I love hockey and I love hockey fans. Well, actually, that isn’t true. I don’t love hockey fans, at least not all of them. Over the past few of months, I’ve lived through two international hockey tournaments that were closely watched by the world – the IIHF World Junior Hockey Championships and the Olympics. Now we’re gearing up for another international tournament, the IIHF World Championships in Cologne, Germany and as the only Canadian living in Canada contributing to VFMS, I thought I would tell you a little bit about what it’s like to be a hockey fan in Canada, as it relates to international hockey. That being said, no story of hockey in Canada is complete without touching on the NHL, too.
I was born in Ottawa, to a French-Canadian dad from Sherbrooke, Québec and an anglophone mom originally from Southern Ontario, but who had lived all over Canada and in the US. My mom could not care less about hockey but my dad had bled bleu-blanc-rouge since childhood**. He introduced me and my 2 younger siblings to hockey at a young age – my earliest memory is of my dad taking me to The Forum for a Canadiens’ open practice when I was 6 years old. It was my first time on the subway, it was my first time at the Forum, and it was my first time spending quality time with my dad alone. That year, Patrick Roy was a rookie and he came over and said hello to us in the stands. It was a small moment but something I never forgot – especially when Roy lead the team to a Stanley Cup that spring. But this is what hockey is to many kids in Canada. It’s special time with your dad. It’s entire days spent on the ice (I was never much of a skater, but my sister played hockey with the boys for years). It’s dreams of one day making it big. It’s living across a school soccer field from Teemu Selanne (true story!). Hockey is so ingrained in our culture that everyone has stories like this. We even have hockey on our money. It’s winter for much of the year up here; in some places there is snow from October through May, so that means hockey can be played outside for many months.
I was first introduced to international hockey by my mom, of all people. It was right before the 1998 World Junior tournament, and there was a full page spread in the paper with pictures of all the players on Team Canada. My mom pointed to one and said “He’s really cute, and he’s your age. You should marry him”. I laughed, stared a bit (he was really cute), and didn’t think much else of it, until my mom started watching the tournament. Apparently she really did think the boys were cute because what else could get my MOM to watch hockey? I started watching with her, and I was hooked. Watching those boys play for their country was so exciting – there is so much passion for the game and pride in their country that it’s impossible not to love the game at that level.
Since then, I’ve been following the WJHC closely each year. There’s nothing more exciting than seeing those young kids play for their country and then following them in their careers. Some of my favourites over the years now play in the NHL, and I’ll always have a soft spot for them no matter what team they play for (I’m looking at you, Milan Lucic).
I was less enthusiastic about the Olympics, until this year. With so much talent coming out of countries like Russia, Sweden, Finland, Slovakia and of course the US and Canada, and with six different teams playing for gold in the past 3 Winter Olympics (prior to 2010, of course), you can never predict the outcome. I watched it closely, cheering for the Habs’ Slovakian goalie, Jaroslav Halak, as he led his team to its highest finish ever and cheering for Team Canada (Funny… I wrote this a long time before the playoffs started and felt the need to clarify who I was talking about. Is there anyone who doesn’t know about the Habs’ Slovakian goalie now?)
I’m pretty actively involved in the hockey community on Twitter, and this is part of the reason that the international hockey is more interesting this year. Sadly, it also made it less fun in a lot of ways.
It started during the World Juniors. People (mostly in the US, but not exclusively) were complaining about the fervent support Canadians show to Team Canada. Which, interestingly, is no different from the fervent support Americans were showing for Team USA. Both teams were strong, and when Canada beat the US in round robin play on New Years Eve, tying the game with seconds to go and then just barely holding on to win in a shootout, things got a bit ugly. Both teams played an inspired game, but fans on both sides of the border were saying nasty, mean spirited things about each other. All I wanted to talk about was how GOOD the hockey was. Instead, I was subjected to rude comments about my home country, and to seeing my fellow Canadians say similar things to Americans. I was starting to get a bit downtrodden at that point.
Then, of course, Canada and the US faced off again for the gold medal and we all know the outcome. The powerhouse US team won gold and Canada won silver. The shower of “bet the Canadians are disappointed” comments was insane. I, for one, wasn’t disappointed in those boys for winning silver. The better team won that night, and Team USA’s strong showing is a very good sign for the future of hockey in North America. But again, instead of reveling in the amazing hockey we all just watched, the name calling and disparaging remarks continued.
Finally, we come to the Olympics. People who were at the games at Canada Hockey Place often cheered against the USA. Many Canadians probably cheered against the USA. This led to comments like “Oh look, Canada is cheering for *insert team that isn’t the USA here*”. These kinds of comments drive me NUTS. The 18,810 fans in CHP were on TV cheering for whomever, and individuals were cheering as they saw fit. But that doesn’t mean the roughly 34 million residents of Canada all feel that way. I, for one, never cheer AGAINST a team. In most games that didn’t involve Canada (or Slovakia), I just enjoyed the hockey and didn’t root for one team over the other. Yet I was still informed during the USA-Switzerland game that CANADA was rooting for Switzerland, and clearly I was too. Having neither chosen a team to cheer for, nor having in fact cheered at all, I was quite put out by these comments.
Then we got to the gold medal game and the inevitable matchup of Team Canada vs Team USA. I’m happy to say that things turned around quite a bit for this game in terms of my online interactions. Maybe I had just unfollowed all the unpleasant people, who knows? But people managed to enjoy the amazing game of hockey without resorting to nastiness. And WHAT A GAME. It was thrilling from start to finish, and the icing on the cake for me personally was seeing Sidney Crosby net the winner for Team Canada (yes, he’s another one I’ve followed since the Juniors. You don’t have to like him, but I do).
I think what the results of the WJHC and the Olympics tell us is that hockey in the US is growing and that the talent is getting stronger, which is great news for hockey in general, and should not be overlooked. I just wish that some of Team USA’s fans could recover from their inferiority complex (because really, the US isn’t inferior… and they’ve proven it many times), and stop bashing Canadians just for being born and raised under the hockey banner of Team Canada. We want to play against the best out there, and we can’t consider ourselves the best country for hockey unless we win against the best! So keep building your hockey program, keep developing players that take the game to another level and keep pushing Canada to keep up!
So that brings us to May. We’re about to start another international tournament, and hopefully we can all sit back, enjoy the amazing hockey that we have the privilege of seeing, and be kind to one another. That is, if you can peel yourself away from the Stanley Cup playoffs to watch…
(**Sadly, after living on the Canadian Prairies for more than 20 years, with too many TV blackouts of Habs games, my dad’s loyalties have wavered a bit, but that’s another story for another day).