Yes, I Was Born in a Town Called Swastika

Perhaps it’s a sign of a conflicted personality, but I may be the only simultaneous fan of both Tie Domi and Toller Cranston — the Yin and Yang of men on skates. No further explanation is needed for admiring the Leafs’ enforcer than to note that I am a Canadian male. But Toller Cranston? Well, he was an innovator, a determined artist, and, truth be told, his Russian splits were divine. But most of all, I’m a fan because we share a connection with a Canadian institution: a rink in Northern Ontario.

It’s not much to look at, just a small patch of bumpy, cut-up ice surrounded by plywood boards. It’s not even permanent. In the summer — up there, that means the better part of August — the area where it lies is a baseball diamond on the grounds of the Swastika Public School.

Yes, Swastika. (Sigh.) It’s a hamlet of 500 people who are sick to death of people recoiling at the mention of their home town. It was named by a goldminer, so the legend goes, after a charm his girlfriend wore — the swastika, an Indian symbol. That was in 1906, when Hitler was a teenaged drop-out, so, no, the town was not founded by Nazis on the lam. It just has an odd name that the people have taken to heart like an ugly dog. (In fact, during the war, the government tried to change the name to “Winston” but residents tore down the new signs — meaning no disrespect to the saviour of the free world, I’m sure.)

Ah, yes. The rink. It was on this patch of ice in front of the Swastika Public School that a little boy named Toller wobbled about on his first pair of skates, and, according to his autobiography, tried a few spins and twirls. Someone told him this was figure-skating. A flamboyant star was born.

To fully appreciate this story, you have to see the Swastika rink. It isn’t the kind of place where you expect to see aspiring artists named Toller practising sit-spins on figure skates. This is a place where aspiring miners with names like Fuzz, Skunky and Butch practise slap-shots, swearing and smoking. And Fuzz wouldn’t know a triple-toe loop from a fruit loop.

At least, that’s the way it was when I grew up in Swastika and learned to skate where Toller Cranston had. And judging by the looks of the town on a visit last week, that’s pretty much the way it still is.

In fact, Swastika seems to have been preserved under glass, or ice, since I last saw it 17 years ago. Nothing has changed, which perhaps isn’t surprising for a town that still had rotting wooden sidewalks in the 1970s.

Sadly, though, that’s not quite true: The rink’s lights were gone. There used to be poles along the boards holding up strings of 100-watt light bulbs in dented metal sconces that looked like they dated from the ’30s. On winter nights — which begin in Swastika, if memory serves, about two p.m. — the lights would go on and the hockey would start. Boots were traded for skates and games would spark to life. Boys, girls, teenagers, adults: Whoever turned up could play.

Or they could just skate, if they kept a watch for flying wrist shots, or they could even skip the ice altogether and sit in the shack next to the rink where rusty snow shovels as old as the lights were stored and a wood stove kept the place stuffy and warm. This was where the more vigorous swearing and smoking practice took place.

Swastika in winter may be cold as a Moscow freezer but as long as you kept moving, the cold wouldn’t bite. That’s because feet and faces froze so totally they went numb. This only become apparent after returning to the shack, when the heat from the wood stove got to the cheeks and made them sting like they’d just been punched by Tie Domi. Then the thaw reached the feet. First, it would be a little throbbing, not too bad. But this grew to a raging burn which, to a 10-year-old, feels like about the worst pain ever felt by anyone. Ever. Remember the rusty shovels? More than one 10-year-old had one wrestled away while trying to knock his own feet off.

That rink was everything Swastika had. And what it had, educated people in the south would call “community.” In Swastika, they didn’t think much about it — like the rink, it was just there. But in the south, they’d strike a committee to look into “community.” They’d release a discussion paper. They’d hand out “community” grants and “community” T-shirts. Then they’d find out there’s no liability insurance on the rink and close it.

That, after all, seems to be the fate of all great Canadian institutions. The RCMP got mouse ears. The Liberals want to sack the Queen. The military’s so strapped for cash, soldiers will have to hitchhike to the next war.

But in Swastika, at least, one Canadian institution remains. It has lost its lights, but still, it’s there.

I’m sure Toller would be as pleased as I am.