A lifelong fan finds himself at hockey games in America’s sunbelt, and understands for the first time the consequences of the nhl’s expansion south. The game we think is ours… isn’t
The Bridgestone Arena, home of the Predators, the National Hockey League’s twenty-seventh franchise, is in the centre of the city of Nashville, only a few steps from Ernest Tubb’s country music record store on Broadway, and only a few more from the red-brick tabernacle that from 1943 to 1974 was the home of the Grand Ole Opry. The arena, built for $144 million US, was completed in 1996 and seats 17, 113 hockey fans when it’s full. It’s the kind of architecture that looks elegant in isolation: its swoop of a roof, its buttressed base, and the wide plaza of its entrance are about as handsome as a modern “sport and entertainment facility” can be. But in relation to its surroundings, it mostly looks big. There are downtown hotels and a convention centre in Nashville that are not dwarfed by Bridgestone, and some of the construction now under way in the Tennessee capital is on the same proximate scale. But it’s not a fit—at least not with the municipality’s older buildings. There are honky-tonks on the main street—the boisterous country music bars on which the city’s reputation as Music City largely rests—that are not much bigger than some of the many concession stands on Bridgestone’s ground floor.
The arena’s newness looms; in varying configurations, it is the salient architectural feature of many of America’s struggling inner cities. It’s as if the urban quilt of earlier generations—more modest, idiosyncratic, human-sized enterprises—no longer covers a downtown’s increasingly desperate requirements. The musicians in jeans and cowboy hats playing “Heartaches by the Number” for the tourists in bars like Tootsies Orchid Lounge and The Stage don’t generate enough cash flow. But appearances at Bridgestone by the likes of Eric Clapton, or Bon Jovi, or Tom Petty, or the Lipizzaner Stallions, or the Nashville Predators—now, that will keep the juices flowing. So it is hoped.
The pull of malls, and big box stores, and vast tracts of cheaper retail space and cheaper parking has been eating away at places like Nashville for decades, and cities all over America have belatedly responded by installing downtown hotel complexes, convention centres, football stadiums, ballparks and hockey rinks, like massive sets of transplanted lungs. In Cleveland, for example, a visitor will find that the Cleveland Browns, the Cleveland Cavaliers, and the Cleveland Indians all play in central venues, none of them very far from the city’s tourist heartbeat, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Whether these emergency surgeries are equal to America’s deeply ingrained anti-urban tendencies remains to be seen.
Some of the civic wounds were self-inflicted. Nashville made a mistake in the 1970s when it dispatched one of its biggest tourist draws, the Grand Ole Opry, to an ill-fated amusement park on the city’s periphery. Opryland USA turned out to be about as bad an idea as it sounds. It was closed in 1997 and became what it probably should have been to begin with: a mall.
The city wasn’t going to make the same mistake twice, which is why the Predators weren’t banished to some sprawling equivalence of Opryland. As counterintuitive as hockey was in warm places that didn’t do very much with ice other than pour Jack Daniel’s and Coke over it, it had the advantage of offering family entertainment to regional hubs desperately in need of a wholesome, non-controversial profit centre around which a retail galaxy could be sustained. By the end of the twentieth century, there were not a whole lot of options for downtowns like Nashville’s. It’s not as if a NASCAR track would fit.
But, like muffins and coffees, things need to be bigger now, and so Bridgestone rises over Nashville’s older cityscape in much the way that Garth Brooks looms over Hank Williams, or a busy twelve-screen multiplex looms over the Roxy, or a Hampton Inn looms over any small, family-operated motel. It looms the way a six-foot, three-inch teenage boy in ball cap and half-mast jeans looms over the declining height of a grandfather who, in his day, never thought of himself as small. Things change in America. Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that things are changed by America. Hockey is a good example.
Canadian hockey myth #1
Hockey is losing its appeal
(Statistical analysis by Michael Adams, Environics)
In fact, as many as 36% of Canadians say hockey is their favourite sport. Football comes second at 10%, and lacrosse, which was named Canada’s national game in 1867, was chosen by less than one percent. It will be years before imported sports like soccer or cricket threaten hockey’s supremacy. *
* The results quoted are based on an online Environics survey of over 1, 500 Canadians aged fifteen years and older, completed in December 2009.
