Ice Houses of the Holy
An American expatriate relives the barnstorming tour of Canadian rinks that made her a believer
It is October 2007, and I am on a train. It is a clear, bright fall morning and Ontario looks as lovely as she ever will—cornfields so dry they nearly shimmer, forests coloured like Starburst candies before the advent of kiwi and blue raspberry. Behind me, Montreal is beginning a month-long flirtation with early winter, but down here in Upper Canada it is still a tender Indian summer, and the country looks inviting. It begs to be strolled upon, promising a pleasing warmth on the top of the head and a slight flinty breeze on the cheeks, soft unfrozen loam underfoot.
The Canadian landscape plays tricks with an American’s sense of space, for on the eyes it feels like home. The earth rolling by the train is known to me, the unassuming agrarian wonderland of the Great Lakes region, and I have seen these slight rippling hills and modest woods before. But in my version of this panorama, there are always a couple of farmhouses and a truck stop on the horizon, a persistent criss-cross of country highways, a small town every few miles and a small city less than an hour away. Here, I can ride that hour and hardly see a home or even a car. For an American, the first experience of Canada is the emptiness, even in this most densely populated part of the nation.
At this point in my life, when I get on this train, I have lived two years in Montreal, and—save for the surreal drive up from Chicago with everything I owned in the back of a rental truck—hardly left that elegant island. Canada, as a whole, is still a vague notion to me, something huge and distant and quite unexpectedly foreign. Had it not been for hockey, I might have been content to let it stay that way.
But an interest in hockey demands a certain knowledge of Canada, in much the same way an interest in wine demands a certain knowledge of France. Across this pretty, lonely land, the cold season to come is the hockey-growing season, in which the next crop of grand cru players will be raised. I am going to see the cultivation process. I am learning where hockey comes from.
It is a Sunday afternoon, and I am in Kingston. The Kingston Memorial Centre is, or was, a quaint old barn. Vintage styling, really, a scrap of classic mid-century Canadiana ensconced in a peaceable residential neighbourhood. To the front, it presents a stoic, slightly repressed face, like your grandfather who fought in the war.
The Mem Center is too small to be a major junior arena. It hardly warrants the term “arena” at all, being hardly more than a thick hallway wrapped around perhaps fifteen rows of seating, themselves wrapped around an ice slab, with a gigantic portrait of the Queen in her sexy days looking coolly down on the home net. This isn’t a stadium; it’s just a rink, a simple, efficient facility for the playing of hockey.
The age of the building shows in all its details, but none more than this: the Memorial Center has no “private” zone for players. A typical modern sporting facility is two distinct buildings grafted together, a space of consumption and a space of production. In the consumption areas, those-who-watch buy their tickets before being funneled through a liminal zone devoted to ancillary products—beer and hot dogs and pizza and poutine, jerseys and hats and t-shirts, noisemakers and programs and raffle tickets—before being deposited at their predetermined vantage points. Meanwhile, in the production areas, those-who-play are dropped by bus at a different entrance and travel via secured pathways to private changing rooms, from which they will skate-walk still other secret corridors to the playing surface. At no time in the process of creating the event can those-who-watch and those-who-play have even slight, incidental contact with each other.
We accept this, my generation anyway, on its face. We believe that players are such fragile celebrities and fans such crazed maniacs that the two must be segregated, for fear that the former be reduced to shreds of mangled flesh and sweat-wicking fabric by the latter.
Yet in the Memorial Center, there’s only one hallway for everyone: the players go to and from their dressing rooms, intersecting a line of fans waiting for the bathrooms; the visitors’ backup goalie sits on a folding chair in the aisle such that he has to shift his padded bulk apologetically every time someone needs to return to their seat. One Sunday afternoon in Kingston, I literally run into Logan Couture, then of the Ottawa 67’s, as he pushes through the crowd in full gear. He is eighteen and enormous and somewhat clammy in texture, beset by a bright and painful-looking case of acne and a faraway expression that is entirely in keeping with being eighteen. The collision is my fault. I had my head down.
Familiarity breeds contempt, they say, and the Kingston fans are uniformly elderly, skeptical, and very, very familiar with their Frontenacs. It is, at this time, a bit of a sad-sack team, perennially unsuccessful, led by a put-upon center called Nathan Moon who plays with the heartbreaking sincerity of the moderately talented during their draft year, and who stands sweaty and dutiful by a taped-up backdrop in the hallway during intermission. He practices his media face for local cable while, just five feet away, unimpressed regulars bewail that the Frontenacs should come to such days, that this Moon should be their best player.
