Entertainment

Hockey, high school and the Hip: Martina Fitzgerald on her childhood friendship with Gord Downie

For weeks, I have been mourning the living: Gord Downie, my childhood friend, has terminal brain cancer. My thoughts keep returning to the past, to our youth and to our hometown.

CBC Radio host travels down memory lane, back to growing up alongside Gord Downie

As a kid, Gord Downie was funny, naturally athletic and kind. Without trying to be the centre of attention, he often was, recalls childhood friend Martina Fitzgerald. (Canadian Press)

For weeks, I have been mourning the living: Gord Downie, my childhood friend, has terminal brain cancer. Without question it is unfair and, even with warning, it is difficult to accept what that means. My thoughts keep returning to the past, to our youth and to our hometown.     

When my family moved just west of Kingston to Amherstview, Gord was in my Grade 6 class — and soon thereafter in my circle of friends. He was funny, naturally athletic and kind. Without trying to be the centre of attention, he often was.

As kids in the 1970s, we walked everywhere. We swam in quarries. We had skateboards and played tetherball. We camped. In cold weather, the boys played hockey and the girls would huddle in the concrete stands at the Henderson Arena for hours on weekends, watching the Ernestown Raceway Auto Parts Bantams. Gord was the goalie and they had a few good years, even winning the provincial championship in 1979.

Hockey was always part of life around Kingston. Previously I'd only known Leaf and Canadien fans, but some of the boys in our group liked the Bruins (Gord's godfather is former Boston coach Harry Sinden and another friend is Don Cherry's nephew).

I had a vague recollection of the upset in the Downie household when the Bruins were eliminated from the '79 Stanley Cup playoffs, but a singular line in Gord's 2003 interview in Toro Magazine brought it all back. He described his younger brother crying so hard that he had "tusks of snot" — it made me laugh out loud. I still have that magazine.

CBC Radio host Martina Fitzgerald holds a secondary school plaque marking her 1980 dance-a-thon win with dance partner Gord Downie. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

We were fortunate to have had a fantastic high school English teacher: Judi Wyatt, who was also Gord's homeroom teacher. I truly think you can draw a straight line from Mrs. Wyatt to many of the literary references in his lyrics. She encouraged us to read challenging books, think deeply and behave ethically.

Lord of the Flies was a particularly popular read in Grade 9. We followed it by watching the 1963 film adaptation in class. One afternoon, Gord was swinging from a tree on school grounds. No sooner had he uttered "I asked you not to call me Piggy" in a thin, faux-British accent when the branch cracked and he fell, breaking his arm. That story was legendary back at Ernestown Secondary School.

CBC Radio host Martina Fitzgerald looks at a high school yearbook that features a photo of schoolmate Gord Downie. (Timothy Neesam/CBC)

Gord's family moved to Kingston sometime after that and he went on to Kingston Collegiate & Vocational Institute, to Queen's and then to greatness with the Tragically Hip. We would see each other occasionally over the years or I would hear stories that confirmed he was still the same Gord.

Guys in Kingston playing pickup hockey at the Memorial Centre were stunned and thrilled when Gord and bandmate Paul Langlois showed up one night. This would have been around 1993, so after Up To Here, Road Apples and Fully Completely. Gord, who didn't have goalie pads with him, folded copies of the Kingston Whig-Standard and taped them to his legs. Those guys couldn't believe that the Hip's lead singer would play with hockey pads made from Canada's oldest daily newspaper, but I could. No ego — that's Gord Downie.        

The Hip's music and performances have always evoked a feeling of incredible pride, happiness and gratitude for my old friend and for what he has created. The lyrics resonate on a deeply personal level for me: references to Bobby Orr, the '73 prison break at Millhaven and school hallways "hung with pictures of our parents' prime ministers."

I love that the Hip filmed their music video for Poets at Jack Wright's house. Jack's tender-hearted attitude toward cats had attracted an estimated 700 to his modest home, where felines lounged on every surface. Gord wove his way through them and the band set up amongst them, offering a very specific, peculiar and wonderful snapshot of Kingston.    

I attended my last Hip concert last year in Kingston, back before everything became so emotionally charged and filled with an urgency to be near something glorious, but endangered.

'The Hip's music and performances have always evoked a feeling of incredible pride, happiness and gratitude for my old friend and for what he has created,' says Fitzgerald. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

This weekend will be a different kind of homecoming. There's some apprehension, plenty of nostalgia and a strong pull to go home. If I don't, I know I'll regret it.  

I've seen the Hip many times in different places — from watering holes before an audience of dozens to venues with crowds in the thousands — and every time, my mind wanders to the summer of 1986 when Gord and I ran into each other in downtown Kingston. 

I was walking home from my job at a boat line and he was posting flyers along Princess Street for an upcoming show. It was late in the day and we were in no hurry, so we stood for a few minutes in the fading light and swapped details about people we knew and what they were up to. We were young, everything was still before us and it felt like it would always be that way.

About the Author

Martina Fitzgerald

Host, CBC Radio

Martina Fitzgerald is the host of The World This Weekend on CBC Radio One. Prior to joining CBC's national news department, she hosted Ontario Morning and also worked in sports. Hailing from Kingston, Ont., she can be found on Twitter @CBCMartina.