Friday of last week I could not get anything accomplished. I was on pins and needles, a horrible sick feeling in my stomach. Why? Because Canada was playing the United States in the Olympic hockey semi-final. My newsfeed was filled with fans talking trash, I couldn’t join in. Didn’t they know how serious this was?! This was no time for jokes. This was Hockey! Olympic hockey! I called my Mum and we commiserated. Neither of us could bear the suspense. It wasn’t even enjoyable we were so worried for our boys. When the win came, Canada scoring the solitary goal of the game, I was so happy I spent the second half of the day strutting around like I personally had won that game. And it occurred to me. This is nuts.
Why on earth do I get so worked up over a game? A game I don’t even play? A game I barely even get to watch anymore? Do I just like hockey because I’m supposed to? Some pathetic embrace of stereotype just so I can say I am Canadian? I tried to figure out, what’s the big deal? In the end there’s so logical explanation really, but I certainly gathered some good clues.
I remember one of the very first books I loved: The Hockey Sweater by Roch Carrier. I can still quote it. “We laced our skates like Maurice Richard, we taped our sticks like Maurice Richard…” I was sent to a french immersion school for preschool through grade two, but I do think this book was also one of my first cultural reminders that I belonged to a bilingual nation. When Eatons, a storied Canadian department store, went under, I was sad because it was the end of the age of Dear Mr. Eaton of The Hockey Sweater.
When the Vancouver Canucks made their 1994 run to the Stanley Cup final my brother and I were glued to the tv for every game. The Hockey Night In Canada theme ran through our dreams. I can still name most of the players from that team, and I fell for my first living celebrity, Trevor Linden our marvellous captain. We made signs and posted them all over the house and outside. Our devastation at the loss in Game 7 was absolute. I remember my Mum bringing us out ice creams to eat on the driveway as we sat in sorrow, our little hearts broken. The ice cream helped, but only a little. I wonder if part of why Vancouverites go so hockey crazy is that we aren’t a cold town. We didn’t grow up skating on frozen ponds. Having a hockey team ties us to the rest of the country in a way our weather does not.
Not that little kids didn’t play hockey! Oh no. In elementary school you could rank a boy’s popularity by his place on the town hockey team. My first crush was on the captain of the A squad. Of course, later in life I would laugh at the cute fumbling peewee hockey skaters but when I was their age they seemed athletic, handsome, heroic. As we grew older a smaller and smaller number of boys kept up with hockey, but it was always a point in their favour if they did. And everyone played street hockey. We would plan out our neighbourhood walks so we could pass the games. I used to play with my cousin and he would always be Wayne Gretzky. I would always be “Wayne Gretzky’s sister”. Maybe today I’d have been Hayley Wickenheiser but this was decades ago now.
Then came the modern era of Olympic hockey, as NHL players were allowed to compete. The humiliation of 1998 was followed by the fabulous 2002 team in Salt Lake City. The day of the gold medal match I was taking a bus ride down from the Sunshine Coast to Vancouver. The bus was buzzing with energy and on the ferries we would check in on the score. As we entered the city it was clear we had one. Flags were flying, horns were honking. I have never hung a poster of anybody but Audrey Hepburn on my wall. Audrey Hepburn and the 2002 Men’s Olympic Gold Medalists.
The thing is, in the end I don’t know if I started loving hockey because I felt it was the right thing to do as a Canadian. I DO know that I love it because I am Canadian. Because it inevitably winds itself through your childhood memories, through your aspirations and ideals, through your cultural references. Like it or not hockey is part of our history, both personal and national. Some people are irritated by that, and fight it. But I think symbols are good. I think connections are good. Common stories, myths, heroes. And I know that standing in my livingroom in Louisiana, while a crowd in a Russian arena belts out O Canada while the maple leaf is raised is good. So thanks to the men’s and women’s teams for another great memory.