They say it is difficult to play in Montreal in a bad season, but I think it must be no less difficult to play in Kingston at sixteen, under the imperious eyes of Her Majesty and the disapproving jeers of the unsympathetic old men of Ontario.
Hockey fanaticism in Canada is a nostalgic business, but it is difficult, as a relative newcomer to the game and an American, to understand what exactly is being longed for, what precisely has been lost to the depredations of time and the NHL. Now, when I try to imagine the lost past, I think sometimes of the Memorial Centre, and the intimacy bred by tiny rinks and small towns. In most of Canada, major junior players on game day are already minor celebrities. But in Kingston, that last year in the old barn, they were—all of them, from the long-suffering Mr. Moon to the already-canonized John Tavares—just teenagers on skates, subject to more or less the same attitude as teenagers loitering in a parking lot at a suspiciously late hour. A generation ago, even half, most hockey in Canada was like this. Toronto and Montreal had their fedoras-and-furs hockey clubs, but most of the game most of the time would have been played in these chilly, homey buildings. For most Canadians, The Show would still have been a distant thing, but the stages that led to it would have been so close to normal life as to be nearly unremarkable. Not anymore.
It is early November 2007 in Ontario’s London, and I am staying in a hotel so fantastically seedy that it feels like the “seedy hotel” set from a crime thriller. For $50 cash, plus a key deposit, I get everything you could want while on the run from the police or the mob or an implacable assassin—sagging couch, stained carpet, wobbly table, and an old iron radiator that begs to have something or someone chained to it. There is a bare bulb in the one socket that has a bulb at all, and a private bathroom with a cut-out in the door that suggests no one using this room would ever want privacy from anyone else with whom they might share it.
And it’s wonderful—spacious, well-ventilated, clean enough for what it is. The room has a bed, two chairs, a toilet, a shower stall, and hot water. This is the kind of place that allows people who have nomadic or transient lifestyles to survive, and people like me to travel around watching random hockey games. The only downside is the unfortunate Toronto Maple Leafs flag hanging in a window across the street, an unavoidable view out the window from my bed, but I am in the part of the world where such things are to be expected. My only actual regret, staying in this room, is that I don’t have any cigarettes. One rarely gets the opportunity to burn holes in things with impunity, and unless management is keeping a very careful tally of charred gaps per bedspread, there’s no way they’d notice it has eight burns instead of six after I’ve gone.
A mere three blocks from this Disneyland of dubiousness stands the John Labatt Centre—home of the London Knights, and probably the biggest, shiniest, newest junior hockey arena in Ontario. I’m not against big, shiny, new arenas on principle. I was, in fact, very much prepared to like the John Labatt Centre. On first inspection, wandering around the exterior of the building and its inner concourse before the game, it seemed quite pleasant. A hockey game is not, by its nature, pleasant- it takes a lot of contrivance to make it thus. Watching hockey in one of the little old arenas is many things—viscerally thrilling, anthropologically fascinating—but it is not comfortable. My personal opinion is that the experience of watching a sport should be distinctive to the sport being watched, and therefore it’s only right that watching hockey should be a sensually punishing experience. But having spent a lot of time shivering in tiny cinderblock boxes, trying to keep my ass from going numb on slate-hard benches, even I sometimes welcome the prospect of a cushy seat.
The John Labatt Centre is definitely comfortable. In spite of its imposing size and grandiose façades, it is not an intimidating space. The interior is bland in a classy sort of way, like a high-end shopping mall. Everything is clean, well-lit, and well-marked, with space to move around without overmuch jostling, and enough concessions that you never have to venture far to find the needful snack. The chill is regulated to bearable levels. There are, if I recall correctly, cupholders.
But it is a quiet building. The scoreboard blasts the requisite metal-pop at the requisite volume over the requisite CGI-enhanced video intro, which presents the London Knights somewhere between the Terminator and Chuck Norris on the Adjusted Manliness Index. Nevertheless, the fans have the collective demeanour of people watching an early season game (which this is) on TV after a particularly rough day at the office. There is hardly a whoop or a heckle to be heard, barely even a collective murmur of approval. I have been told that London fans are quite raucous come the playoffs, but tonight there’s something ineffably depressing about the silent masses of quarter-life guys with their beers and baseball caps, slouched back in their seats while the scoreboard shrieks its Nickelback refrain. The game in London feels very far away, and the Plexiglas above the boards may as well be the screen of a television, absent the cheery comfort of a play-by-play announcer. This is an arena built to make fans comfy, and passive too.
