The Great (Blue and) White North

Thanks to a particular set of stars aligning, The Blushing Bride, myself and the boys find ourselves in Toronto for 6 months. And Toronto being in Canada, that means Hockey[1].

There’s a lot to like about hockey for an Aussie Rules fan. It’s a fast, non-stop, relatively open game that relies on a combination of skill, playing to a plan and a role, and aerobic fitness over an hour or more. It’s immediately appealing but rewards study. Forward lines and defensive pairings are teams-within-teams with their own chemistry; their shifts are managed much like midfield rotations. And because there’s only limited offside situations, it’s free-flowing with 360-degree vision and passing. But from within Canada, the thing that strikes me most about it is the emotional attachment. It’s Their Game, the same way Aussie Rules is Our Game. The greatest damn game on earth, even though we understand that you have to be brought up on it to truly feel it. And it feels that way even more so than baseball or American football do (to me at least) on the other side of the border.

An acrimonious lockout[2], the result of the players’ union and owners failing to agree on a new Collective Bargaining Agreement, has just ended with not much breathing space before the entire season would have to be cancelled. The normal 82-game season has been abbreviated to 48. This has in fact turned out well for us; were we arriving mid-season, there might be a good deal less optimism around Toronto. But it’s still in its first couple of weeks, so all the mid-table teams are still sustaining hope that a bit of luck will fall their way, the hot streaks will outnumber the cold, and the playoffs may still beckon. And the mid-table-est of mid-table teams is my (syntactically suspect[3]) Toronto Maple Leafs.

It’s dumb good luck for a North Melbourne fan to fall in with the Leafs, not least because the colours are royal blue and white (so the kids’ Harvey’s Heroes backpacks fit right in at school). They’re a mix of similarities and differences; the most obvious similarity to me is a series of mediocre but not terrible seasons that have not resulted in the premium draft picks they need to build a cup winner around.

Last time we were here we had the privilege of watching Mats Sundin captain the leafs: a broad-shouldered, good-natured, tough and skilful Swede, the kind of classy player no-one could hate (say, a bigger and blonder Andrew Swllow) who became the team’s first ever European captain. With superstar goalie Curtis Joseph and a solid supporting cast, the Leafs were good enough to go a couple of rounds into the playoffs. Now, the captain is Dion Phaneuf, an under-appreciated defenseman they brought in via trade (Scott Thompson); their star is the young-ish Phil Kessel, a lightning quick goal sneak (Kieran Harper); and the up-and-comer is Nazem Kadri, a top-ten draft pick from 2009 who, thanks to injuries and confidence issues, is only now starting to make his mark (Ben Cunnington). But their 4th line forwards and second defensive pairing are a bit sub-par, their goaltending streaky at best, and they can have a habit of getting really beaten up by the best teams, especially the Boston Bruins. The general on-ice vibe of the team is similar too; like North, they are a fair and disciplined team, generally giving up less than their share of silly penalties and getting the most out of their mostly second-tier talent.

But here’s the other thing, the slightly jarring thing for a North person following the Leafs. They are also the team with All The Money, the team the rest of Canada loves to hate, and despite all their resources haven’t won the Stanley Cup since 1967. They have a TV schedule — a near monopoly on the prime Saturday evening Hockey Night In Canada on CBC — Eddie would give his eye teeth for. It dawned on me that here in Canada, I … I barrack for Collingwood. In a sane world, I could have a soft spot for the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens, but no, we hate ’em all and expect them to hate us back. We crowd the nearby away arenas in Ottawa and Buffalo and turn them into home games. We’re obnoxious know-it-alls.

But they skate out in blue and white, and it’s easy to forget that, and enjoy the month or two that they stay in contention for playoffs, and bide my time until the footy starts and I can figure out how to get it over the internet at the wee small hours.

[1]Ice Hockey, as opposed to Field Hockey, Roller Hockey, Underwater Hockey or Joe Hockey. But no-one here calls it that. It’s just Hockey.

[2]Unbelievably, labour disputes have eaten into 3 seasons and completely killed a 4th in the NHL. The last thing the 4th-of-4 pro leagues in North America needs if it wants to grow is not bothering to play.

[3]Syntactically suspect, but fortuitous in the Google era.

Comments

  1. Rob, thoroughly enjoyed your yarn. A Canadian mate of mine, now a long-time resident in Australia, has compared the two sports before – very similar in that it’s non-stop action the entire game.

    One moral question – is it a bad thing to support a powerful club (although in this case not a successful one) if you have the chance, especially if your original club in another code has lacked success?

  2. To all of ways in which hockey’s charms would appeal to AFL sensibilities, I would add a powerful sense of just barely contained violence. Perhaps it is the necessary outlet that allows both countries to remain relatively civil in most other endeavours. Of course, the sports also have in common that in lower leagues, the violence is, well, less contained.
    I enjoyed the piece.

  3. Cookie, it is a quandary, isn’t it? Is it Collingwood supporters who feel drawn to Man U and the Yankees? Before we had a Toronto connection I felt more drawn to the likes of the Red Sox, Orioles and Twins rather than the Yankees, mostly because of particular players I admired. But developing a connection to a city takes a lot of the hard choices away. I’m a Blue Jays fan now. And a Leafs fan. Playing the hand I’m dealt. (That said, I really couldn’t give a stuff about the Raptors).

    Greg, I reckon the non-stop game and the barely-contained violence might go hand in hand. Big hits and tackles don’t punctuate the play as much as they do in, say, rugby league or American football; they don’t necessarily bring things to a halt. After a fair check or bump play flows on and the hittee has to get up and back into play. Mind you, the culture of the designated enforcer lives on at all levels in hockey.

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