In Justin Bieber's hometown, a shinny game pulls Maple Leaf pros: Mansbridge

It's not always easy being a musical icon or a hockey star. Sure, you make lots of money, you can live in a fancy place and drive fast cars… but what if you just want to be kid again?

Think Justin Bieber. He still calls Stratford, Ont., home (full disclosure — so do I), and he comes here often to visit his Dad and grandparents. He slips quietly in and out of town on his private jet and most people don't even know he's here.

That is, unless he wants to do something he's loved since he was in single digits — play hockey.

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He'll rent the ice at the historic, century-old Allman Arena and play pickup hockey with his pals from his school days. I remember once being at the arena for some other event, but ended up watching them play. 

Justin had bought them all white jerseys — his was yellow. Why? "Don't hit the guy in the yellow!"

Not that hitting or, especially, lipping at the referee was ever a problem for young Justin. Once, when my son was playing midget, he got suspended for a game for mouthing off at the ref.

He was called before the "commissioner" of the league for a quite proper dressing down. But it ended with a smile.

"Will", the commissioner said, "you did wrong, but it won't ruin your future. Just remember, the kid who holds the record for the most suspensions here in Stratford is Justin Bieber." Willie took some pride in that.

I've never met Justin, but I used to see him sitting on the steps of the Stratford Festival's Avon Theatre when he was approaching teenager status and my wife, Cynthia Dale, was performing in musicals on stage.

He was strumming a guitar and singing for loonies. Within a couple of years, he was crooning Baby and making millions. 

He has led a complicated life, to say the least. Not one without mistakes, but one thing that's never changed has been his love for hockey and his desire to be a kid forever, dreaming of playing with the big guys.

@justinbieber/Instagram
@justinbieber/Instagram

A couple of days before Christmas, Justin called the city with a request. He knew the Allman was normally closed on Boxing Day, but like any other Stratford citizen, if the overtime rate for rink staff was paid, and if they were willing to come in to work, he could bring along some of his old school pals for shinny.

All he wanted in return was that the moment be kept as quiet as possible so they could enjoy some privacy.  A reasonable request and quickly it was game on.

The pals it turned out, included some other "kids" who probably have the same dream on occasion — just play for fun with your friends.

No coaches. No analytics. No pylons on the ice to run drills around.

Those "pals" had their own star status: Auston Matthews, Mitchell Marner, Tyson Barrie — all of them players on the Toronto Maple Leafs. I guess Justin couldn't find my number. Call me. Maybe. Next time. (I know, not his song, but I like the thought.)

They played four-on-four, uninterrupted, for a couple of hours and then packed their gear and headed out the door.

Unifying a community

Plumbers, electricians, insurance salesman and a No. 1 draft pick alongside a worldwide pop star. Your typical hockey crowd.

Word had travelled a bit and as a result there were kids outside. But the stars stopped, and signed, and had pictures taken with fans and rink staff too. No one complained.

Now, before you get all huffy and dump on Justin and his pro pals for spending his Stratford time and money on himself, he's actually not that kind of guy.

Bieber's been a generous contributor, silently usually, to all kinds of local charitable causes including the museum and the soup kitchen.

He comes home, and he brings friends and his new family with him, because he keeps his connection to his Stratford family no matter how far away from the California lights it may be.

And in that, at least for this week, he's not that different than the rest of us. Surround yourself with friends and family, remember how lucky we are and enjoy a few hours just having fun.

Editor's Note: An auditory edition of this story is available on Peter Mansbridge's podcast "the bridge."

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