The first time I played hockey with Gord Downie was probably in 1991 in a Monday morning pick up a game, largely populated by musicians that still endures to this day. Gord and I had become acquainted as we both explored the “checker board floors” of Toronto’s emerging Queen Street music scene, he with The Tragically Hip as they made their name, and me trying to tell the story of all the amazing music in my weekly, NOW Magazine.
But an intimacy is gained in the dressing room and on the ice that can be deeper than snatched and shouted conversations in a crowded club. You would never have guessed Gord was fronting a band on a stellar trajectory that autumn day in the early 90s. I would go on to play plenty of hockey with Gord, and he was always the same in the room, one of the quiet ones, just another teammate lacing up his skates and listening to the trash talk, not a rah rah or look-at-me guy. He was almost exclusively a goalie, fitting for this contemplative man, biding his time “at the loneliest end of the rink” but this day he was playing out.
We now wear full equipment in the Monday game, but back then skaters wore winter gloves on their hands and baseball caps instead of helmets on their heads. I remember looking across at Gord and being a little stunned as he jammed newspapers into his jeans to act as shin pads and taped them to his legs. Talk about old school.
While Gord was a pioneer in many ways, he was old school in terms of core values like loyalty, especially to his family, friends and, his country. He had a strong sense of right and wrong, and Canada was reminded of that as he used his last months on Earth to demand we all do a better job at reconciliation with our indigenous people. Gord was always a good guy to have on your side. He had a smile that could protect you like an umbrella on a stormy day, and he shared it generously.
But he was no pushover and could get prickly when NOW gave his band a crummy review, even though he respected that I refused to tell my journalists what to write. The only time he was ever actually grumpy with me was at our annual playoff hockey pool when I chose his beloved, then Boston Bruin, Joe Thornton before he could.
I’ll never forget when Gord met Thornton for the first time. It was back stage at Hamilton Place and the Hip had just played a killer set – small room for them, right? – in the summer of 1997. Thornton was the top draft choice that year, picked by Gord’s favourite Boston Bruins. I was talking with Joe when Gord came into the room, he unleashed that magnificent smile and made a hesitant beeline towards the young hockey player. It was as if the star was star struck. In a room crowded with friends and fans he could only see Joe. I introduced them and Gord was shy and close to speechless, he just kept muttering, “Joe Thornton, number one NHL pick for the Boston Bruins.”
That was Gord, so filled wonderment and delight at life and all of its possibilities that it makes his early departure from this mortal coil all the sadder.
There are so many things to celebrate about Gord’s life but one is what a great role model he was for other musicians. I went on the road with Gord and the Hip to write a cover story for NOW on their legendary 1993, Another Roadside Attraction tour. The tongue-in-cheek backstage joke was that Gord secretly wanted to be in Eric’s Trip, one of the openers on a jam-packed bill. Gord was always side stage each night for the band’s performance and of course they were delighted. Gord and the Hip always treated opening acts, and new bands in general, like peers, special guests at their shows. I think their example has helped set the bar for other Canadian acts as they become successful and remember to never forget where they came from.
Gord and I were briefly business partners, he, among others, helped me launch an ill-fated alternative newsweekly in Ottawa in 1998 called Capital City. We talked a lot leading up to the paper’s launch and I think he was more stimulated by my ambition and dreaming than the prospect of a big return on his investment. (Good thing because the paper didn’t last the year). But in our discussions I learned of his love and respect for his father Edgar, that’s Gord’s middle name. Edgar was a hard-working salesperson, among other things, and he had clearly given his son a moral code to aspire to. Gord’s love of his father and commitment to the values he espoused was moving and monumental. Gord and his family were regularly with his father before he passed the summer before Gord and we all learned of his own terminal illness. Commitment was fundamental to Gord and he took it very seriously.
You could say he was a solid guy.
We often ran into each other in our shared Riverdale neighbourhood after walking our kids to school, enjoying the exhale of having performed our parental duties and getting ready for the rest of our day. I know he cherished those walks with his kids as much as I did with mine.
It hurts to write these words and to use the past tense to speak of someone so alive and so important to my world and that of so many millions of others. So, let me share an image I hope will make you smile. Gord moved a few times when he lived in the east end and briefly had a home on the edge of Withrow Park in Riverdale, site of an excellent outdoor rink. Like I said, he didn’t need to be the centre of attention, especially on the ice and he didn’t want to draw the spotlight to himself, he just wanted to play. So he’d put on his full goalie equipment, including his mask at home and slip-slide from his house to the rink in the park, another anonymous Canadian, just another guy to his fellow skaters playing the game he loved in the country that meant everything to him. Well Gord, you mean everything to all of us and our hearts may break but our love for you will never bend.
Rest in peace dear friend.