Today is Hockey Day in Canada. I don’t know what that means, really, but it means something. It is a commemoration of hockey in a nationalistic vein, a celebration of the idea that there is some deep, reciprocal relationship between Canada and hockey that transcends the simple statement that a lot of Canadians like it.
A national sport is a shared image.
There must, I think, be an equivalent image of hockey for Canadians, some meta-scene of the sport that speaks in some mysterious way to the sense of national identity, but I don’t have that image. All I know of hockey are actual players and actual games, a thousand specifics in search of a generalization. I have no sense of the Platonic ideal of Canadian hockey, but I wish I did, because I think somehow that it would then be more meaningful for me.
So to the various and sundry Canadians who might stop by this site today (or tomorrow, or the day after that), what’s the image that makes hockey more than just a sport for you? Not the logic of it, but the visceral sensation of it, that thing that flashes through your mind for a second when you think of hockey, which makes it not just yours personally but yours as a Canadian?
I’m not Canadian, but I’ve been given honorary Canadian status by a bunch of my Canadian friends.
Here’s my view of Hockey Day in Canada as the crazy American guy.
Laurie and I haven’t missed a HDiC since it’s inception. (yes, we live in the U.S. Sitting out on the roof is a StarChoice disk, next to the DirecTV dish, in the shadow of the original dish, a 10′ Big Ugly that we’ve finally decomissioned, but these have given us access to CBC for the last decade+, and more recently, TSN and SportsNet. And yes, on New Years Eve, we celebrate the way Canadians do, by curling up around the TV and watching the Air Farce Chicken Cannon. But I digress. But thank you for nailing those damn beavers!)
Hockey Day in Canada started out fairly simply: the NHL offered CBC a saturday where all six Canadian teams played each other, and CBC realized it needed to do something to fill in the gaps around the games. They’ve done so by going back and celebrating the roots of the game, by going out into the community and meeting the people that make hockey happen around Canada, by examining the sport and looking at what works and how to make it better.
To me, I think the best way to explain HDIC to Americans is not through baseball, but football. Imagine a Superbowl Sunday where all of the pre-game and post-game was focussed not on commercialism, but on the game; John Madden in Plano Texas, talking about Texas High School football, while Marv Albert heads down to Florida to talk to the coach of the Seminoles about the college game. There will be discussions with former players about growing up in football and the people and things that helped them succeed. You’d see pee-wee players being taught by NFL coaches, and you’d see stories about how these non-professional teams and leagues and programs have been built around their community, and built community around their program.
Every year CBC chooses a city to host HDiC; this year, it was Nelson, British Columbia. The focus was on the volunteers — the people who donate the time and sweat equity to make hockey at a local level work. There are secondary broadcast locations, this year, Yellowknife, Camrose AB, Tignish, Prince Edward Island, Toronto and Regina.
It is both a celebration of the bond between Canadians and their national sport, and a recognition that the NHL is but one small part of what “hockey” is; and an appreciation for all of those people and places — the 4AM practice, the hockey mom, the rink rat, the pee-wee coach — that both make Canadians Canadian, and makes the NHL possible.
Now, Laurie and I have spent a lot of time in Canada — we head up there on vacation whenever we can. We’ve met lots of neat people up there, and considered relocating on and off. It’s given us an opportunity to see hockey in a number of places and at many levels. One thing that HDiC means to me is the NHL is not hockey; the NHL is a business based on hockey. Hockey is a game that no lockout and ruin. It’s a game you can’t truly understand if all you see is a game on TV or from a seat in a big arena. It’s a game that, to understand, you have to get away from the business part of the game back into the grassroots; get away from the double-decker arenas. The best hockey game I’ve ever been to was in Victoria, between the Victoria Salsa (seriously; owned by the owner of the local mexican restaurant) and the Cowichan Valley Capitals. It was in the old (now gone) Victoria Memorial Arena — built in the 1940’s, shaped like a Quonset hut, and about as comfortable. You stare down to the end of the rink, and there’s a Stanley cup banner (Victoria Cougars, 1924-25).
Now, the Salsa and Capitals are Junior A (minor junior) — 15 and 16 year olds. If you’re a canadian hockey player, at this age you generally have to make a choice; Major Junior (the WHL, OHL, QMJHL) leagues, or minor junior. If you go to major junior, you lose NCAA eligibility, so minor junior has become the career track for kids moving into US college scholarships. These are the last stops before turning pro (or going home). Most kids in the league, of course, go home. The only players we’ve seen there you might have heard of is a kid named Kariya (not paul, his brother Kevin, who went to UofMaine, but he’s even smaller than his brother) and Tiger William’s son.
Now, as you might imagine, a couple of teams of 15-16 year olds is not (by any definition) the most skilled hockey you’ll ever see. No 100MPH slapshots, you aren’t going to see tape to tape passes three times in a row. But it doesn’t matter; what made that game so — transcendent — to me was the place and time. That building had serious history, and you could feel the stories and events in its bones; the kids were playing — maybe a bit for a chance at future, but mostly because they loved the game. And we found ourselves surrounded by about 3,000 folks, most of them in jerseys, almost NONE of them in jerseys of the teams playing, because they were all wearing the jerseys of their own teams.
And THAT MOMENT, a bunch of people who love hockey standing around watching a bunch of kids who love hockey, in a funky old building — and a Stanley Cup Banner (the last Cup awarded to a non-NHL team, in fact) – that moment is what made me really understand what hockey is and why it’s so important to Canadians. And it changed my view of the NHL forever, because it put the NHL into perspective with the greater part of the sport. the NHL is merely the tip of the iceberg most of us see. going and finding the rest of the iceberg is how you truly come to understand the whole of it.
And that — that moment in victoria, and the search for the whole iceberg — is Hockey Day in Canada.