If you want to consider Canada’s changing relationship with hockey, I submit, consider its rinks. If you are of a mind to romanticize them, don’t do it for their character, but for their scale. A small rink is a human-sized place, a social hub, a space to affirm (however contentiously) the links and bonds of a hockey-centric society. An arena is a theatre, where people sit and watch a show contrived and arranged to amuse and excite, in a wallet-opening sort of way. A rink makes a community. An arena makes spectators.
The process that produces the John Labatt Centre is the process that is sending the game south. Since the time of the Original Six—four of which were, and are, American teams—hockey has grown exponentially, becoming bigger, bolder, brighter, more exciting, more lucrative. Like all professional sports in the modern age, it is not just a diversion or an interest, but a spectacle. The pursued audience is not those cranky old bastards who can remember the skating stride of guys who grew up, played, and retired before your daddy even watched hockey, whose great-uncle was the Great Bun Cook, and if you’re too ignorant to know who Bun Cook was, then how can you say you know hockey? Those people will come to games anywhere. No, even in Canada now, even at the major junior level, where the performers are hardly more than children, hockey is an entertainment product designed to appeal to a mass audience of spectators looking for a pleasant evening out. Owners pin their business plans on this appeal, just as city councils from Oshawa to Nashville pin their hopes for downtown revitalization on it.
This evolution of hockey as a product is what kills any hope for NHL hockey to be played and consumed mostly on Canadian soil. A product needs a market, and Canada is undeniably a smaller market than the ravenous pit of consumptive need to the south. But if you’re going to lament the state of the professional game, don’t blame entirely the NHL or the owners, who in the end are only doing what is logical given the situation. Lament, rather, the rise of capitalist modernity, the transformation of sport into work and spectacle, and the fading bond between the performing and the performed for. Lament the death of the Mem Centre, uncomfortable though it was. Lament the cupholders.
Copps Coliseum is the arena equivalent of blunt-force trauma, a huge, heavy thing that feels as if it were built for people ten feet tall. It is a style common to American Hockey League interiors—unfussy concrete in long lines and sharp angles. Copps is not so different than the buildings in Portland (Maine) or Manchester (New Hampshire), the latter a city that reminds me of Hamilton in no few ways, although it is smaller and features less water.
Copps might dream of hosting an NHL team, but for now it settles for Montreal’s farm club, the Hamilton Bulldogs. It’s one of the few places in Ontario that feels friendly to me—a diasporic community where everyone wears bleu–blanc–rouge, the lottery giveaway is a round-trip journey to Montreal by Via Rail, and I know the players by name. Then as now, goaltender Carey Price is backing up Jaroslav Halak, albeit incidentally and on a smaller stage. At this time, everyone is certain that Price is the Next Big Thing; Halak is a skinny, nervous-looking thing with a limp glove hand who—it is hoped—might be a competent Bunny Larocque to Price’s butterfly Dryden. I am disappointed not to see “the good goalie” play.
The stands are crowded, but nowhere near full. The upper tiers are shrouded in funereal black drapes, like an English country manse with its far wings shut up. In this game, Maxim Lapierre will score two goals in ten seconds, a franchise record that he still holds. The celebratory noise will barely be enough to echo.
It is disorienting to be in a place like Hamilton, or London, or Kitchener, and realize that it is by local standards a major population center. America is so thoroughly settled, north to south, coast to coast, and in nearly all points in between. There are desolate places left in the Western deserts, and a convincing sense of emptiness to be felt while driving through the vaster prairie farmlands, but my country is mostly a filled-up place. Canada, though, is just plain… vacant. The distances between one thing and another, from one person to another, are wide; the places of congregation are few. Canadians even have (in my subjective experience) a wider bubble of personal space than Americans, as if the entire society is used to having extra room. Hockey is one of the few things that seems to pull Canadian things and people closer together, with a subtle gravitational force.
I have no doubt that Hamilton could support an NHL team, pulling as it would from Toronto and the many middle-sized cities in the region. But there is no escaping the fact that much of Canada, like Hamilton, has the feel of AHL country. Indeed, it is only the willingness of Canadian fans and corporate sponsors and media to flock from kilometres and kilometres around for the chance to see and support NHL hockey that makes the place at all viable.
Consider: formally speaking, Hamilton and Atlanta have roughly similar populations, around half a million people in their cities proper. But Atlanta is just the city centre that supports a broad cluster of suburbs and absorbed towns that raise the overall metropolitan population to over five million. Hamilton is the suburb, and even taken together with its own hub—the largest city in the entire country—the population is only around six million. A team in Hamilton would be profitable, instantly, in its first season, but those initial profits would be close to the utmost achievable. Hockey in the southern United States may be a hard sell, but it has an inherent appeal to the speculative and the entrepreneurial. The introduction will always be rocky, but the victory, for someone tenacious enough to achieve it, has the potential to be tremendous.
