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A chance to play

December 30, 2013

There's hockey… and then, there's hockey!
I'm not particularly fit, not good with the puck, and not a great skater – but, I still play hockey, every Friday night. Full protective equipment, no contact allowed, though somebody gets carted off the ice every game.
Still recovering from a herniated disk. Separated shoulder. Stiff neck that restricts movement. Owing to a fractured skull as a teen, I possess about 10% of the balance of anyone else on the ice – seriously. I had to learn to walk again, using my eyes instead of the inner ear. If I stand still, put my feet together, and close my eyes, the floor comes up to meet me very quickly. You cannot begin to understand what this means on ice. A week ago, I was taken hard into the boards, creating a chain reaction involving three other players. It felt like a knife was being inserted simultaneously into my neck, my shoulder, and my lower spine – and you should see the guy who cushioned my fall. I've raised 'tripping over the blue line' to a new art form – but I still play. If my wife had seen that game, my season would already be over.
Twenty some odd years older than most players in the league, thirty and forty years older than some, I might be mistaken for a pylon on practice ice. When these kids fly by, that's how it feels. At times, I'm frustrated with the realization that I cannot do what my memory tells me I could do forty years ago, but then again, that memory is probably no more than one of the many myths I still carry around. Recognizing this memory as a myth doesn't make it any easier to swallow.
A couple of weeks ago, a little salt was poured into the open wound of my aging body. Some kid, maybe 20 years old, knocked me over. While the play continued up ice, he stopped and turned to enquire as to my general state of health, and as I struggled to my feet, he bent over and picked up my lost weapon, "Are you okay, Sir? Here's your stick, Sir."       Sir??? Ouch! I know my American friends think we're a courteous people up here, but that one word hurt just as much as my crash into the boards. To make it worse, when I shared this incident with my teammates after the game, they assured me that I'd misheard, and that the young fellow had actually said, "Here's your cane, old man." But, I still play.
There may, after all, be some advantage to my disadvantage. In this league, penalties are called as penalty shots for the victims, rather than banishment to a box for the offenders. When I collide with these big and fast kids, more often than not… no, actually, always… I'm the one who goes down. When that happens, there's a chance I'll be awarded a penalty shot. If I play my cards right, I could end up leading the league in penalty shots, if not goals scored.
We play to win for every moment of the game. When the game is over, though, I really don't care, and have no difficulty moving on. It's a game, and for me, that's all it is. I cannot and will not assign any more importance to it than that. Would I prefer that we win a game, rather than losing 6-0? Sure I would, but really, in the big picture, it's absolutely of no consequence to me. It's a game I love and am grateful for the chance to play.
I've told you that story so I could tell you this one. This morning, I've just read Bobby Orr's long-awaited autobiography. If you are a hockey fan, buy this book. If you are a sports fan of any stripe, buy this book.
If you are a student of character and values, and don't know a thing about hockey, buy this book.
It's the story of a boy who grew up playing on the frozen surface of Georgian Bay, who filled the cores of pucks with melted lead for strength training, who at the age of 14, weighed in at 126 pounds and still in Grade 8, was playing Junior 'A' against players aged 18-20.
This is a player who, as a defenseman won two scoring titles, and still holds the league season record for plus-minus (goals scored by your team less goals scored against your team while you're on the ice).
This is a player who suffered injury after injury, and endured surgery between 17 and 21 times on just the left knee (he lost count).
When he had the puck, he was magical to watch. If you find yourself with time to kill, spend it watching YouTube clips of Bobby Orr ragging the puck. Then watch his retirement ceremony in the Boston Garden, where much of the ceremony had to be abandoned because the crowd would just not sit down. Eleven minutes of standing ovation for this 30 year-old who had given everything he had to his team, to this town, and to the game of hockey.
In 1976, he could barely walk on his left leg, but suited up to represent us in the Canada Cup international series. As teammate Bobby Hull put it, "he was better on one leg than the rest of us on two." In the end, there was nothing left to his knees and both were replaced. Bobby Clarke went on to say, "He was so special. He did so much, and did it with grace and elegance and modesty. I think that he is what all hockey players should try to be like." Named the tournament's most valuable player, at every mention of his playing prowess, he turned talk back to 'the team.'
A quintessential team player, in one season, his assist count alone would have secured him the third highest rank in total points. An explosive skater, he could move from standing still to full speed in four strides. Nobody could catch him. Nobody. He could make plays, turn on a dime, and shoot. He could also take shots to the face when his goalie was caught out of position and somebody had to stop the puck. He took a lot of hits, and could dish it out, too. But off the ice, you couldn't find a more soft-spoken, humble person. Always – the team. Respected by everyone from every team, he changed the game forever. He loved the game, and he played with as much heart as anyone who ever laced on skates.
