Hockey world remembers Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie

Hockey world remembers Tragically Hip frontman Gord Downie

TORONTO — From playing in 2 a.m. shinny games to squeezing in ice time while on tour, Gord Downie's love of hockey ran deep.

"He hated every other team and every other athlete that wasn't the Boston Bruins," said longtime friend and fellow musician Dave Bidini. "He was incorrigible."

Hockey and the Tragically Hip have always been linemates, if you will. The band's rock anthems have been played regularly in NHL arenas for years and the sport is a big part of classic tunes like "Fireworks," "Fifty Mission Cap," and "Lonely End of the Rink." 

Downie, who announced last year he had brain cancer, died Tuesday night. He was 53.

On Wednesday, the hockey world remembered the Tragically Hip frontman for his love of the game and tributes to it through his music.

Former NHL great Doug Gilmour, a fellow Kingston, Ont., native, said he was heartbroken to hear the news.

"Few Canadians touched this country like Gord Downie," he said on Twitter. "Thank you for everything you gave us. My deepest condolences."

Canadian women's hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser said Downie's death feels like the loss of a teammate. She added the band's music was "a theme that ran through my entire hockey career and every team I've ever played on."

The NHL tweeted its condolences, adding that Downie's "music and love for hockey will echo through arenas forever." The Toronto Maple Leafs planned a moment of thanks and celebration of Downie before Wednesday night's game against the Detroit Red Wings, a team spokesman said.

The Hip was blaring in the Leafs' locker-room before the team's morning skate.

"He's a huge inspiration to all of Canada," said Maple Leafs defenceman Morgan Rielly. "He has a lot of fans in this room, all over Toronto, all over Canada, all over the world."

Downie played the goaltender position when he suited up in rec leagues or pickup games. A passionate showman on stage, his intensity would often carry over to the ice.

"He was so serious, he wouldn't talk before a game," said Bidini. "He was in that crazy goalie zone. And afterwards, if he lost, he was inconsolable."

Bidini and the Toronto-based rock band "Rheostatics" opened for the Hip on three national tours in the 1990s. The band members would often borrow equipment for shinny games as they made stops across the country.

"It was just a fun thing to do in the middle of the road to break the madness," said Bidini.

Downie, who sat alongside Bobby Orr at a playoff game last spring, was the godson of longtime Bruins executive Harry Sinden. Downie even sported a Bruins sweater in the video for the Hip's 1992 hit "Courage."

He wasn't afraid to show his love for the team — even in the hostile confines of Montreal's Bell Centre. 

Downie wore his allegiance on his sleeve when he took in a 2004 playoff game in the hockey-mad city. Boston won that night in double-overtime — the infamous Alex Kovalev phantom slash game — with Glen Murray scoring the winner.

Bidini remembered walking into a nearby pub with Downie afterwards.

"Everybody is a Habs fan and the Bruins had just won Game (4)," he said. "Gord walked in there and if it had been anybody else, they probably would have been torn to pieces. But because it was Gord, he engaged them and they engaged him. It was quite interesting to watch actually.

"He was able to defuse — I wouldn't say bring them together — but sort of defuse the tension that was part of that. It was wild."

Many fans think of 1992's "Fifty Mission Cap" when they look up at Bill Barilko's No. 5 banner in the Air Canada Centre rafters. Canada's 1972 Summit Series team influenced the 1998 track "Fireworks," and "Heaven is a Better Place Today" was dedicated to Dan Snyder, an Atlanta Thrashers player who was killed in a 2003 car crash.

The Maple Leafs lowered Barilko's banner slightly before Wednesday night's game against the Detroit Red Wings to honour Downie.

At the 2002 Winter Olympics, Downie pulled some members of the gold-medal winning Canadian women's hockey team on stage during a concert at the University of Utah.

"Our whole team was onstage with Gord and the whole band," recalled Wickenheiser. "Nothing crazy (or) fancy ever. It was just those guys usually playing and all the athletes, the hockey team, sitting around and having a beer and chit-chatting. Just the ultimate Canadian experience when you think of how humble and understated they were and he was, but just so brilliant in terms of the lyrics and the stuff that he put together that really resonated with athletes and our team through the years."

Wickenheiser said his death is a "loss for Canada."

"We all knew he didn't have much time left," she said. "It's a big hole in the fabric of music and sport and who we are as Canadians."

The NHL Players' Association weighed in on Downie's passing on Twitter.

"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."

— With files from Canadian Press sports reporter Donna Spencer in Calgary

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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press