Canada has six cities with metro populations over one million. Guess which six they are.
The United States has fifty-two. The NHL hasn’t even tried half of them yet.
Everyone has their own notions of hell. Mine is very much like Oshawa. There used to be a town there, one can tell, but it seems to have been drowned in Toronto’s eastward sprawl. What feeling of town remains seems to be suffering a major depression, the kind that can’t bear to get out of bed before noon. It doesn’t help that this is the ugly side of winter, a sky like dingy cotton batting looking down on tire-packed slush.
Leaving the train station, I trudge toward downtown. It is trudging kind of weather in a trudging kind of city. I feel like a character in an early twentieth-century existentialist novel, as though I have always been trudging these sidewalks and will trudge them unto forever.
When downtown appears unexpectedly, I am cheered. The best thing about Canadian downtowns is that they all have used bookstores, and I stop for a while to browse in a friendly looking one before continuing on. I pass the General Motors Centre and make a turn, heading in the bustlier-looking direction in search of accommodation.
I have, at this point, not yet grasped the salient aspects of Oshawa.
Downtown ends as abruptly as it began. I enter a universe of strip malls, plazas, and shopping centres; block after block until there are no more blocks, only the lonely spaces between one outpost and the next. The stores are often set far back from the road, lumpen tan things surrounded by hectares of parking lot and token landscaping. There are no people visible who are not envehicled.
By the time I realize that the malls have no end, I have wandered far from the GM Centre, and it is dark. I stop in a pizza place and ask if I can use their phone to call a cab. My taxi arrives late and confused (when you are in a strip mall within scores of virtually indistinguishable strip malls, it is somewhat difficult to convey an exact location). I explain that I need a cheap motel, and the cabbie explains that the budget accommodations aren’t in Oshawa, they’re in some neighbouring city down the highway. I say, “Whatever, take me.”
It is an unexpectedly long drive. On the way, the driver asks what I’m doing here. I explain that I’ve come to see a hockey game.
“You’ve got Leafs tickets?!” he asks, with a sudden and unexpected enthusiasm.
“No,” I reply. “Generals.”
“The Oshawa Generals. The major junior team. They’re playing Peterborough tonight.”
“Junior team? Really?”
“Huh.” Pause. “So, you like hockey?”
“Yeah, you could say that.”
This is the wrong answer. One does not express an affection for hockey anywhere in the Greater Toronto Area unless one is prepared for the inevitable follow-up. Which comes, in due course. First, a twenty-minute rant about the Leafs: the management (stupid), the players (slow), the ownership (greedy, bureaucratic), the past (glorious), and, naturally, Wendel Clark (God). Second, the summation: the team will never improve because it doesn’t have to, because it makes money even in failure, because its games sell out to corporate sponsors and season ticket holders. An ordinary guy can’t afford to take his kid to a game anymore. Cue violins.
My body was born in Chicago, but my hockey fanaticism was born in Montreal. There are few things I have less sympathy for than the suffering of the Leafs, especially when voiced by someone who is not aware that his hometown hosts one of the upper-echelon teams in his province, a team whose tickets are affordable and whose performances would doubtless be enjoyed by a great many children.
At the GM Centre later that night, the Generals destroy the Peterborough Petes 10-0, on the strength of a charming, effortless five-point night by John Tavares, who was then ripping through the OHL like nothin’ meant nothin’, embarrassing the coolest defensive prospects, outsmarting the slickest forwards, making puckbunnies swoon all over the glass, and just generally kicking ass and taking names. It’s a huge victory for the home team, complete with pretty goals, palpably shamed arch-rivals, and a whole raft of fights. Yes, by the end it gets a little tedious, as blowout games often do, but it is damn good hockey.
Canada is full of good hockey. It’s quite literally everywhere. Nevertheless, a certain subsection of Canadian fans fixate on the possession of NHL teams as if it were the only meaningful expression of the game. It’s a self-punishing fixation. If the only fact that matters in defining the balance of power in hockey between Canada and America is that America has twenty-four NHL teams and Canada only has six, then Canada will always feel a loss.
