Gord Downie, the iconic frontman for the Canadian rock ‘n’ roll band The Tragically Hip, passed away on Tuesday night after a lengthy battle with brain cancer. He was a lifelong hockey fan, which was reflected in the songs that he sang and the lives that he touched.
The Detroit Red Wings might have the least Canadian roster in the NHL. Of the 22 players who currently make up the team, only six of them grew up in Canada. Yet, when they got off the ice after their morning skate on Wednesday, the quintessential Canadian band was playing on the team’s sound system. It was the same thing in the Toronto Maple Leafs’ workout room just down the hall at the Air Canada Centre. And there’s a good chance the sounds of The Tragically Hip have been playing in 29 other NHL dressing rooms today, too.
The Hip, whose frontman Gord Downie died Tuesday night after a long battle with brain cancer, have always had an inexorable connection with hockey. So when it was announced Downie had died, it was as though the entire NHL, nay the entire hockey world, was in mourning. It wasn’t just because Downie was once a promising goalie who later became a rock star. (He actually wrote metaphorically about playing goal in a song called The Lonely End of the Rink.) The connection was much deeper than that. The Tragically Hip didn’t just sing about hockey, they had a tie to the game and its players and fans that was unique and enduring.
Of course, the Canadian thing had a lot to do with that. But it’s probably that NHL players saw a lot of themselves in Gord Downie. Or as the NHL Players’ Association eloquently said on its Twitter account: “The soundtrack of car rides to practices, bus trips to tournaments and dressing rooms across Canada. Hockey was a part of you and you will always be a part of hockey. Thank you, Gord Downie.” The NHL tweeted: “Condolences to the family and friends of Canadian music icon Gord Downie, whose music and love for hockey will echo through arenas forever.”
Red Wings winger Riley Sheahan, in fact, never even knew who Bill Barilko was until his father, Mike, introduced him to The Hip when he was growing up in St. Catharines, Ont. The band’s 1992 classic Fifty-Mission Cap details the story of Barilko, the Toronto Maple Leafs defenseman who scored in overtime to clinch the Cup for the Leafs in 1951, then died in a plane crash that summer and 11 years went by before his body was recovered. “The first time I heard them it was that song and it really sticks out in my mind,” Sheahan said. “My dad showed me and said, ‘Listen to the lyrics and listen to the story behind it.’ We were all talking a lot about him this morning.”
Wings coach Jeff Blashill said he was also a fan. The native of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., was exposed to a lot of Canadian music and said The Hip’s music was often playing in the dressing room at Ferris State University in the mid-1990s. “I was a fan growing up and I’m still a fan,” Blashill said. “I’ve got lots of it on my iPhone. The one thing that was neat was on their final tour just to see the impact Gord had on a lot of people’s lives and I just think it’s a huge reminder. I say it all the time. The impact you leave on people is the biggest mark you’re going to leave in this life and he obviously left a hell of a mark.”
Leafs defenseman Morgan Rielly rhymed off a number of Hip classics and said Downie’s influence on the game and its players was enormous. “He’s a huge inspiration to all of Canada,” Rielly said. “He has a lot of fans in this room, all over Canada and all over the world. When you read about his career, and everything, he was something special.”
Hall of Famer and fellow Kingston native Doug Gilmour tweeted: “Heartbroken today. Few Canadians touched this country like Gord Downie. Thank you for everything you gave us. My deepest condolences.” Former NHLer Matt Lashoff, an American who describes himself as a professional hockey player and songwriter in his Twitter bio, said, “#RIP Gord Downie. You music spun in every locker room I’ve ever entered, and gave pride to every Canadian I’ve ever encountered. #WheatKingsOnRepeat.” Colorado’s Matt Duchene spoke for many when he tweeted: “RIP Gord. Tough to find someone who represented Canada as much as you. Sad day for Canadians.” And Hockey Canada had this to say: “Thank you for the music that fuelled Canada’s game in hockey rinks and communities from coast to coast to coast. RIP Gord Downie.”