In Praise of Reims (Originally written Feb. 2016)

I met James Reimer once. It was at last year’s outdoor practice and all of a sudden he was maybe two feet away from me and I had to say something. Except I didn’t know what to say so I said “You’re very popular with lesbians.” He started laughing really hard and I didn’t know what to do so I started laughing really hard and we both stood there in -30 degree weather laughing until we both started coughing from the cold. He smiled the now-famous crooked smile and said “Thank you” and his face was that fire engine shade of red that it gets during shootouts. It was awesome.

It’s true though: he is very popular with lesbians. Well, bi girls, ace girls, and non-binary people mostly, but my brain had entered Emergency Shutdown Mode and the only word I could come up with was “lesbians.“And our weird little encounter is something I’ve thought about a lot since, mostly because he seemed so genuinely delighted to be very popular with lesbians.

I’ve got a theory as to why LGBT Leafs fans have latched on to him with such…fervour? No, not fervour. Relief, maybe. See, his detractors (and take a look at the demographics of his Twitter detractors sometime – I’m definitely on to something here) like to say that he “flops around like a fish out of water.” They say a lot of other things too, things that are far worse. But they always return to “fish out of water.” He’s not an NHL calibre goalie, they say. He’s literally out of his league. He doesn’t belong.

There seems to be a general consensus in the anti-Reimer camp that he never paid his dues. He didn’t start playing organized hockey until he was in his teens. He stumbled into goaltending and never really learned proper technique, so on the ice he just sort of flings himself around between the posts, splaying his limbs, as one detractor put it – like a starfish. He relies too much on his pads, has a weak glove hand. But here he is, one of this season’s frontrunners for best save percentage and best goals against average in the league. On a winning team, he’d have Vezina-calibre numbers. And yet still it persists: “Fish out of water. Not supposed to be here.”

But perhaps the thing that sets Reimer apart most is that he’s so nice. He is infamously, almost cartoonishly, optimistic, cheerful to a fault. Success? He got some good bounces and was able to get his glove on them. Failure? Well, you know, the defence worked really hard but the other team played really well and sometimes these things happen. Maybe he’s a son of a bitch in real life, who knows. But there’s a charming artlessness to his public persona, a pervasive sense that he might be genuinely kind. And that drives more traditional hockey fans crazy.

Hockey is not about kindness; at least, it’s not supposed to be. It’s supposed to be where good (white, cishet) Canadian boys grow into manhood, prove their worth. You’re not there to play like a girl. You’re there to man up, fight like a man, play like a man. And here’s James Reimer, with his softpoken, thoughtful reflections and gentle, Prairie boy cadence, his aww shucks humility, his quiet admiration of every badass thing his wife does. Whatever the NHL script for manhood is, James Reimer quietly rejects it every time he laces up his skates. And for anyone who’s ever felt completely alienated by hockey’s macho bravado, it feels like he’s doing it just for us.

He’s all of us who have ever been told that we’re not supposed to be here, that hockey isn’t for us, that we’re too delicate or feminine or soft-hearted or concerned with doing the right thing. He’s everybody who found this game not through the “proper channels” but through joyful coincidence, everybody who stuck with it no matter how excluded we were made to feel just because of the sheer joy it brought us. He’s the guy who threw his first punch after six seasons and then shyly admitted “Sometimes you’ve got to let people know that you’re not gonna get bumped anymore.” He’s proof that gentle things can survive in the harshest of worlds and that sometimes outsiders can make good without sacrificing the things that make them unique. And when I told him that in my weird, clumsy, outsider way, he was delighted.

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