I was recently asked who my idol was when I was a kid. What I thought interesting about the question was that it was assumed, correctly as it happens, that I had an idol when I was a kid. It’s just one of those things that goes with the territory of growing up, having a person we look up to for some reason or another.
Like a lot of young boys, when I was a kid my idol was a sports figure. Unlike so many other kids who picked the real popular players of the day, my favourite’s best days were long behind him. Henri (don’t pronounce the H and make a sound like “on” and you’ll have a good idea how to say his name) Richard’s glory days had been in the fifties with his brother Maurice “The Rocket” Richard and the sixties with Jean Beliveau.
By the time I found out that a player on my favourite team had a last name the same as my first name his career was beginning to draw to a close. He did score the game tying and game winning goals in the 1971 Stanley Cup championship against Tony Esposito and the Chicago Blackhawks, but the real story that year was Montreal’s rookie goalie Ken Dryden. He’d only played six games in the regular season before coming in and starting every playoff game and stoning the opposition cold.
Four years later, Henri retired after winning his eleventh Stanley Cup, and his first as Captain of the Montreal Canadians. He had been a small, elusive player who could skate circles around the bigger players looking to make him part of the boards. He never had the most powerful shot in the world, but it seemed to be able to find the back of the net anyway. Maybe not with the regularity of his more illustrious brother, but his goals always seemed to be important.
They were the goals that would put the team back into the game when it seemed the game was lost, or the goal that broke the spirit of the other team in a tight playoff series. His goals always seemed to carry a little of the team’s past glory with them, and you could almost see the other team wilt when he scored, as if all of a sudden a Canadian’s win was now inevitable.
As a child, it was easy to have a sports figure as an idol, especially back in the more innocent days of the late sixties and early seventies prior to endorsement deals, steroids, and all the other disillusionments that have come with the passing of the years. Of course, we also didn’t know the intimate details of our heroes’ lives then as we do now.
I can still look back on Henri Richard’s career with the rose-tinted glasses of the young kid who thought he was great because I never found out whether or not he drank heavily, beat his wife, or slept around while on the road. There was usually one or two reporters who followed the same team each year from their home town newspaper and they knew if they ever said anything about stuff they weren’t supposed to, they’d never report on another game.
They were just as much a member of the team as the coaching staff and the management – sharing the train rides, sitting up with the players, and drinking and playing cards as they traveled between games. They had as much to lose as the players did by talking; it was a pretty exclusive club in those days and nobody wanted to lose their membership.
As a kid, a sports hero made sense. They did something you would like to do and they did it really well. Your world wasn’t cluttered with the things adults filled theirs with. All that mattered was whether your hero scored on Saturday nights and his team won. It could mean the world in terms of bragging rights at school on Monday, but by Wednesday, focus would have shifted onto next Saturday’s game.
Henri Richard retired when I was twelve, on the cusp of adulthood, and I don’t think I’ve had a person who I’d call an idol since; at least not in the same, uncomplicated way he was to my young self. The Montreal Canadians of the later 1970’s are considered one of the benchmark teams of the NHL that others are compared to.
Like the New York Islander and Edmonton Oiler teams that followed, they were the class of the league. Each of those three great teams had players on them worthy of idolization, but not one of them seemed able to strike that chord with me. Wayne Gretzkey, Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, and Mark Messier were all gifted individuals whose talent could and did elevate hockey to artistry on occasion, but it didn’t seem to matter.
It wasn’t that hockey had lost its attraction (that would come later). It was watching people like Gretzkey that kept my interest alive for as long as it lasted. It was that my own horizons had expanded. I could see the potential for other people, professions, and skills to be worthy of emulation and respect.
The thing is, it’s a lot harder to idolize your doctor or plumber for their skills than it was the athletes who you followed as a kid. There is nothing truly spectacular about what either of them do, no moments when they will show off some particularly incredible move that will leave you with your heart in your mouth and awestruck.
You also know you have more practical use in your life for a plumber or a doctor than a professional athlete, pop musician, or movie star, and you know which one you can live without. An idol is someone you fantasize about being, not somebody you actually become.
Whether scoring the game-winning goal in the championship game, wining an acting award, or singing on stage in front of a hundred thousand people, you can look at them and say “what if.” As a child you can even believe in it for a while, and even as an adult you can hold on to a dream for a time. If you’re lucky and talented, or sometimes just lucky, you might even become something akin to those you idolize.
As you grow older though, you realize the chances of that happening are remote, and the fantasy of becoming your idol fades. Some people continue to live vicariously through the lives of celebrities, using their experiences to augment their own, but they have mostly stopped trying to be them.
As children we pick out an idol for any number of reasons, but mainly for the purpose of allowing us to create a fantasy involving dreams of fame and glory. As we age, we realize those dreams are usually beyond our reach, and that is the beginning of the end for our need of idols. There are plenty of people who I respect and admire, but I don’t dream of becoming them anymore.