My sister Wookie moved to Toronto to join The National Ballet. She arrived with a small suitcase in hand, leaving the bulk of her belongings back in Ottawa at Mom and Dad's.
I felt bad that my hermetic tendencies kept her from meeting new people, but I knew she'd get all serious and start hanging out with dance people soon enough. We spent days on end in my basement bachelor, playing poker and running to the Queen Convenience to satisfy cravings. I'd wear my lumberjack coat, long johns, and moccasins.
"At least put some pants on,”she'd say.
"It's Parkdale,” I told her. “You could be naked and no one would notice.”
We'd always buy an assortment of gummies for her and chips for myself.
Close quarters—my apartment—brought us back fifteen years.
“Remember the alligators?” I asked her.
“Yes. Then you tried to bribe me with money.”
As girls, we'd play on my double bed at night. I often wanted her to sleep over in my room, so when she wanted to leave I'd tell her that alligators lived underneath my bed. I had six years on her. When that stopped working I invented a fairy that left money. I'd grab a handful of coins from my Canadian Tire safe and slip them under her pillow while she slept, fifty cents or so. Soon the money wasn't incentive enough and I was running out of cash.
Mom kept bulging black garbage bags in my closet, filled with clothes and what not. Wookie spun a story about a witch with a bloody sock that lived in one of them. She gave details. The sock was striped and dripping. “She's in the bag, she's in the bag,” Wooks chanted, skipping off to her room. I never could sleep with the closet doors open again.
Our first big outing from my hovel was a trip to the CNE.
”Step right up, step right up.,” a barker called, from inside the gates. “The past predicts the future. I predict the now.”
We pushed through the crowd to find a squat bald man with sequined suspenders standing in the middle.
“Your weight within three,” he turned to us. “Your age in two.”
I offered up my face, Wookie, her body. He got me spot on, twenty-six, even though everyone said I looked younger.
He eyed Wooks up and down. “He'll guess lower,” she whispered in my ear. “I have hidden dance muscles.” She was right and picked a blue and white teddy bear—Carlton, the Maple Leafs mascot.
We rode those rides until Wookie turned green. I wanted one more turn on The Polar Bear Express, so she encouraged me to go it alone. A carny sat me on the inside, and a teenybopper boy on the outside, so as not to be crushed by centrifugal force. “Do you wanna go faster?”the carny roared into a mic. Boston blared behind him. The poor kid's knuckles turned white on the bar in an effort to keep his body from touching mine. I howled like mad, spotting Wookie every 360.
We were walking with mustard-dripping corn dogs when she handed me her bear. Growing up, Dad never gave a crap about sports, and Mom neither until Ottawa got the Senators, a real hockey team, in '92. I moved to Toronto that year and the Sens were abysmal the next four.
In '96 Ottawa built The Palladium arena, got a new coach and made it to the playoffs for the first time. Mom sent me a Sens T-shirt that I'd wear under a Toronto Gilmour jersey. I cheered for both teams—an unpopular practice for other Leafs fans.
Wookie danced at the National and I worked at a drop-in for homeless youth. We moved into a first floor Victorian up the street, then placed an ad in the weekly paper to rent out the basement bedroom. Gavin moved in. He was a mutton chop-sporting arborist—cutting limbs around power lines, lines that might be crossed. Born on a base in Petawawa, he moved to Toronto at age four, and he bled the Leafs blue and white ever since.
“Sucks to be from Ottawa,” he joked. I reminded him the Sens had made the playoffs two years previous, unlike the Leafs. Gavin had a game day routine. He'd arrive home after a day in the trees, strip his way to the basement, and emerge minutes later in flannels with a faded Empire Strikes Back sleeping bag trailing behind. He'd light a Firelog. “They burn exactly three periods,” he informed us the first time. Then he'd climb into our Dad's old Lay-Z-Boy parked in front of the TV. I'm not sure how the chair became his, but it did.
Wookie danced in and around the living room when games were on, stopping to do awkward looking stretches. She was usually in bed before the third period.
”Why do you call her Wookie?” Gavin asked.
“It's the Chewbacca hair,” I said, and laughed. It was the same colour.
“I am not Chewie,” she declared, pirouetting out of the room.
Gavin hauled out a stack of school binders one night as the Leafs clobbered the Blackhawks. I admired his Russian Federation hockey cards and others. He told me the best place was Legends on King Street—a one-stop shop for collectors. I tagged along that weekend for a tour and he introduced me to the owner. “Upper Deck is the cream,” Gavin schooled. I bought four packs, and at six bucks a pop, I realized it was no Mickey-Mouse hobby.
As a kid, I spent my weekly allowance collecting the entire Charlie's Angels Series 1 set. I carried them everywhere in a Crown Royal velvet bag. When I lost the bag at the Hazeldean Mall I was devastated for months.