This book is not about him, but it is all about him. The self-effacing voice is one of a man who knows his place in this world, someone who knows that everything he's achieved personally is the product of contributions from many, not least of which were his parents. He declares that there is no such thing as an individual achievement. He comes from an age where his signing bonus was a new suit, and at that, one that didn't fit. For Bobby Orr, this was a game. While he always played to win, it was a game – a game he loved and one he got paid to play ($25,000 in his first season). You couldn't ask for more. And he was grateful for the chance to play.
Bobby Orr comes from an age where few players wore helmets but few head injuries occurred, likely because players looked out for their opponents and wouldn't cross a line that, today, is crossed in almost every walk of life. We live in a much different place these days where lines are blurred, crossed, obliterated, justified by the zero-sum of 'winner takes all.' While we may look across the spectrum of elite athletes (and others) and be amazed by their achievements and wonder at what they must have sacrificed to get to the top, I think it fair to suggest that too many of them have lost their sense of place in the world. In his final three seasons, Orr was able to play only 26 games. Although he had a guaranteed five-year $3 million contract, during those final three seasons, because he didn't play, he refused to cash any of his pay cheques. That just wouldn't happen today. While Bobby Orr operated at a level several notches above most of his peers in professional hockey, he played because he loved the game… and he was grateful for the chance to play. He never stopped being one of us. Character and values. Our everyman if ever there was one. Here's to you, Bobby. Well done. Buy the book, read it, then give it to your kids.
Competitive games are win-lose, zero sum events. For someone to win, someone must lose. Victory is the end purpose of competition. Win-win is antithetical to competition. There are certainly win-win aspects to competitive games – fitness and physical skill development, brain mapping, camaraderie, interpersonal skills growth, as just a few examples. The scoreboard, however, cannot show two winners.
Too much of our society, I would contend, plays on the zero sum framework of thinking. Too little attention is paid to conceiving and creating win-win opportunities in which the sum of the whole can become greater than the sum of the parts. Synergy takes effort. It's difficult and it takes time. We're much too focused on short-term horizons to invest in longer term projects and relationships. Quarterly reports drive entire industries, at great expense to the greater good. People unwilling or unable to envision the possibilities for synergy sacrifice for themselves and for their organizations and for the community at large immense and probably immeasurable potential. When the prize is seen as fixed in magnitude, those keen to claim early victory may be forgoing for themselves even greater victory. The pie can be made bigger.
Entire classes of people have been marginalized because elites have purposely or inadvertently prevented them from active participation in the economy. Despite what some will say, people do not generally choose to exclude themselves. They would love to play the game, but through no fault of their own, never get the chance. Disenfranchisement is not a highly sought, much coveted commodity. By excluding these classes, the wealthy restrict their very own potential. The establishment of a wedge between the haves and the have-nots leads only to a widening of gaps: gaps in education; gaps in health care; gaps in opportunity to advance; gaps in opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to the whole.
The great rise of the middle class in the past century came from expanded opportunity to play, opportunity to participate, in the economy and in society as a whole. It was this chance to play that fuelled explosive growth and unparalleled gains in standard of living. Today's pending collapse of the middle class is not, as some will argue, a function of overbearing government. It's a function of restricted opportunity to participate. Increasing concentration of wealth and power in private hands, in a zero sum game, is poised to return us again to the days of serfdom. This serfdom, of course, will lead us again to the days of revolution – and the beat goes on.
In zero sum, control is the name of the game. In relationships – personal, corporate, political – the zero sum framework dictates that power struggles will dominate the playing field. There seems little room for cooperation among the players. The most successful personal relationships do not adopt a zero sum framework. Why, then, should we abandon core values that sustain this success, in cases where we don't have personal relationships with other participants? Why are the critical success factors in personal relationship not applicable to the general case? Shouldn't one of our key objectives be to maximize opportunity for everyone to have 'the chance to play'? These are all questions that scratch at me.

Kevin Graham

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