On an average night in the NHL schedule—say, March 16, 2010—twenty-two teams take to the ice. A matchup of two Canadian teams is the exception to the rule. On March 16, the only game in which both teams were based in the country that claims hockey as its national sport was Toronto at Ottawa. The other three Canadian teams played American teams, and only one of those games (the New York Islanders versus the Vancouver Canucks) took place in a Canadian rink. Nine of the American teams in action that night—Carolina, Atlanta, Tampa, Phoenix, Florida, Washington, Nashville, San Jose, and Dallas—come from places with almost no hockey tradition. They have sports pages devoted to college athletics, to professional football and basketball, to spring training baseball, and to high school playoffs; hockey is almost an afterthought. They are places that have to work as consciously at cultivating a hockey audience—cheap seats, free parking, family specials, non-stop promotions—as they do at maintaining a sheet of good ice from October to June.
On the night of March 16, 2010, the Americans who attended NHL games outnumbered Canadians by almost four to one. Canadians claim to be the more enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans, and much is made in Canada of the preponderance of Canadian players on American and Canadian teams alike. But loud as they are, these protestations have the same flaw: nobody in the United States pays them any attention. Canada speaks to itself on this subject—and when it comes to the entertainment business, as with most others, it is what the United States says that matters.
From a long term economic point of view, the television audience is more important than the people who show up at an arena and buy hot dogs, beer, and perhaps a souvenir windbreaker or hockey puck. But the crowd is still an essential element of the sport. It’s not the gruff, subversive voice it used to be: the grumbling of knowledgeable curmudgeons in fedoras, their un-amusable lips clamped around their White Owls, who would no more clap because they were told to than they would wear a souvenir ball cap, a team jersey, and a pair of high-top Reeboks in public. (What grown men, many of whom are clearly grandfathers, wear to hockey games in the southern United States is enough to make you long for the return of the leisure suit. There is, possibly, no worse look than jeans, jogging shoes, and an oversized NHL jersey on a man old enough to remember who Rocket Richard was.) But the voice of the crowd remains the voice of the game—the spirit, in many ways, still embroidering the action with its own distinctive commentary: a roar of approval when the home team scores, a groan of disbelief when a puck somehow doesn’t rise over the outstretched pad and into the empty side of the net.
The enclosed arenas intensify these sounds, just as they amplify the sounds of the game itself: the thud of bodies against the boards, the rattling crack of a puck against the glass, the satisfying thunk of a nice pass. Sometimes the noise is loud—almost deranged with excitement—and sometimes it is oddly quiet, as if hundreds of hushed conversations are taking place at a convention of funeral directors. The shifting back and forth from one extreme to the other, and the variety of shadings between the two, once had its own ever-changing pattern, like the musical commentary improvised by the organist at a silent movie.
We don’t hear those sounds as much as we used to. If we’re watching the game on television, someone is either telling us what we are seeing or explaining what we just saw. You’d think they were getting paid by the word. And if we’re watching the game in an arena… well, my experience is that in an arena you can’t help despair of humanity during any part of a game that doesn’t actually involve the playing of hockey. The operative assumption seems to be that the people who attend hockey games can’t sit for thirty seconds without being entertained, solicited, or told what to do. What with the cheerleaders, and the in-the-stands personalities (people who appear to be airbrushed in real life), and the mascots, and the Kiss Cam, and the opportunities to win T-shirts and pizza coupons and a ride on a Zamboni, not to mention the 110 decibels of heavy metal music the NHL assumes its audience favours, enjoying the game’s more subtle acoustic pleasures isn’t easy.
Still, nobody could conceive of a televised hockey broadcast that did not include the “oooo’s” of a near miss at the goal crease, the shouts of outrage at a referee’s missed call, or the eruption of cheers when the home team scores. It’s the kind of thing that academics can be counted upon to say—and that Don Cherry can be counted upon to ridicule—but it’s true: the noise of a crowd at an arena is the Greek chorus of the theatre of hockey. And ever since the 1967–68 season—the year the NHL’s expansion began—that chorus has become increasingly, now predominantly, American.