By December I had four binders of hockey cards and a box full of doubles. On game days, Gavin and I sat on the carpet. Wookie's dance floor was covered in our collections. We traded cards and rearranged weekly—by player, team, brand, or year. I kept a black binder reserved for Superstars. Gavin railed against my choices, “A cherry picker like Bure? C'mon!”
At intermissions, we'd make our pilgrimage—out the side door, off the porch, through the backyard, across the funeral home parking lot, down the alley, and into the 7-11 on the corner. They sold O-Pee-Chee and Fleer cards, subpar to us aficionados, but hey, they gave us the fix we needed. Wookie disapproved of our pajama-wearing excursions and agreed to go if we threw in a tip for her candy addiction. She thought Sergei Gonchar was cute so I gave her his Washington Capitals card.
”It's only a matter of time,” Gavin laughed, “before she comes to the dark side.”
I couldn't walk into Legends without dropping a fifty—new cards, individual inserts, sleeves, hard plastics or Beckett's, a monthly pricing guide.
“Wooks, Wooks, check out this card,”; I said when she got home. “This could be worth something one day.” She threw her ballet bag on the floor and walked away down the hall. “Look!” I said, following into her bedroom. “A Smooth Grooves Paul Kariya, cool eh?”
”Stop!” Wookie yelled.
I plodded back to the living room, sulked, and filed my new cards. I slid my best Gonchar under her door before I went to bed.
In the New Year, Gavin took me to Trinity Bellwoods for my first game of shinny. I wore his old Bauers that flopped about my ankles. I used to figure skate, but it didn't translate. I took one step on the ice, forgot the pick wasn't there, and fell flat on my face. We passed the puck up and down the boards while ten year old boys whizzed around the rink.
By February, Wooks was in. Gavin and I donated our triples to help get her started. She organized by team with a separate binder for Alexei Yashin, the Senators captain. He was the '93 first overall draft pick, touted as the next big thing—the Sens salvation.
Wookie was collecting only two weeks when she got the hottest Upper Deck insert of the year: an autographed Steve Yzerman, a one-in-two-hundred print run in all of North America. It wasn't the actual card, but a redemption insert that you mailed to the Upper Deck people, who would then send you the original. She mailed it the next day.
Lice broke out at the drop-in. Bug picking is reserved for loved ones only, so after washing my hair with the putrid shampoo I sat naked in the empty tub and called for Wookie, “Ready!”
”Where's Gavin?” she asked, combing the nits and tangles out. “Aren't the Leafs playing?”
“It's their last game at the Gardens. He went to score scalpers tickets.”
“Right, I forgot,” she said.
“Don't tell him about the lice, okay?”
Gavin and I went to see Wooks dance. He feigned indifference, resting his disinterested shoulder on mine. That was until my sister hit the stage in the second act. He leaned forward, fixated, the way he watched hockey. Except he wasn't yelling.
I went to Ottawa in March to visit the folks. On Bank Street I discovered a small collector's shop and got my best card yet—a Jarome Iginla game-worn jersey insert. I couldn't wait to show Gavin. He considered the Calgary Flame a real superstar.
Off the Greyhound, I took a taxi back to Parkdale. I rushed down to the basement.
“Gav, wait until you see this card.”
I pushed his door open. Wookie was with him, under the covers. I turned and raced up the stairs and ran out of the house. I went to the Tennessee Bar & Grill, where I watched the game on a tiny TV hanging above the bar. I got drunk with the old man regulars and impressed them with stats of games gone by.
The next day I called in sick. I sat in bed all morning pricing cards, and then slept the afternoon away. The doorbell woke me up. I peeked through the curtain and saw a Canada Post truck parked out front. The Yzerman had arrived. I signed my sister's name and took the card back to my room. I used my nail to slice the box's seal. The card was in hard plastic, wrapped in foam. It was a beaut. I carefully slid it back in the box, retaped it. I hid it in the back of my closet.
Wookie and I avoided one another. She'd stay late at the National to practice, or I'd end up at the Tennessee after work. Gavin carried on the same. This lasted two weeks until he came home with an unopened box of '78-'79 Topps and a case of beer. Temptation drew us together. We drank 50s and took turns opening packs. We found nothing good, just more of the same.
”I have a new nickname,” Wookie told us.
“El Diablo?” I asked. Grampy called her this, back in the alligator days.
“Yashin Girl,” she beamed. “That's what the Legends guy calls me.
Gretzky announced his retirement two days before the end of the regular season. Gavin was the only person I knew who wasn't a fan. I had cried when 99 left Edmonton in '88. At the time, our mum called Gretzky's wife a bitch, said she'd lured him out to California for her two-bit acting career.
Ottawa and Toronto both made the playoffs, finishing 2nd and 4th in the Eastern Conference. There would be no first round matchup, so I didn't have to pick sides.
