O Canada: The True Story Of A Nation's Obsession with Hockey

James C Edgington
February 11 2010 02:32PM

Czech Republic v Canada

It’s hard to pinpoint a definitive time or place that hockey was invented. There are many arguments and people always have different opinions. It’s generally accepted that during the eighteen hundreds, British soldiers played a version of the game while they were stationed in Nova Scotia. Another story tells of a teacher at the Kings View Academy Nova Scotia who asked his pupils to make up a winter sport on the frozen pond as part of a project — it is thought that the game his students created resembled that of hockey.

In 1879 students of the McGill University in Montreal were the first to develop specific rules —  known as the McGill Rules. Years later, numerous amateur leagues were founded; in 1917 the NHL was formed. Since then hockey has become a sport that is played all over the world with fans of the great game in countries like USA, England, Sweden and even Australia; hockey is truly a global sport.

Most nations have their favorite sport. In India, people enjoy cricket; the English are soccer-mad and in the USA, football reigns supreme.

Canada's sport is, of course, hockey.

What makes hockey so special to Canadians? Is it because there are a high percentage of NHL players who are of Canadian decent? Is it due the fact that most people have memories of playing hockey as kids and pretending to be players like Johnny Bower or Dave Keon? Perhaps people like the late Foster Hewitt — who coined the phrase “He shoots he scores!” — or Don Cherry are partly responsible for creating a nation of hockey lovers.

There are many hockey fans across Canada who are proud of the game of hockey, some will follow the local junior team, while others choose to be enthusiasts of either of the six Canadian NHL teams. Of course, living in Canada doesn’t mean your favorite NHL team has to be from Canada. Katie Lawrence lives in Vancouver but her team is not the Canucks.

"My team is the Avs. They mean a lot to me. I’ve cheered for them since I was six. It started as a way to bug my Dad but grew into a genuine love of the team. My hero is Joe Sakic, in my eyes he’s the best player ever."

The last time a Canadian team won the Cup was in 1993 when the Montreal Canadians were victorious against the LA Kings. Prior to that, the Edmonton Oilers won in 1990 and the Flames the year before. If the current NHL campaign was to end today, four of the six Canadian teams would make the play off’s, as it is those four teams have still not cemented themselves a spot. Every Canadian team has had its fair share of problems and struggled at some time over the course of this season.

This year fans of the Flames, Leafs, Canucks, Senators and Canadiens have been through many highs and lows with their team. Well that just comes as part of the territory doesn’t it, any hockey fan will tell you that, wont they? Perhaps the following six Canadian hockey fanatics can answer that question? So here are their stories.

Part One: Westside Stories

Flames:

Cedric

Cedric Larouche is a 26-year-old native of Quebec; he was born and raised in Quebec City. For the last year he has been living in the town of Chicoutimi. Quebec is known for producing legends like Maurice Richard, Jean Béliveau including current stars like Martin Brodeur. Like most people from Quebec, Cedric is a very passionate fan. Unlike most people from his province, he doesn’t follow the Canadiens.

"I really dislike the Habs so much I can’t follow them. My team is Calgary." Cedric used to be a Nordiques fan until they moved in 1995. "I had a choice to make, so I choose Calgary," says Cedric. "The Habs are all everyone talks about here!"

Cedric is such a huge fan of the Flames that staying up to the early hours to see his team play is just part of the commitment.

"Being in Canadiens territory sometimes irritates me. I find Montreal fans a little annoying it gets me into a lot of arguments." Cedric also listens to local Calgary sports radio to fuel his Flames love.

Like many Canadian teams, the Flames aren't having a great season. As an avid Flames fan, Cedric has his opinions as to why he thinks his team is struggling.

"I really think it’s a chemistry issue. At the start of the season the big players didn’t produce. It was players like Dawes and Conroy that did most of the work. One team can’t survive by their third line alone."

Cedric also feels that when team Canada was announced the big three in defence were in his words "bummed out." We all know what happened to at least one of those defencemen.

Talking to Cedric, it’s clear to see that the people of his province are crazy about their favorite sport. When the local teams aren't playing he, his friends, family and even co-workers love to chat about the country's obsession with the game of hockey. They even have a hockey reality TV show that is a must see. In Cedric’s spare time he likes to referee minor hockey games.

Oilers:

Martin Male (51) is an Oilers fan, born and raised in Edmonton. He has also lived in such places as Calgary and Canucks Nation in Prince George BC. Martin now calls Yellowknife home — he moved there in 2006. Prior to settling in the true Great White North, he spent 16 years living in the far north in Inuvik. Even in such a remote region there is a great enthusiasm for the sport of hockey.

"The locals were brought up with Toronto and Montreal and that is who they still cheer for predominantly. A few of the younger kids chose other teams but the Leafs and Canadians are the teams of choice," Martin explains.

During the season Martin and his friends take great pleasure discussing the nations most revered sport.

"We love to talk about our favorite NHL team, or the game that our son or daughter played the night before, or even the game you played yourself."

When the hockey season has finished Martin occupies himself by doing other things, he misses hockey though.

"I secretly wish the hockey season would start again soon. In some of the bigger cities there are even summer hockey leagues being played so people can play their favorite sport year round."

When Martin was a youngster he played hockey, although he was much better at the game of soccer so he concentrated more on that. Nowadays, hockey is just a spectator sport for Martin.

"I am very passionate about the Edmonton Oilers. I have followed them from the first game they played in the WHA and still follow every game they play."

Martin was fortunate enough in the 1980s to still be living in Edmonton.

"I was able to attend most games during the glory days. The game was played at a different level then by one of the greatest teams of all time and probably won’t be played at that level again.