Even if all one hopes for comes to pass and a team is returned to Hamilton, the new twenty-three-to-seven balance won’t provide much comfort. As long as raw number of NHL teams is the standard (not even NHL teams per capita, as Canada wins that category also, as it does almost any non-NHL measure), Canada will probably always feel like the loser, and Canadians will miss the more essential fact: there is more hockey to be experienced in their country now than ever before. Canadians have more access to more games more often than they ever did in the Golden Years, when all of two cities had professional teams, and the games were broadcast piecemeal one night a week. What the NHL provides, with all its American teams, is a grand, perpetual entertainment—a multimillion dollar league featuring the world’s best players playing multiple games every night all season long, providing fodder for multiple television channels and websites and even print publications devoted full-time to hockey, providing more professional jobs for more of Canada’s best players and best minds than ever before.
It is mid-December now, and I am in Guelph, in an arena that’s as close as Canada gets to the East Asian theory of mall-hockey, where the ice surface is hardly differentiated from the encircling concession stands and souvenir shops: you can easily watch the game while waiting in line for pizza. Along one side, in the bar section where spectators girded by beer and nachos can follow the puck from behind plate glass, an arena employee is providing interested viewers with a brief explanation of the photos that constitute the Cam Janssen Wall of Fame, the then-New Jersey Devil being Guelph’s most recent NHL product. On the ice, Drew Doughty is turning in an atypically unremarkable performance for the local Storm before departing for the World Junior Championships. And in the narrow hall leading to the exit, I am engaging in one of the most unseemly public displays of affection I have ever engaged in with a Mennonite boy from up Waterloo way.
We arrived at the Aud by sheer force of will, through a blizzard that nearly buried the car overnight and rendered roads indistinguishable from sidewalks. Two days ago I came this same way and all was frozen pavement and calcified mud, but now everything is indistinguishable white lumps of varying size. Kitchener is a ghost town, dark store windows and silence and the very occasional car crawling by, barely more than a shadow through the snow. The parking lot is unplowed, but nevertheless half full. Apparently, the game is still on.
Julian is back from Taiwan for only a few weeks, home for the holidays as it were. He loves this building. Like me, he has neither cash nor affection for the Leafs, so the Rangers are the closest thing he’s had to a local team. He takes me through the arena in a half-reverie, stopping periodically with the absent look of fond recollection. He is not seeing the bedraggled die-hards who pushed through this storm to arrive at an ordinary Sunday afternoon game in mid-December, but the playoff crowds of years past, who packed and shook this plain, gym-like structure.
We sit in the stands, damp and shivery in wet toques and sodden boots, he sensibly encased in several more layers of shirting than I would ever think to wear, as he reminisces. He tells me stories of Kitchener’s big stars from a few years back—some of them familiar NHL regulars now, others obscure to me—and their heroics. He grows impatient with our seats and scans for more centrally located empties, but the truth is, he doesn’t want to sit at all. He wants to show off this place, take me by the waist and conjure for me what magic it might hold, under the right circumstances.
Julian has come to years of Rangers games. He is not the most Canadian guy by any standard, having been born abroad and raised some years out of the country, and living now on the other side of the world. But he had a good dozen years of Canadian childhood, and so he knows hockey. He has played on frozen lakes and parking lots and parks and backyard rinks and ice put down in chicken barns way out yonder; he has played with siblings and parents and cousins and aunts and uncles and friends and lovers, on organized teams and in patternless shinny; he has reluctantly played net in neighbourhood ball hockey and dreamed, peculiarly, of being Bill Ranford. Julian isn’t just a hockey fan, he’s a player— as are his deeply religious high school friends, his post-rock hipster college buddies, and his freakin’ mother. In Canada, even if you don’t play seriously, or even well, you still play a game or twenty in your life.
If you are American, unless you come from certain specific parts of Minnesota or North Dakota, you have not done any of this.
I cannot speak for all American fans. Some, I know, are very nationalistic, and some are very ignorant, and both groups are apt to become touchy and defensive about the whole “Canada’s game” thing. But speaking for myself: I would trade every “advantage” of being an American hockey fan—the cheap tickets and giant hot dogs, the sporadic television coverage, the sneering contempt of the general sports media, the hopeless dilution in a culture that inexplicably and oppressively romanticizes baseball—for even half of the relationship Julian has had with the game merely by accident of his birth. To have put on skates before the age of twenty-four, to have played with friends on natural ice, to have been aware of Gretzky in the days when he was still a fresh miracle and I was still young enough to believe in such things. For almost all Americans, the game is something we have to learn with time and study and observation. It is something we like, or even—at the furthest extent—love. For Canadians, hockey just is. It’s there on your ponds and television sets, in your parks and old family photos; it’s sitting in the garage; it’s laughing on your driveway. Hockey is your culture. It’s who you are. What on earth could possibly make you think, in the face of that self-evident and bone-deep truth, that you could ever possibly lose it?