Conference Quarter Finals
Ottawa played Buffalo. I rushed home after a staff meeting to watch the first game. Looking in from the porch, through the blinds, I saw a strange shadow moving back and forth across the wall. I opened the door, turned on the light, and screamed.
From the ceiling, a stuffed body was hanging by a noose around its neck. It wore my Senators jersey and Gavin's skates and helmet. A cut-out of Yashin's face was attached.
Gavin came out of hiding, laughing hysterically. Bad weather sent him home early and he'd worked all day on his dummy.
The Sabres swept the Sens 4-0. Yashin played without a single point.
"I'm calling him Alex," Gavin said about his creation.
Wookie went on hiatus from Legends.
The Leafs beat the Flyers 4-2. Gavin did a happy dance with the rest of the city.
Conference Semi Finals
I brought home two Firelogs for the first Leafs Penguins game. "In case it goes to OT."
Alex continued to swing from our ceiling. Gavin enjoyed poking him with his hockey stick while lounging in the Lay-Z-Boy. He deemed Yashin Girl's collection worthless, or that it would be down the road.
Gavin was offered a job in Winnipeg for June. It paid double what he was making, but he turned it down, said he hated the city. That wasn't it. The Leafs might go all the way, and if they did there was no way he'd be out of Toronto.
Wookie went on a five-city tour of the West Coast. I took her package out of my closet and placed it on her bed. When she got back she made no big deal that it took so long to arrive. She didn’t even take it out of the box and seemed surprised that I didn't bug her to see it.
Gavin and I continued to trade and rearrange with trips to the 7-ll during intermissions.
Holy Mackinaw! Leaf glory continued. "Slow and steady wins the race," Gavin said.
Toronto beat Pittsburgh 4-2, with two wins in overtime.
Lice returned. A boy at the drop-in kept coming back with it. He cut half his mop off the second time and then shaved himself bald the third because he had no money for the shampoo.
I stopped at the drugstore on the corner and then found Wookie at home, downward-dogging in the living room. I stood in the doorway, staring at her dancer’s body.
“What?” she asked. “Are you still mad?”
"No, I don't care." I said, unraveling my scarf.
"He's too young for you anyway," she said looking up between her legs.
I was four years older than Gavin.
I went out on the porch for a cigarette. I heard the shower running.
Back inside, I trudged down the hall to Wookie's bedroom and rubbed my lice infected head on her pillow. When she came out of the bathroom I asked for her help.
She combed my hair in the living room as the national anthem played before game one in the Toronto Buffalo series. Gavin came in and dumped a bag of chips and gummies onto the coffee table. He didn't ask why Wooks was picking at my hair, he had playoff vision. We—Leaf Nation—lost 5-4. Gavin took it out on Alex, who lost an arm to a violent slash.
We won the next game, but things went down from there—Gavin's mood and the Leafs.
Buffalo eliminated Toronto 4-1.
Stanley Cup Final
Gavin changed his mind and left for Winnipeg. He paid June rent and said he’d be back sometime in July. His binders sat neatly stacked under the TV console. I got mine out and found the Iginla card. Gavin wanted it, but I had resisted all offers. I pulled out his Leafs binder and tucked the Iginla into its front sleeve.
Wookie got the lice, but didn't want my help. "I'm bleaching my hair," she said. "I'll chemically burn those fuckers."
"No more Chewie," I sighed.
Wooks and I watched the Dallas Buffalo games with diminished enthusiasm. We closed our binders on the season and made no trips to the 7-11. Neither of us sat in the Lay-Z-Boy.
I rooted for Buffalo, thinking it would justify them knocking off both the Sens and Leafs.
It was game six and Buffalo had to win to send it to a seventh. The firelog burned out, with no backup for overtime. Wooks went to bed, but I stayed up for what might be the last game of the season. I climbed into Gavin's chair and watched bug-eyed until halfway through the third overtime.
Dallas defeated Buffalo 4-2 and won the Stanley Cup.
Gavin called a few times from Winnipeg. He hated it, but was roped into staying for the rest of the summer. I abandoned my travel plans, savings lost to cards. I did take two-weeks vacation to look after Wookie when she cracked a rib in a duet.
She finally took her prized Yzerman out and placed it on the fireplace mantel for all to admire. I sat Carlton the bear beside it.
In August, Alexei Yashin refused to report for Senators training camp, money-grubbing the issue. Yashin Girl retired her moniker. We cut down Alex and tucked him into Gavin's bed.
Wookie and I went to the CNE. We did the rides, ate BeaverTails, and listened to a Supremes cover band. Wooks left early because she was performing the next day in the National's open house. I planned to go with her, but stayed the night at the Ex casino.
Then I watched Wookie dance. She was amazing. I was tired as fuck.