Companies such as Tim Hortons use hockey’s Canadian mythology to sell their products. Broadcasters such as CTV (during the Olympics) and CBC (the rest of the time) use it for exactly the same reason. Politicians such as Stephen Harper find it an easy emotive note to hit—an especially useful prop for a public figure whose emotional range, to borrow from Dorothy Parker, runs the gamut from A to B. The military sees Canada’s hockey mythology as a symbol of patriotism (recruitment ads for the Canadian Forces appear next to the schedule on the NHL’s website), and Canadian arenas, aping their American counterparts, regularly celebrate the attendance at a game of a uniformed “hero”—a word used indiscriminately and further diminished by being regularly attached to hockey players in the fictions created to sell double-doubles, beer, and cordless drills. If there were a Canadian equivalent of “America the Beautiful”—an oversight of Bobby Gimby’s for which I can only be grateful—hockey rinks would be where it would be sung.
But these are all only fantasies. Hockey, by almost any measurement (other than the method by which one might calculate the commercial value of Canadian sentimentality), has been transformed during its forty years in the digestive tract of American consumerism. It hasn’t come out as an American sport—not yet. But it is a sport that has become an American entertainment.
Canadian hockey myth #2
Only jocks care about hockey
Only 21% of Canadians say they love hockey, but 54% totally agree that hockey should remain Canada’s national sport (another 36% somewhat agree), and 76% agree that hockey is a key part of what it means to be Canadian. And this was before Sidney Crosby won an Olympic gold medal in Vancouver. The marketers at Tim Hortons aren’t idiots.
It was in March that I visited Nashville. A few days earlier, I’d seen the Philadelphia Flyers play the Florida Panthers in Sunrise, Florida, and after Nashville I was off to Glendale, Arizona, to see the Phoenix Coyotes play the Anaheim Ducks. It was a quixotic, southern swing—simultaneously a doomed search for some warm sunshine and an intense reaction, not to the Winter Olympics, but to the jingoism that surrounded them. I’ve always liked hockey, and I’d always been curious about professional hockey in the Sunbelt. Now I was doubly curious. I wanted to see what it was like to watch a hockey game without being obliged to feel that it had anything to do with patriotism. I wanted to watch a hockey game without anyone telling me that “it’s our game.” I wanted to go where nobody cared one way or another about Canada. I couldn’t have chosen a better place than the United States.
I liked Nashville—although the attraction wasn’t immediate. Because Music Row is so quaintly low-rise compared to Bridgestone’s milk white enormity, it appeared to me, at first, to be more replica than real. I wouldn’t have been surprised to have encountered holograms of Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Minnie Pearl, and Roy Acuff. But that was only my first impression. A stroll up and down the two blocks that sit near the centre of the country music universe corrected my view: the honky-tonks are real, the buskers are real, and local shops such as the Gruhn Guitars and Hatch Show Print—a working letterpress and design shop that produced posters for Elvis Presley fairground concerts and Patsy Cline’s gigs at the Opry, among many others—are uniquely Nashvillean. So are the panhandlers. One I talked to said he was sleeping in the woods, and the deep space behind his pale blue eyes, his grizzled face, his soft cottonwood accent, and his respectful, courtly manner reminded me of what the contemporary uniformity of hotel lobbies, spiffy glass elevators, and Starbucks had put out of my head: I was in the land of Davy Crockett.
I was given a tour of Bridgestone by Jessica Jones, the arena’s “Corporate Communications Coordinator.” She was young, attractive, bright, and extremely accommodating—even though I was so obviously not a member of the hockey press. For one thing, hockey writers are not impressed at being admitted to an arena before the doors are opened to the public. But I was. I carry with me a vestigial awe of hockey’s venues—a memento of childhood excursions with my father to the smoke-wreathed heights of Maple Leaf Gardens. And for another: the looks of momentary uncertainty that crossed the faces of the writers and television commentators to whom Jessica introduced me—a constant reminder that I was not only an outsider, professionally speaking; I was, in addition, a foreigner from a country so strange and distantly northern that its magazines are named after Arctic animals. I couldn’t have felt more exotic had I been wearing a parka and mukluks.
