GTH – L.A.: A night in the life of two league ex-pats in Los Angeles

Hi Darryl. I’m starting a hockey team with hopes of one day contending for the Exclaim Cup. The team is called CCCP, and we’re aiming to capture some of the menace and excitement of the old Soviet teams of the 70s. We need a goaltender. Are you interested? – Jeff

Tonight, seven years later, Jeff and I are in Los Angeles, thousands of miles away from the rest of our teammates. Jeff has been excelling in the new media program at USC for a few years, while I’m a more recent arrival, having enrolled in a writing program at UCLA.

We’ve started the evening at my apartment in Los Feliz, having a few beers and sharing some more conventional memories of back home. “You have to see the airport in Lethbridge, it’s crazy,” Jeff tells me as he excitedly scrolls through his iPhone for pictures of Southern Alberta. “And it’s beautiful!” But the conversation soon turns to our days in the GTHLA. “There was nothing better after a difficult week,” Jeff says, “than stepping into The Rhino after a Saturday night game and seeing the pub overflowing with league players.”

After our apartment beers are finished, we embark on the 10-minute stroll down Vermont Street toward Sunset Station. (Yes, L.A. has a subway!) I’m wearing my new Kings sweater to keep warm from the crisp evening breeze. On the short ride downtown, we discuss screenwriting with as much enthusiasm as we do the autographs on one passenger’s early-80s-vintage Kings jersey. It’s not uncommon to see an entire subway car full of black and purple sweaters the closer you get to 7th St/Metro Center on a game night. Hockey in Los Angeles is thriving–and it isn’t just for ex-pat Canadians and East Coast Americans. The accolades given to Wayne Gretzky for his influence on hockey in California are well deserved. Tonight’s opponents from San Jose will tell you as much.

We arrive at L.A.’s rejuvenated downtown earlier than expected and duck into Riordan’s Tavern for a quick one. Happy hour in Los Angeles is a special thing. One of our favourite spots in the city, The Gold Room, will hand you a taco, a shot of tequila and a beer for four bucks. Can you imagine such a scenario playing out at Mayday Malone’s in Toronto? Would any players ever make it to the game at Bill Bolton?

As we approach the Staples Center, its entrance flanked by majestic palm trees, we stop for a quick picture with the Great One. We have attended many games before this one, but the giant statue of Wayne Gretzky waving to fans lined up outside never gets old.

We take our seats among the sell-out crowd just in time for puck-drop. Forty dollars for a lower bowl ticket against a division rival in a tense playoff battle. Not too shabby. From the opening face-off, fans dump insults on the Sharks captain. “Dum-bo Jo-oe!” Jeff and I feel at home.

By the third period, I’m feeling comfortable enough to impart some hockey wisdom on the locals. I begin ripping into Dustin Penner every time he touches the ice. Then, with just under five minutes left, Penner scores the goal that sinks the Sharks. The Kings fans in our section take great joy in informing me of how little I know about hockey. At times I wonder if Jeff, seated politely to my right, ever regrets sending me that email back in ’05?

We occasionally get homesick, but not because we dislike Los Angeles. We love it here. And on the walk back to the subway, we both marvel at our new home. Jeff, as always, puts it best, “Los Angeles has this existential vastness I adore,” he says. “I love the way it is openly apocalyptic. The city’s real problems are all right in your face, but by the same token you have some of the most beautiful urban spaces anywhere in the world.”

On the ride home, we run into our bartender from Riordan’s Tavern. I watch as Jeff proudly shows our new friend pictures of Lethbridge in winter. I listen as he speaks passionately about the snow and the wind–and the airport. Again with the airport.

For the first time tonight, I’m sitting quietly. I’m thinking back, with great fondness, to my years with CCCP, by far my favourite bunch of my hockey playing life. I can see our Captain Mike Mulqueen skating a lap around the rink with the Soviet flag taped to a stick. I recall our first Summit point, a hard-fought 3-3 tie against The Lads, with a little snippet of it making its way onto Hockey Night in Canada. I am grateful beyond words for Jeff Watson’s creation of a team of pseudo-Russians, now all wonderful friends.

The giant escalator eventually dumps us out onto Sunset Boulevard and I try to convince our team’s founder to fly to back to Toronto and lace them up one more time.

“I’d love to, but I can’t.” Jeff says with a smile. “I’ll be in Lethbridge.”

I’ve heard it’s got one hell of an airport.

–Originally published by Darry Webster (aka OLD KID) in Exclaim! Hockey Summit of the Arts.

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