It is New Year’s Day. My birthday. I am twenty-six years old, and given that the car has just spun out the greatest spinning-out I have ever been spun, I am enormously grateful that I continue to be twenty-six years old. Julian is driving. I am navigating. He has never driven to Owen Sound before, but I have assured him that it is impossible to get lost. The farther north we travel, the fewer ways there are to go, and by the time we get beyond his familiar radius, I doubt there will be enough roads to get lost in.
This, he tells me, is Old Order country, and I believe him, although there are no buggies in evidence. The route is straight and narrow and, in summer, would be positively bucolic. But for now, it is a slow drive through a deadened land on an icy road, and it is a good thing we have come to like each other well, or this would be a tedious journey.
Somewhere along the way, it starts to snow again, and we get to the game late, which is fine, as it proves to be an unremarkable affair. The snow seems to have encouraged the Owen Sound faithful, who have filled out the building in good style. It is a modern rink, but the crowd is so familiar that it feels like a family reunion populated by distant relations. Julian goes to take pictures of the benches. I browse the concessions. The Attack Pack, a kind of women’s auxiliary to the team, is selling baked goods wrapped in plastic, and a custom-printed cookbook featuring its members’ favourite recipes. I buy a copy, partly because I am unfamiliar with the indigenous cuisine of Northern Ontario, partly because there is something ineffably lovable about matronly women supporting a major junior hockey team via cranberry muffins and recipes for fruity Jell-O molds.
The arena’s televisions are showing the NHL’s Winter Classic in Buffalo, between the Sabres and the Penguins. It is snowing there, too. When the Attack game is over, groups of fans linger, watching the big boys go into overtime and beyond.
Say what you will about the authenticity of the shootout, there are times when it hits the perfect emotional note. On screen, Sidney Crosby picks up the puck at the red line. You can see the snow flying off his stick; ice clings to the camera lens. He shoots, he scores. The fans hanging out in Owen Sound do not cheer this goal so much as sigh at it, and smile. Julian, in fact, laughs. The moment is classic in a pond-hockey sense—the closest the professional game will ever come to recreating the way that ordinary people experience their favourite hockey-playing moments.
The All-Star Game is the NHL’s showiest, most American event. The Winter Classic is something different: an attempt to introduce Americans to the spirit and sentiment of the Canadian game. The Classic tries to graft Canadian feelings onto an Americanized broadcast, to show crowds in the States something of the romance in playing a winter game in real live winter. It is one of the league’s better projects.
It is the middle of January 2008, and I am home. One of them, anyway. These are the nosebleeds of Montreal’s Bell Centre; the far, high seats behind the broadcast booth where one can watch RDS commentators drink coffee and argue during commercial breaks. Far below, the ice is a clear, perfect white, made all the more elegant by the neon-splashed blackness that falls over the stands. This is the last game I will see here.
The Blackhawks are visiting—the team that would have been mine, I suppose, if Chicago had known or cared about hockey whatsoever in my youth—but I feel no affection for them in this building. Montreal fandom is righteous and puritanical; it is accepted that once one loves the Canadiens, one loves no other, ever.
This is where I become irredeemably partisan. There is no hockey team, anywhere, ever, so great, so brilliant, so beautiful, so troubled, so simultaneously triumphant and defeated, so old, so wise, so crazed, or so wild. There is no place on earth like the place where Les Habitants play and their faithful congregate. This noise and darkness and barely controlled riot; these fans so adoring and merciless, who lean so far forward in their seats that the arena has to install safety rails to hold them up, who boo any creature with the audacity to try to score on their net, and who worship abjectly anyone who can pot for them beautiful goals of the sort they need as desperately as most people need sex or water or oxygen. There is nothing else like this.
Every now and then, someone asks me to justify my loyalty to the Canadiens. I am not Quebecois, not even Canadian, and I lived only a few years in Montreal. From where I am now, writing these words to you, I see but a few regular season games a year. There is not necessarily a natural reason for me to favour this team.