The Los Angeles Kings were in town that night, and the arena had a bustling, cheerful air of anticipation to it. The people who ran the concession stands were busy preparing for the pre-game rush. The clerks in the Predators pro shop were bracing themselves for the onslaught of kids who coveted jerseys emblazoned with the names of Weber, Rinne, or Sullivan ($74.99 US each). The army of ushers—in their white shirts, vests, and formal-looking gloves—were making their way to their stations throughout the arena as we headed down the stairs to the room where the media dinner was served. They had the determined look of sentries heading off to take up their positions. We had to step out of the path of their uniform, hurried advance.
The locals are quick to tell you how successfully the Predators have woven themselves into the fabric of Nashville life. The city that lays claim to heroes as down to earth as Bob Wills and Willie Nelson takes pride in the team’s hard-won victories and blue-collar persona. “When you talk about the Predators,” coach Barry Trotz tells the press, “you don’t talk about a superstar. You talk about a group. That’s how we get it done—just good balance.”
Trotz is the only coach the Preds have had in their thirteen-year history, and while I was in Nashville I heard a story about him that illustrates how attentive the team is to community relations. A few years ago, a young boy approached him in a lineup at a local cinema and asked for an autograph. Trotz apologized for not having anything appropriate to sign but jotted down the boy’s address and said he’d send him something. The boy was warned by realistic adults not to get his hopes up, but, sure enough, a signed eight-by-ten glossy of coach Trotz appeared in the mail a few days later. In another story, a Nashville hockey mom was struggling to put her child’s skates on. There are several youth hockey programs in the area, but dealing with hockey gear is still far from second nature to parents who did not grow up cruising the blue lines of windswept Kiwanis Club rinks or dreaming of joining the Ice Capades. Fortunately, the woman beside her offered to help. And, even better, she turned out to be the wife of Steve Sullivan, the Predators’ assistant captain. “There’s not a lot of elitist places to hang out in Nashville,” Jim Diamond, a local hockey writer, told me. “You run into players and players’ wives with their kids at the rinks or at the grocery store. They’re part of the community.”
I don’t doubt it. When Jessica led me through the arena’s basement, the place had a friendly, down-home, easygoing feel—quite at odds with the do-or-die shtick I associate with professional hockey. I’d always imagined that players waiting for game time would have something of the tense, solemn demeanour of fighter pilots waiting for the airfield siren. But we had to stop in the hallway to wait for a pause in the raucous soccer game that a few of the Predators have made a pre-game ritual. Without their uniforms, pads, and helmets, they looked like high school kids goofing off, and, like high school kids speaking to a good-natured and good-looking teacher, they apologized politely to Jessica for holding us up.
I chose this moment to ask Jessica what had stood on the site of Bridgestone before the arena was built. She looked at me quizzically, as if the question were a trick. After a brief pause, she decided I was serious. And perhaps not very bright.
“Nothing,” she said.
I had assumed that Bridgestone had replaced a more ragtag and dishevelled section of downtown Nashville. Perhaps only the honky-tonks without the autographed pictures of Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard had been bulldozed. But what that part of town had been like and what stories it held were apparently long gone. Maybe the panhandlers who sleep in the Tennessee woods might remember, but up-and-coming Nashville had put it out of mind. Jessica seemed to have no image of an urban past preceding the urban present. It was as if Bridgestone, like professional hockey itself, had fallen on Nashville’s vacant municipal potential like a meteorite. “They found a fang from a sabre-toothed tiger when they were excavating nearby,” Jessica said. “That’s where the Predators logo comes from.”
Canadian hockey myth #3
Hockey, beer, and women don’t mix
31% of Canadian men say they love hockey, compared to only 12% of women. And you don’t need a poll to figure out that they drink more beer. Which means the big brains who write those sexist beer ads know whose buttons to push—and how to push them.
If you are driving across the state of Florida to attend an NHL hockey game, and if you are a Canadian and on your own, you might—somewhere around Lake Okeechobee, probably—plummet into depths of loneliness heretofore uncharted. I know all about it.
This is not normal loneliness—not the sort that is the subject of most of the New Country music I’ve been unable to avoid since Tampa. This isn’t something that a mini-bar can fix. Nor do I think Jesus would be of much help—contrary to the spiritual advice offered by the few radio stations in Florida that don’t play New Country. Because this is no momentary anxiety. As I pass Fuddruckers and Olive Garden and Red Lobster and Cracker Barrel and Denny’s and Walmart and Home Depot and the Cheesecake Factory and Applebee’s and Hardee’s and Pizza Hut and Taco Bell and Doubletree and La Quinta and Popeyes, I am taken by a dark fear.
