As told to: Staff WriterIn 1988, I was riding in a van through northern Ontario. We stopped in Thunder Bay, which is what rock bands do when they’re heading west. We played a show — at Crocks and Rolls — and then went to the motel. We slept a little, I think. Our road manager, Jay Scott, was the first to get up. After opening the doors to the van and climbing into the front seat, he took in the smoke and sweat and ass of those hundreds of hard miles heading north and he vomited. We zombied from our beds to the van and found him leaning, doubled over on the front fender. He got behind the steering wheel and drove to Manitoba.
When we got to Winnipeg — 4,000 degree dry heat and fists of mosquitos everywhere — we pulled over on Portage Ave. to check our route to the gig, opening the panel doors. We spilled out: hideous road-bound things, charming only in our youth. We were immediately descended upon by a camera crew from a local TV station.
They asked us: “What do you think of Wayne Gretzky getting traded to LA?”
We thought it was a joke, a ploy, an SCTV skit happening in real time. We looked at them the way a dog looks at a monkey.
We had no radio in the van, no cellphones, no nothing. We staggered to find an answer. We could not. We uttered a few words. I may have said, “I hate Wayne Gretzky!” because, at the time, I did — and the camera crew left. That evening we watched ourselves on TV at the Brunswick hotel down the street from the Royal Albert. The Brunswick was a strip bar. A tassled woman danced when we came on the news.
The Hip. Gretzky. Trudeau. Lightfoot. Margaret Fucking Atwood and Tanya Fucking Tagaq.
The Tragically Hip were probably on the road then, too. They slummed it in the trenches the way a lot of bands did, and still do, suffering long exhausting drives across the glorious nothing to get from one mystery gig to another. Some shows would turn out better than others, and some would be disasters. You remembered the latter more than the former, although, at the end of the day, it was all about surviving. Some survived better than others. And some went to LA. Which is where Wayne had gone. I don’t know what the Hip thought about Gretzky leaving Canada or if they’d heard about it the way we had. Still: hockey, touring, music, Canada; we had these passions in common.
I got to talk to Wayne Gretzky about The Tragically Hip on the anniversary of his trade to L.A. I hadn’t intended to ask him about the band, but so much of our lives as Canadians are rolled up in these signposts and ornaments that gleam in the vastness of the land and the darkness of its long, cold nights. The Hip. Gretzky. Trudeau. Lightfoot. Margaret Fucking Atwood and Tanya Fucking Tagaq. I asked him.
Wayne paused a second.
“They’re a huge part of Canadian culture,” he said. “A huge part. It’s amazing what they’ve done, simply amazing, and the whole hockey world is watching them. The whole NHL is watching. It’s unfortunate what’s happening and why they’re doing it, but the band is incredible, and they’re incredible as Canadians.”
The quote doesn’t say anything about The Tragically Hip that we don’t already know, but it’s Wayne Gretzky who is saying it. Gord Downie and Gord Sinclair and Bobby Baker formed a band in high school and then they became a bigger band and then The Greatest Hockey Player in the World was talking about them. Saying nice things about them. On the anniversary of his exile from Canada.
Wayne was nice and the Hip were nice, and that’s not an easy way to be.
Before my interview, a friend wrote to tell me about Wayne: “And nice? Man, it’s not bullshit, he’s the real deal.” People are complicated and people are not, exclusively, nice — if they seem to be, you don’t know them, and if you do, it’s only a matter of time before you worry about this niceness — but Wayne was nice and the Hip were nice, and that’s not an easy way to be; not with everyone wanting a slice of your shirt sleeve whose brother’s brother once met you in a mall and “Remember? His name was Andy? Tall fella? You signed his ball cap?” You’re ahead of the game if you’re not dressing like Dracula and going out in public (Nicolas Cage) or dressing like Elvis so that people will think you’re just sorta nuts and not famous (Nicolas Cage), but being kind and nice goes beyond all of that.
“They’re incredible as Canadians.”
In 1988, Canada fell apart, then picked up the pieces and became something different. In a few weeks, a band will end, then we’ll pick up the pieces and become something different. Players leave, bands leave, and some go to Winnipeg. You have to if you’re heading west.
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