with a lot of skill. He is one of my favourite Canadian performers and one that I have seen in concert more than once. I would happily see him again, too. On the personal side, Matt Good has had a tough go. He has been diagnosed as being bi-polar and has also battled depression, at times. At one point, he developed an addiction to the prescription medication he was taking for his mental health. He has also experienced health problems that have made touring a hit-or-miss affair in recent years. However, having said that, Matt Good persists. He is currently on a solo acoustic tour and is well worth checking out should he be performing in your area. In the video link below, I will include an acoustic version of Good singing “Avalanche”, so you can get a good sense of how he sounds with just his voice and his guitar.
Music. Storytelling. Hockey. This post combines many of the things that I enjoy most in life. To me they are all important. All three resonate with me on a very personal level, and yet all three things are integral parts of our national identity, too. It is not without reason that an image from the book The Hockey Sweater adorned the back of our five dollar bill for many years. It is also not without reason that when Maurice “The Rocket” Richard passed away he was accorded a state funeral. We are the stories we tell and the experiences we share. It is part of what makes us Canadians.
Although the Toronto Maple Leafs have broken my heart continuously over the course of my lifetime, hope springs eternal once again in my heart as the playoffs approach. Maybe this is the year they will win it all. Maybe, just maybe. However, it is more likely that I will end up crying at the end of my driveway as Gord Downie and his brother, Mike did when their favourite team, Boston, was eliminated that year. I don’t take shots against my garage door anymore, but my neighbour’s kid does. Their pock-marked garage door is every bit a symbol of Canada as is the call of the loon or the red maple leaf.
I will close by telling you all that one time I spoke with Tim Thompson online to congratulate him on the success of one of his montages, and I asked him if, when I die, he would put together a musical montage of images from my life. He hasn’t responded, but if he were to do so, I wonder what my life’s song would be? If you could do the same, what would your song be? What story about you would it tell?
The link to the video for the song “Avalanche” by Matt Good can be found here. ***The lyrics version is unavailable.
The link to the official website for Matt Good can be found here.
The link to the official website for Tim Thompson can be found here.
Since Matt Good is originally from Coquitlam, B.C., let’s go there for our pit stop. The official website for Coquitlam, British Columbia can be found here.
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