I begin to suspect that I have missed the point of the twenty-first century. I begin to consider the possibility that because of the peculiarity of my nationality—my Canadianness—I do not understand the world in which I live. To begin with, I’ve never seen two more obese people than the couple I saw in a TGI Friday’s somewhere due west of Orlando. And it wasn’t their size so much as the fact that nobody else in the restaurant seemed to find it remarkable that makes me think that my apprehension of reality may not be as keen as I’d imagined. I have underestimated the great, swirling maw of American appetite. I have actually imagined that what Canadians care or believe or remember about hockey will be enough to prevent the game from being sucked down its gullet.
Wealth does not confidently reside in the beleaguered strata of middle-class America anymore, but a whole lot of spending still does, and the NHL—the business enterprise, not the game many Canadians believe to be the ultimate expression of our national identity—saw the same growth opportunity that Hollywood and television, and religion, and politics, and advertising all have. If you are a business in America, you’d be crazy not to want to clamp onto the same enormous tit that Foot Locker, LensCrafters, Sbarro, Wendy’s, H&M, McDonald’s, Victoria’s Secret and J. Crew have, and once you were there, the faint, wounded clamour for an NHL team coming from a place as far away as Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, would only become more distant and inconsequential. Eventually, you’d stop hearing it altogether.
Canadian hockey myth #4
Canadians love a good fight
In fact, only 38% of Canadians think fighting is an acceptable part of hockey, although 41% agree that big hits make watching hockey fun. But the number of fight-lovers is nearly double among the 31% who are huge hockey fans. So while you’re in the majority if you don’t like rock ’em sock ’em hockey, you won’t be missed by professional hockey and its broadcast partners if you switch to the parliamentary debates or PBS.
The NHL’s decision to expand into the Sunbelt was not without its risks—as the ongoing saga of the money-losing Phoenix Coyotes illustrates. But the size of the American population makes American risks worth taking—something that can’t be said of Canada. And anyway, much bigger things than Canadian sentimentality have been lost in the vortex of American consumption. Visited by the cold, hard facts of the near-total irrelevance of Canada to anything the United States imagines to be of any interest, or of profit, I am reminded, as I drive, that on three separate occasions during this trip I spoke to three different Americans about Olympic hockey, and each of them said almost exactly the same thing: “Yes, I heard that game was really exciting. But remind me: Who won? ”
Driving through the pouring rain, through a continuum of shopping malls and hotel chains and restaurants anyone not starving would be wise to avoid, I am thinking about home, about a frozen driveway, and leather hockey gloves that did nothing to ward off the sub-zero cold, and copies of Chatelaine magazine shoved under hockey socks for shin pads. And I realize how ridiculous it is to imagine—as I always have—that such reminiscences will keep the US from swallowing a little country’s affection for a sport that, when played well, is about as exciting as a sport can get.
A memory. There was a winter—I’m guessing 1961—when I was at my cousins’ in Dundas, Ontario, for a Saturday-night family dinner. It got dark early in December, and by five o’clock everything outside was turning black and to a hard, glistening white. My uncle had flooded the narrow, level driveway—layering sprays of water from the garden hose over the gravel night after night in a solitary, devoted advent. And he did a good job, because when my cousins and I put on our gear and stepped from the side stairs onto his ice, we glided across a surface that was even smoother and harder than we’d hoped. The light, all the more dramatic for being artificial, fell from nearby street lamps and from the windows of the two houses that flanked the strip of ice. I remember the breakaway rush of winter air. Skating up and down the driveway seemed an improbably fantastic turn of events—like a dream in which you find a wing of the house you hadn’t noticed before.
I think it only happened that one year—an occasion when the score climbed well into the double digits. Our wrists were chafed red with the cold, and our fingers were curled numb around the shafts of our Sherbrooke sticks, but when we were called in for dinner our bodies were chugging like furnaces. We sat in the back room—the kind of space you don’t see much anymore. Untouched by both interior design and insulation, it was a friendly clutter of sofa and card tables and piano and newspapers and board games and television—all kept at a slightly higher temperature than the driveway. (My aunt was never one to pay for heat, so long as the cold wasn’t actually life threatening.) Joining the CBC’s telecast somewhere near the end of the first period (which, for mysterious, unquestioned reasons, was the way Hockey Night in Canada worked in those days), we ate our hot dogs and potato chips, and drank our milk, and watched the game. That’s what everybody did.