This is why, when visiting the Bell Centre, I make a point to wander through the Habs’ Hall of Fame. The team trades in nostalgia, but even by its standards, this is a sentimental display. The photos of ex-players that line the walls are not all, or even mostly, the bright action shots of modern stars, but often the mannered portraits of an earlier age. These eternally young men stand before the camera, thin, pale, and stiffly posed, hair neatly combed, with the blank expressions necessary for long exposures. I see them and I think: there were Habs not just before there were visors, curved sticks, or goalie masks, but before there was television. Hell, before there were newsreels. When some of them played, the Ottoman Empire was still a world power and Coke was still a patent medicine. Forget six-to-eight weeks on injured reserve for a high-ankle sprain: there were Habs who died of gangrene from their injuries. Forget the flu: there were Habs who played through the advanced stages of tuberculosis. There were Habs so long ago that there is not now any living person who can recall seeing them play, whose careers are beyond hope of video review. The fans here come by their memories honestly. If there is anything that survives, even symbolically, from the birth of hockey to the modern day, it is the Montreal Canadiens. How could the Panthers, or the Coyotes, or even the Hawks, rival that?
Quebec is so pretty that it’s difficult to believe it’s real. For a long portion of my childhood, until a middle-aged bout of practicality decimated the collection, my mother kept every cookie tin she’d ever received. Many showed scenes of wintery villages: snow heaped on the roofs of cabins and vintage cars, leafless trees with suspiciously symmetrical branches, clusters of dark green pines on distant mountains. I used to imagine those pictures were like the images of castles you see on the covers of fantasy novels—a kind of visual wish fulfilment, like the landscapes seen in dreams after particularly satisfying bedtime stories. Now, however, I know: cookie tins come from Quebec.
The Copps Coliseum dreams of being an NHL arena, but Le Colisée in Quebec City remembers being one, and still clings to the feeling. Like the building in Hamilton, it is too big for its current tenants, the major junior Remparts, and the upper tiers are shut down altogether. Unlike Copps, however, the crowd knows how to make the place feel full. It is loud, with howls and boos and persistent choruses of OLE! from somewhere high above. The crowd is fluent in French and onomatopoeia; most of its game commentary is along the lines of OLE-OLE-OLEEE-AAAAAA-IIIIIIIIIII-EEEEE-AAAAAAA-OOOOO-OOOOOHHHHHHHHHHHHH-BOOOOOOOOOOO-OLE-OLE-OLE-OLE! It is bad form to close one’s mouth at any point after the first period.
I do not pretend to understand much about Quebecois society, but I can say this: if you want to experience a really deep sense of cultural loss, spend some time in Quebec. It most definitely extends to hockey. Sometimes I think Quebecois hockey fans feel about the rest of Canada the way Canadians feel about America—that it is the bigger, wealthier, culturally hegemonic neighbour that steals away their intrinsic potential. In Montreal, hockey media alternates between smug gloating (when things are good, or when recalling the ’70s) and mournful self-flagellation about what has been lost and can never be regained: the homegrown superstars who won’t return because of the taxes and the culture; the neglect from Hockey Canada in selecting players for international tournaments; the blithe disrespect from Hockey Night in Canada; the alienation from a hockey discourse that’s conducted in another language; the sense that by population, by economy, and by passion, they collectively deserve more respect than they get.
Whether that sentiment is justified or not, I can’t say. But I will say this: The hegemon always feels justified in its dominance. If you believe that America and the NHL are insensitive to Canada’s passion for hockey and its somewhat (economically, practically) irrational desire to possess it more completely, consider how you feel about French Canada’s protestations of hockey bias and disrespect from the CBC.
May I speak to you directly, Canadian people who have some concern over your country’s possession of hockey?
I may? Thank you.
You made this game. You invented it; you grew it. You built it up with your sweat and blood and, occasionally, with your deaths. It is your game—not because you buy it, but because you make it. Because you birthed it out of the darkness and the cold and the boredom and the curious stoicism that you earned by wresting a precarious sufficiency from your beautiful, unfriendly land. Because you built it, step by step, rule by rule, technique by technique, through season after season of trial and error. Because everything invented or developed in hockey from its first games through the 1970s came from Canada and Canadians, and most everything invented or developed since then has too, from the goalie mask to the slapshot, from the forward pass to the Corsi number. It is your game because you make it still, because literally half the elite players in the NHL’s “international” game come up on your ice, and virtually all of the best coaches and managers. Other countries have made tremendous contributions to hockey, and in the case of the United States, purchased large quantities of it, but none have created the game as Canada has. It cannot be taken, or lost, or stolen, or bought from you.
The NHL is, in some dim way, Canada’s greatest triumph over the United States—the Canadian pastime that we have adopted with virtually no substantive modifications. Canadians look at the NHL and see only the depredations, the things that have changed, but you are too close to know the truth: that regardless of the kiss cam and the shootout and the brief flirtation with the glow puck, the NHL is your hockey writ large. It not the Swedish game or the Russian game or the American game (there isn’t even an American game, for American hockey players have always followed the Canadian customs), but the Canadian one. Yours.
