“Oh and there he goes,” says June Lynnesmen, a volunteer at the Free The Forecheckers Foundation, as she watches yet another hockey player take to his skates and disappear off across the frozen northern lake without a look back – freedom catching at his jersey and whipping it behind him, as he scents an empty net somewhere in the untouched expanse of Canada ahead of him.
“It’s always a little hard to say goodbye,” Lynessmen admits, wiping at her eyes in the fading light, as yet another player disappears without so much as a look-back.
“Especially when you know their wives and all. But you have to understand that these hockey players, caught in the wild when they’re young and then kept in offices until they’re too old to even remember how to stickhandle, were just never meant to be domesticated. And you see that straight away when you set ’em down on the ice and say, ‘Go on boy. You’re free now.'”
For many years June, and countless volunteers like her, have laboured against the powerful socio-economic forces that every year lead to the capture of hundreds of thousands of wild amateur hockey players, who are then transported to the major urban centres of North America. There they are put on display in cubicles, open-plan workspaces, and corner offices, for the entertainment of co-workers who have all of their teeth, take great delight in not knowing what a crosscheck is, and taunt them by dangling centre ice seats to tonight’s game, before snatching them away at the last minute.
But with the Canadian government finally bowing to public pressure, and agreeing that keeping skaters cooped up in tiny houses with limited access to ice constitutes cruelty against athletes, the days of these tortured souls quietly lapping their enclosures while dreaming of thousand-kilometre breakaways, appear to be numbered.
“It really all came to a head following the release of the movie ‘Blackskate’ in 2013,” says the Liberal MP for Creaseville North, Tim Wyst-Shaught, who spearheaded the campaign to free the pass-and-players.
“I think that documentary really showed a lot of people, for the first time, just how awful living in captivity is for a creature that was raised on the fly, the cool breeze of winter in their faces, gloves ready to drop, and not a care in the world. Sure, it’s fun having hockey players living among us right here in the city, where you can see them up close any time you like. But ask yourself this: is your enjoyment worth their aching sadness at not being in a three-on-two rush on a remote frozen pond, lit only by the northern lights?”
“See you Jenny!” June shouts, as the second of the evening’s releases climbs out of the back of Lynnesmen’s pick-up truck, and pulls off her skate guards. Jenny looks from the horizon to June, and then back to the horizon; and then takes off in long, swooping strides that eat up the icy lake in crisp, arcing carves.
“Ah she was a lovely player that one,” June says, as the woman just keeps picking up speed, heading away from us with ever increasing abandon; bank cards, car keys, and phone chargers falling out of her pockets unchecked, as she casts off the last ties to her life of captivity.
“She had eyes in the back of her head, but never seemed to care that much about winning, mind you. Just loved to skate, and was disappointed anew every single time she reached the end of her rink, and had to turn around and head back towards the other end.” June smiles, and finally lowers the hand she’s been waving.
“And now just look at her go.”