Unless, of course, they lived in the southern United States, where they were hunting squirrels. Or objecting to desegregation. Or watching The Andy Griffith Show. Or something. America, so Canadians are sometimes surprised to realize, really is another world, and the more south you go, the more “other” it gets. Childhood memories of frozen driveways and Murray Westgate’s Esso commercials don’t have much resonance past a certain point on I-95. Nor, I begin to think, does reason. As a respite from Reba McEntire and George Strait, I am listening to Rush Limbaugh, and while I wouldn’t want to compare Limbaugh’s politics to Don Cherry’s (there is a gulf between a right-wing American and a right-wing Canadian that reaches from wing tip to wing tip of the Republican Party), I began to wonder if they didn’t both flap around in similar belfries of their respective national psychoses. Cherry isn’t dangerous, and he isn’t evil—which means comparisons to Limbaugh can only go so far. But both personalities operate in a realm where overbearing confidence is precisely balanced with an absence of anything that might be construed as precision of language. Limbaugh’s views on health care possess the same outraged vacancy as Cherry’s on fighting in hockey.
But having remotely comparable resident lunatics is a tenuous connection for two nations to have, and it doesn’t help much with the loneliness a Canadian sometimes feels travelling in America. It’s like knowing a big brother who doesn’t know you. As I drive, I recall that when the Obama administration was beginning to shift its military attention from Iraq to Afghanistan, a member of a CNN panel referred to “the token” Canadian force that was already there, and none of his colleagues saw any reason to point out that there have been 145 token Canadian deaths in Afghanistan since 2002. The indifference to Canada by what is still the earth’s commercial, financial, military, and media centre can be a dizzying downward spiral—especially if you are driving to something as Canadian as a hockey game somewhere just north of Miami.
Canadian hockey myth #5
Canadian men aren’t romantic
53% of Canadian men say they have played hockey on a frozen pond, nearly double the proportion (31%) who say they’re huge fans. These are men who see themselves in the Tim Hortons ad in which Sidney Crosby improbably jumps off a bus to join their youthful avatars in a game of mid-winter shinny. Is that a tear in your eye?
In the case of the BankAtlantic Center, home of the Florida Panthers, it’s entirely possible that nothing was there before 20,000 seats and a sheet of ice were put in place. I’m not certain the swamp was dry. There may be a downtown Sunrise—it’s just that I never found it. It must be where the restaurants are. There is, however, no shortage of food at the arena, and I was hungry enough to fully enjoy a pizza, a hot dog, and—in a nod to good health—a Diet Coke. And it was while I was watching the game between the Panthers and the Philadelphia Flyers that two things about hockey in America became clear to me.
The first is that the NHL will no more get rid of fighting than stock car races will get rid of crashes. Fights are too gleefully imbedded in the American appreciation of hockey for the league to consider seriously the implementation of Olympic rules. I’m not sure Canadian fans are any less keen on brawls than Americans are. It was Don Cherry, after all, who pointed out that nobody goes to get popcorn during a fight, and nobody, so we are told, is more Canadian than Don. Perhaps it’s only that Canadians are not quite so officially overt in their enthusiasm for punch-ups as is the nation that now owns the sport. Canadians tend to downplay the role of fighting, even wondering aloud from time to time whether it reduces an often-beautiful game to a tawdry entertainment not far removed from professional wrestling. Americans, on the other hand, do not need to worry about something as abstruse as the dignity of hockey. They may not have hockey in their DNA, as advertisers keep telling us we do, but this gives them the enormous advantage of being able to assess hockey without their view being obscured by the claptrap of national identity that so confounds the Canadian perspective. Americans see hockey for what it is: entertainment. They are thus not inclined to question something that an arena full of paying customers so clearly enjoys. A booming chorus of Judas Priest’s “Some Heads Are Gonna Roll” is a popular musical selection on arena sound systems when fights break out on hockey rinks in the US.
