Hockey Night is Canada (Part Two)
Hockey and geopolitics meshed differently but with just as much emotion nearly three decades later, during the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union. Canada had not won a tournament in 20 years, mostly because the rules prohibited NHL players from taking part. That left our energetic but definitely B-list national team to battle Soviet players who were were also KGB and army officers, paid by the government to train year-round. We were in danger of losing our international hockey dominance for good.
In 1972, however, NHL players were allowed to play in the tournament for the first time. With the Cold War still raging, the series became more than just a sports event. Canadian players and fans alike viewed it as war on ice.
“Before the series we are just over the moon,” says Lewis, “like, ‘We’re finally gonna get those Red so-and-so’s, we’ll show them what we got.’ But when that first game is a 7-3 loss, you can just hear crickets across the nation. And because it was one of those rare things that we were good at, it was a real sense of loss for Canadians who followed hockey. [We thought] maybe we aren’t as good as we thought we were?”
Over 3000 Canadian fans traveled to Moscow for the final four games of the Summit Series. “Fans were on their feet waving that flag, which was still a pretty new thing, as we only got the maple leaf in 1965. People were still kind of getting used to it. But there was this national team with a stylized maple leaf, and the crowd singing “O Canada” throughout the game, and making all these cheers. It was something we really hadn’t seen before.”
In the end, Canada won the series four games to three, with one tie, and Paul Henderson’s last minute, tournament-winning shot becoming “the goal heard around the world.” But more than anything, the series demonstrated how much Canadians need hockey to bust us out of our shells. Without it, “O Canada” might become as disused as “God Save the Queen.” If only for health reasons, Canadians require a minimum weekly dose of hockey so we don’t blow a gasket.
The Community of Hockey
Although Canada boasts the second largest land mass on Earth, the community of hockey seems to shrink our country to a more human scale. Fans in rural Saskatchewan take notice of the big Halifax-Cape Breton game, and most educated hockey fans know of Port McNeill on Vancouver Island because of Los Angeles Kings star Willie Mitchell’s success. Many a small town feels more connected to the rest of the country because they have a local boy in the NHL.
Over 4,700 players have graduated from Canada’s rinks and frozen ponds to the NHL, representing hundreds of communities. From the reaches of Inuvik in the North West Territories to Bonavista in Newfoundland, young men have made their way to the big leagues. A few places seem to have an uncanny ability to produce gifted players — Flin Flon, Manitoba, population 6000, has laid claim to 17 NHL players in its history, including Hall-of-Famer Bobby Clarke.
Across the country, teams ranging from girls’ pee-wee to men’s beer league, and all the way up to major junior, fill arenas from sunrise to well after sunset. When cities or towns meet to play, they become more than just isolated dots on the map. Even as rival fans cheer their teams, they’re also forging bonds.
And there is something quintessentially Canadian about waking up at ghastly hours to defrost the car for a pre-sunrise game away from home. Many family memories are created, not by spring break trips to Disneyland, but by strategically packing four bags of gear into the sedan and heading down the Trans Canada Highway.
Few activities require the financial support and time commitment as having a child registered in hockey. Since ice time is limited in nearly every arena across Canada, the prime time slots are reserved for skating lessons and more competitive teams, and practices are often scheduled for six or seven a.m. — early enough to shower afterwards and get to school. As soon as a player reaches Bantam age (14+), he or she is often relegated to the late-evening slot. If a family is traveling from another community, this can return them home after midnight. But there are few alternatives for Canadians possessed with a burning passion to play hockey, and those late night trips also give families and teammates an opportunity to bond.
Dynamic families exist in all professional sports, but nowhere so much as in hockey. The Sutters, who once had six of seven siblings playing in the NHL at the same time, are one of the most famous clans in sports history. Now a second generation has reached the NHL, with five Sutters drafted into the league and looking to leave their legacy. Gordie Howe, known as “Mr. Hockey,” had the unique experience of playing professionally with two of his sons, Mark and Marty. Gordie’s wife, Colleen, became a sports agent and was later named “Mrs. Hockey,” making the Howes a true hockey family. Of course, these dynasties too started with those early morning and late night road trips in the family vehicle.
Truly Canada’s Game
Not everyone is a hockey fan — or even a sports enthusiast — and many Canadians have valid arguments for why it shouldn’t be crowned our “national pastime.” Soccer fans note that their sport has more registered players than hockey, while lacrosse supporters like to cite its status as Canada’s first official game. Others point to the country’s increasingly successful culture industries, and suggest sports have taken a backseat to arts and entertainment as financial engines and sources of national pride. Canadian musicians top the charts now more than ever, with some even singing the national anthem before the first face-off.
But as a nation we still go to extraordinary efforts to make hockey as accessible as possible. There are over 2,700 arenas coast-to-coast, plus a plethora of outdoor rinks. While soccer and baseball fields are found on many Canadian school grounds, the resources necessary for building and maintaining a functioning hockey arena are far greater. Organizations like KidSport and Canadian Tire Jumpstart help alleviate the financial barriers many families face when registering children for hockey. These groups are often approached by immigrant families wishing to use hockey as an opportunity to experience Canadian culture.
“As the game becomes more and more expensive,” says Lewis, “you wonder if you’re shutting the doors and making it more difficult for immigrant families to use that as a way of feeling ‘more Canadian’ and fitting into the broader culture.”
Canadian hockey associations reach out to nearly every demographic. Leagues tailored to players with disabilities have sprouted in the past few decades, opening up hockey to the blind, deaf, and developmentally challenged, to amputees, and even to quadriplegic athletes using hand-operated electric wheelchairs. Tournaments also exist for players over 80-years old, and leagues for those wishing to dabble in alternative forms such as underwater and unicycle hockey. The sport keeps its participants busy year-round, with skill camps and competitive leagues sometimes drawing a many youth during the summer as the local swimming hole. Something about hockey makes even non-fans take notice of it once in a while, especially when it’s on a grand stage. An estimated 26.5 million Canadians — 80% of our population — tuned in to watch at least a portion of the men’s 2010 Olympic gold medal match. After Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal in overtime, Canadians across the country spilled onto the streets to cheer. Anyone clamoring around downtown Vancouver after that famous goal couldn’t walk a foot without bumping into someone dressed in red and white. Play-by-play announcer Chris Cuthbert said it best when he opened the gold medal game with, “Good afternoon, Canada. Is there anywhere you’d rather be for the next three hours?”
On Boxing Day, 2012, Canada began its attempt to reclaim its first World Junior Hockey Championship title in three years. The tournament is a holiday fixture among hockey fans, and this year Canadians were treated to a star-studded roster of locked-out NHL players. By then, the faithful had grown impatient with the inability of the owners and players to find a resolution. “It’s a battle between millionaires and billionaires,” had become the stock put-down of both.
But then something strange happened — fans didn’t want the lockout to end just yet. Once again, Canada had a genuine opportunity to stand atop the hockey world and let off some patriotic steam. More than they wanted to see their favourite team back in action, they wanted to see Canada’s best players competing with a maple leaf on their chests. They wanted to turn the personal and family joy of the holiday season into a national celebration. That’s the essence of the Canadian experience — to find these shared moments of passion and exuberance that draw all the parts of our far-flung country together. Even if only for 10 days during the WJHC, hockey once again brought that essence to light.