Epilogue: It is April 2010, and I am sitting ice-level in the Taipei Arena‘s annex. In front of me, Chinese Taipei—Taiwan, to its friends—is playing the United Arab Emirates for the Challenge Cup of Asia championship. Behind me, more than a thousand Taiwanese fans are chanting “Jia! You! Jia! You! JIA-YOU-JIA-YOU-JIA-YOU!” and doing a surprisingly disciplined version of The Wave. It is the most raucous building I have been in since I left Montreal.
No one would mistake the game before me for Canadian sport. Hockey in Asia can be simultaneously more violent and less aggressive, more restrained and less disciplined. The hits are big and careless and routinely ineffectual; for minutes at a time, the corners go entirely un-dumped into and un-banged in.
What parts of hockey are essential and which are cultural? It is a question worth asking, and one that I doubt many Canadians are in a position to answer—not because you don’t know the game, but rather because you know it too well. Canada has developed a style of play that is the best in the world, but in doing so it has purged a number of stylistic quirks and behaviours that were long ago judged unproductive or undesirable. Moreover, a number of Canadian values have been passed over to other great hockey powers: I would argue that European hockey over the past decades has become more Canadized than Canadian hockey has been Eurified (pace Don Cherry). It is only when you see hockey developed independently, by people playing and studying the game almost entirely within their own national complex, that the cultural aspects of the game begin to separate from the intrinsic ones.
Rushing is, I think, the intrinsic part of hockey. If you put a human being on the ice with a puck and a stick and a target, it is the primordial desire to bolt forward at high speed and whack that thing into the back of the net. With a more advanced understanding of the medium comes more sophisticated variations—outracing the opposing forward through the neutral zone, going through one defenseman and dangling the other before deking the goalie twice and roofing it stick side. I assume everyone has a personal, favoured version of this scenario, but I very much doubt there are hockey players anywhere in the world who don’t, in some hidden pocket of their hearts, long for it.
Backchecking, on the other hand, is cultural. Passing is cultural. Running the goalie is cultural. Fighting and the neutral zone trap are cultural. Dumping in and dumping out, particularly up the glass, are definitely cultural.
The game I am watching is fast and loose, with a lot of rushing and a lot of pinching and a lot of cute stick moves and skating tricks that work about 17 percent of the time. There is much panic involved.
There is one player, however, who does not panic. He skates equally hard, forecheck and back, with a low, even stride and mobile, shifting gaze. He dumps the puck off the boards to land beyond the opposing defense; he uses the area behind the net. And when a UAE forward lays a nasty hit on a Taiwanese teammate, he is there in an instant, looking straight into the Arab’s eyes, with a firm shove and a positioning of the chin that suggests a violent challenge. It is a familiar stance to me, but not often seen in this region of non-contact, mall-hockey leagues, where actual fighting is nearly unheard of and sticking up for your teammates is rarely required. It is obviously, distinctly Canadian behaviour.
The kid’s name is Jacky Lu. He may be a Taiwanese citizen, but he’s a Canadian hockey player, product of three years at a Canadian hockey school and still, they say, longing for BC. And he is, by virtue of natural talent developed through Canadian training, the best player the Chinese Taipei national team has ever had.
In the stands, amongst the proud mamas and shrieking girlfriends and awestruck younger siblings who comprise most of the crowd, stubbornly refusing to participate in any form of The Wave, is a dedicated coterie of hockey-playing Canadian expats. The Taiwanese kids on the ice are, in another league, their teammates, and some of them have been skating with the local kids since they were skinny fourteen-year-olds in fresh-bought gear. While these fans are proud of everything the Taiwanese team has achieved in this tournament, they reserve a special kind of appreciative hooting for Jacky. They know a fellow traveller when they see one. They know by his skating stride.
Some Canadians, I understand, dislike the extent to which hockey is seen as part of their national identity. Some would prefer to be known for grander principles like multiculturalism or humanitarian interventions, or for possessing an enviable amount of fresh water that will doubtless serve you well in the coming apocalypse. Unfortunately, none of us get to choose what our countries are known for. Personally, I’d prefer if my own country wasn’t famous primarily for obesity and militarism. I’m sure a lot of Taiwanese wish their country was habitually associated with something other than cheap plastic toys; I know for a fact that Arabs in every country would prefer to be less associated with jihad. International impressions are unfair like that. But in this specific case, the judgment is neither so bad nor so inaccurate. You are many things, great cold land, but among them is this: you are a nation of hockey players.
You’re lucky that way.
This appeared in the June 2010 issue.