But fights are no longer the mere eruptions of temper that for decades were what distinguished professional hockey from adulthood. Now they are mostly set pieces—often expected by both teams, and orchestrated to send a message, or retaliate for some calumny. In March, while I was sitting in the BankAtlantic Center, the Panthers’ left winger, David Booth, dropped his gloves and took on the Flyers’ captain, Mike Richards, as payback for an open-ice hit in October that had given Booth a concussion and a forty-five-game layoff.
It was like a duel. Or, if you’d prefer a more familiar frame of reference, grade seven. “I just wanted to get it off my chest,” Booth said. “It wasn’t cheap or anything. I just asked him if he wanted to. He didn’t have to give me my shot.” Making up in fervour for what was lacking in spontaneity, they got their dukes up. It seemed a little silly—and a little bit staged—to me. I don’t believe that in a real fight the pummelling stops when one combatant, like a hog-tied calf, is flipped to the ice. But such are the rules of engagement when it comes to the outbursts of violence that the NHL, unlike any other professional sports league on planet earth, seems unable to control. And anyway, the crowd loved it. The Booth-Richards set-to occurred two minutes and forty-five seconds into the first period. It was the third fight of the game.
The second thing that becomes obvious about hockey in America when you spend a little time at arenas in Sunrise, and Nashville, and Glendale is this: it’s not going anywhere. The NHL, and the NHL’s owners, are about as willing to allow a Canadian to pry a professional hockey franchise out of the United States as Charlton Heston was to let gun regulators have his Winchester. Jim Balsillie, the co-founder of RIM, who wanted to move the Phoenix Coyotes from the Jobing.com Arena in Arizona to the Copps Coliseum in Hamilton, learned this the hard way.
I live in Toronto. Being a Leafs fan feels like being held in suspended animation for a trip to Jupiter—but however distant the wake-up call may yet be, a Leafs fan is what I’d call myself. And it didn’t seem likely to me that competition an hour down the QEW was going to hurt the local franchise; if losing for four decades hasn’t done the Maple Leafs any harm, I couldn’t see that anything would. As well, I grew up in Hamilton, so I was all for the Hamilton Coyotes. But it wasn’t going to happen.
The NHL’s southern expansion was not so much into a specific latitude as it was into a stratum of consumption. The thick, wide, lucrative target for success in America is the temperate middle: the deep, unquenchable marketplace of family restaurants, family shopping, family entertainment, family values. The NHL’s American hockey arenas reach out to embrace exactly this midriff.
There are many ways that non-Americans visiting America can respond to America. They can enjoy it, abhor it, worry about it, or envy it. They can join it, or, like Canada, they can pretend they haven’t. But the one thing never to do with America is underestimate it, and the hockey arenas in the southern US are a case in point. There is nothing peripheral, modest, or uncertain about them. They are poured concrete palisades, and escalators, and lineups at concessions stands, and private boxes, and (NHL-operated) souvenir shops, and giant-screened scoreboards, and VIP areas, and milling crowds who, between periods, wear the optimistic if slightly fatigued expressions of people who think they are going to really have fun any second now. More to the point, American hockey arenas are so woven into a local tapestry of hotels and shopping malls and cinema complexes and restaurant chains and parking lots and retail outlets and bars that it was going to take a lot more than Jim Balsillie’s stubborn eagerness for the NHL to send a franchise north. He might as well have tried to reclaim Molson Canadian from Coors.
For obvious reasons, the NHL doesn’t like to leave any holes where its ambitions were. It doesn’t like to give the impression—to politicians, to chambers of commerce, to banks, or, for that matter, to the bare-tummied dancing girls at Bridgestone, or the cheery attendants at the Absolut Bar in the BankAtlantic Center—that things in America might not work out. Things don’t, of course—not always. Even in the US. The many, many For Sale signs I’d seen in my drive across the Florida interior attested clearly enough to that sad fact. But all countries have their myths, and none is defended more fiercely than America’s. Hamilton didn’t have a chance.
Canadian hockey myth #6
Don Cherry has a future in politics
Although 60% of huge hockey fans like what Don Cherry has to say, the number falls to 42% among Canadians at large. Still, the chances the CBC would allow him to accept the Prime Minister’s entreaty to become Canada’s next Governor General are slim to nil.
