The Lake Ontario Cup is an annual hockey tournament hosted on Wolfe Island since 2002. Although a small event, the tournament is quite cherished amongst locals, writers, and musicians – including Waterkeeper Mark Mattson, Dave Bidini, and Paul Steenhuisen. Paul recalls how the tournament does so much more than satisfy his love for hockey and provide the winning team with a milkjug trophy.
I live out west, but when I travel eastward I try to route my flights through Toronto, and always bring my gear so I can get in a few games with my Morningstar brothers. We’ve gone on a few trips as a team, even a “training camp,” and this time we were headed to Wolfe Island to play in the Lake Ontario Cup; an outdoor tourney put on for fun, for the Lake Ontario Waterkeepers, and for the honour of winning an old milkjug of a trophy. Growing up in the balmy burbs of Vancouver, I had only ever skated outside once before moving to Toronto, so the prospect of playing a tournament on an outdoor rink with some of the best dudes I know quickly became a requirement. I’d be working in Boston with a furrowed brow on Monday, but the weekend would be all smiles.
Early Saturday morning, we took a ferry from Kingston to Wolfe Island to begin our quest for very-small-island hockey superiority. Rival teams and musician friends found each other on board the boat, and hugged it out in the bitter-cold air as our aging vessel carved a scar through the iced-up lake. Once we arrived, we quickly put our unis on in a no-frills box of a shed, and climbed over slumped bags and half-dressed players to get out to our hockey sanctuary. We played three games throughout the day, with a break in between to walk down the hill with all but our skates on (like when you were a little kid), to get some chili at the town cookoff. As the sun slid down and our winning streak continued, the fog rolled in and we played the final in what would have been a magical setting if we weren’t trying to find the net. A casual wrist-shot from anywhere had a good chance of going in on any goalie, be it Mike Palmateer, Gump Worsley, Cesar Maniago, or whoever it was in the soupy vapor at the other end of the rink.
As the final whistle blew, our hometown opponent’s hopes were dashed, and the coveted milkjug was carried away by the visiting Morningstars. While sharing high-fives and self-congratulations for being victorious against island youth in near-zero visibility, there began the rapid, unpleasant process every Canadian knows – when winter sweat gained in outdoor sport or chore turns from earned heat to dank, bone-deep wretchedness.
What seemed like the only remedy, beer awaited us at the Island Grill Bar. Players and locals gathered there that night, and the house band got the music started in good form. At some point, the bandleader looked into the crowd and saw Chris Brown, Steve Stanley, Dave Bidini, and Luther Wright, recognizing an opportunity to jam, listen to some Can-Rock renegades, or go home early. Steve sang “Walk on the Wild Side,” and Dave led on a string of party favourites, starting with “Takin' Care of Business.” Among this group of musical stalwarts, I was the wart, but loved every minute of it. I vaguely remember playing drums and ignoring every cue Chris Brown was throwing my way so that the song would go on forever. I’m a musician of the nerdy “avant-garde” and computer music variety, and that night inspired my important “Don’t play drums in public” guideline.
Bidini called on me to sing Neil Young’s “Helpless,” a song I know and love, but the combination of a red-eye flight, multiple hockey games, and liquid euphoria was catching up to me and knowing I would forget all the words, instead of slaughtering this classic, I made up a ridiculous new song starting after the line “There is a place in north Ontario.” A cast of thousands played beautiful music, raw in the moment, found the sweet spot, and then kept going; it’s a musician’s dream.
After last call, most of the packed room dispersed, while someone had the idea to get our skates and head onto the lake. A handful of us laced them up by the frozen shore, our only point of orientation a huge spotlight projecting onto nature’s massive rink. Rich Green said there was a skating circuit set up further out, so while Tom Goodwin lumbered back, the two of us headed away from the giant beacon. As it got smaller behind us, in the distance we saw an apparition moving alone in the haze. Wondering if it was real or imaginary, or if it was a modern-day Siren enchanting us to an icy demise, we glided closer, only to discover that it was our recent bandmate Luther, alone on Lake Ontario in the middle of the night, doing solitary one-foot spins. We watched in silent amazement. After more wandering and breathing in the sharp winter air, we skated back towards the bright white light. That long long day, balanced in hockey, music, and friendship, and as brilliant as the light on the shore, was complete.