The weather was cold and miserable in Arizona, which was just as well. Had I been poolside at the Hampton Inn, I might not have been in my room, at my computer that Saturday afternoon, and had I not been at my computer, I might not have noticed that the game that Saturday night against the Anaheim Ducks at the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale started at six o’clock.
I was anxious about parking, but I needn’t have worried. There are acres of it surrounding the Renaissance hotel and the University of Phoenix Stadium and the AMC cineplex and the Jobing.com Arena. Planes could land. Still, I arrived without a lot of time to spare—noting as I grabbed a hot dog and rushed up to my seat that the enthusiastic and friendly crowd seemed a little older than the audiences in Florida or Nashville. Possibly the game’s start time had been established so as not to interfere with The Rockford Files and Murder, She Wrote.
Before an audience of 14,965, the Coyotes beat the Ducks 4–0. I was in bed by ten.
Originally, I had pictured Sunday—my day off in Arizona—as a series of questions, the answers to which relied on bright heat and cloudless blue sky. Would I drive out into the desert? Or go over my notes by the pool? Or take in a spring training ballgame, sitting in the sunshine with a beer and a scorecard?
None of the above. It snowed. And so I made my way through the sleet, back to the Jobing.com Arena, where the Phoenix Coyotes were hosting their Coyotes Carnival. This charitable event was not part of my original plan, but it was either the carnival or lunch, by myself, at one of the several chain restaurants whose parking lots adjoined the parking lot of the chain hotel where I was staying.
The weather had driven everything indoors—to the covered surface of the rink, where for $10 Coyote fans were lined up to play Roller Bowler with the Phoenix captain, Shane Doan, or have their picture taken with Howler, the team mascot. Three teenagers, sounding more like a central vacuum than a rock band, appeared unfazed by the acoustics of a mostly empty arena. There was a juggler on stilts, and there was face painting for the kids, and outside, the wind and the sleet were making the palm trees on the periphery of the parking lots look like stock footage of a hurricane’s approach. A $500 decorative accessory that was for sale on a table of arena memorabilia begged the question, what interior would be improved by the addition of a big plastic Glendale Loves Bon Jovi sign? Bizarrely (this being a public gathering in the United States), there was nothing to eat. I began to wonder if a jug of draft and some fried pickles at Hooters might not have been a better choice—a possibility that goes some distance in conveying how badly my Sunday was going.
But there was one person at the Coyotes Carnival on that dreary Sunday who really seemed to be having fun. Ilya Bryzgalov, the Coyotes’ fair-haired Russian goalie, was playing air hockey with some fans, and I noticed him from the other side of the rink. Bryzgalov is not particularly tall for a hockey player—just over six feet—but there was something about his expression that singled him out in the crowd. It reminded me of the grins I’d seen on the Predators kicking around a soccer ball in the basement of Bridgestone. Six o’clock faceoff notwithstanding, Bryzgalov had played a gruelling game of hockey just the night before. Now he was obliged to spend his Sunday with people who had nothing better to do than go to the Coyotes Carnival in Glendale, Arizona. (Lives uncrowded with incident, as Lady Bracknell might have put it.) But he looked as if he was enjoying himself immensely.
Zigzagging through the milling lineups of kids and parents waiting to play Bean Bag Tip-It, and Ring Toss, and Milk Can Knock Down with members of the Coyotes, I stood for a few minutes watching Bryzgalov and a young boy who kept scoring on him. Bryzgalov, who has the face of a mischievous teenager, kept laughing. At one point, he howled with mock humiliation at being outsmarted. They could have been cousins playing in a rec room.
Few in the Jobing.com Arena could have told you anything about the place where Ilya Bryzgalov was born. What it was like to grow up as far away as he grew up is hard to imagine when you live in noisy, glaring America. Probably, he keeps his memories to himself. I’m guessing, of course, but it’s quite possible they include a gleaming outdoor rink at night and the breakaway rush of winter air. And anyway, it wasn’t coming from there that mattered. It was being here—here at the air hockey table of the Coyote Carnival in a desert in the Southwest, here at the centre of everything, here in the place that can sometimes take people from far away and make them cheerfully, improbably successful. Ilya Bryzgalov seemed delighted with the great, giddy happiness of being a millionaire in America. He seemed perfectly content.
This appeared in the June 2010 issue.