"The unfortunate part about that great team is that every team that played after them was never going to live up to the excellent standards they set. But nonetheless I will always bleed copper and blue."

Martin is the sort of fan who will follow his team even through unhappy periods like the early 1990s when the Oilers were awful.

"Being a fan is someone who sticks with the team during the good and bad times, I will always follow my team no matter what the situation is.”

Edmonton is currently the worst team in the NHL — with only eighteen wins from the fifty-two games played so far. During the month of January, they failed to win a single game. What can the Oilers do to remedy this and why are they so bad at the moment?

"Factors such as veteran players who are overpaid but under achieve," explains Martin. "The ineffective use of young guys and a team captain who just can’t lead."

Last season, the players stopped listening to nine year head coach Craig MacTavish. The majority of fans were hoping he would get fired.

"They got their wish after last season everyone was happy again, once Pat Quinn and Tom Renney were instilled as the new coaches."

Martin thinks that firing coach MacTavish was not the solution or the cure for a team that has been performing so poorly.

"I said from the beginning of last year that MacT was not the reason the Oilers were losing. The problem was the lack of effort from the veterans and a lack of leadership on the ice. That did not change with the coaching change; the team is actually worse."

Martin believes his team has too many dead-weight players. He would like to see players who he believes are costly driftwood either traded at the deadline or for management to buy-out these players’ excessive contracts. At the most extreme, the team who just not re-sign some of the unrestricted free agents on the roster who are under performing.

If a team finishes the season near the bottom of the standings, though, Martin believes there is still some hope for the fans.

"I think most fans will be ok with the team ending the season last or second last, as long as we can get the first or second pick overall and that team comes out with their younger players like Jordan Eberle or whoever they get with the first pick."

Martin still remains realistic about his teams’ future. He definitely doesn't think the Oilers will win the Cup in the next few years, but he says fans want to see the right moves made to improve the team over several seasons of rebuilding.

"Eventually, we want to see the team compete on a game in game out basis, not just when they feel like it!"

Canucks:

canucks

Josh Hall (21) lives in Chilliwack BC, about 100 kilometers east of Vancouver. Although Josh is a Canucks fan, his city does have its own team.

"Hockey in this community is well, growing. Four years back Chilliwack, got a WHL team — the Bruins."  

Most of Josh’s friends are Canucks fans, but since moving from Surrey two years ago he doesn’t have quite as many friends as he did in the past. Josh explains how that isn’t a real problem.

"This is British Columbia and in Canada there are hockey fans everywhere... I just haven’t met all of them!"

So what does hockey mean to Josh?

"Lets just say I was lucky enough to be born into the greatest hockey country in the world, and that is perhaps the main reason why hockey is such a large part of my life."

Josh has happy memories of watching hockey as a young child with his Dad. In 1997 he was struck by tragedy when his Dad and hockey buddy passed away. Josh tells of how that impacted his life.

"That was definitely a low point in my life, but it has also made me stronger as a person." The loss of his Dad has inspired him to continue his support for the Vancouver Canucks.

When he was about 6 or 7, his father took him to his first Canucks game against the Hartford Whalers at GM Place. Here Josh witnessed former Canucks Defenseman Dave Babych play in his 1000th game.

"We lost something like 7-4," Josh recalls. "But it didn’t matter because I was with my Dad."

Hockey dominates Josh’s life and he will go to great lengths to see big games. That usually means watching on TV, as he doesn’t have the luxury of going to every game like other fans.

"Tickets are so expensive these days and I only have two arms and two legs!" However he will make exceptions and book time off from work, like he did to watch Trevor Linden's number being retired. Like many hockey fans Josh enjoys watching Canadian institution, "Hockey Night In Canada."

"I will pump myself up for a whole week just because there is a huge game coming up on Hockey Night In Canada.

"I like to make my place look sparkling in hopes that it will transfer to the Canucks having a sparkling bright and perfect game."

When he wears his Canucks jersey, he never eats in case he stains his jersey and brings a stain on the season! He loves his country just as much as he does his favorite team.

"I always stand and sing ‘O Canada’ before the game, and I never give up hope that the Nucks can come up from behind — we saw a few weekends ago versus Toronto. A 3-0 lead is never safe."

Supporting your favorite hockey team requires a lot of effort, dedication, and time _ not to mention heartache if the team loses more often than wins. When Vancouver hosts the Olympics, the whole nation will be united in its allegiance to Canada’s Olympic hockey teams. Living in BC Josh will be able to witness this first hand. He explains what living in the Olympic host province means to him.

"The Olympics are going to display that pride and prowess that Canada possesses. Canada is the birthplace of hockey and there are no ifs or buts about it. We as a nation know that hockey is OUR sport."

He can’t wait to see Team Canada play and thinks it will be a hockey tournament to remember. His favorite hockey memory to date is, by far, watching the Gold medal games between Canada and USA both the men/women at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City.

"Never have I been more proud to be Canadian, although I think that feeling could be eclipsed when Canada wins gold once again (knock on wood)."

Part Two: Eastern Promises

Habs:

George Prax is a 24-year-old Canadiens fan living in Montreal. Hockey is so important to George that he operates his own hockey website.

"When I’m not on my site or other sites (which is often), I’m talking about it with family and friends."

Hockey is without a doubt the most popular sport in Montreal. The Canadiens have a rich history that includes winning the most Stanley Cups — 24 in total. Last year, the team celebrated its 100th birthday.

"The community is crazy about its team, we are all very passionate about hockey. Very comparable to soccer in England. On any given night you could have upwards of one million people in the province watching the game."

The media is also obsessed with the nations most adored team sport, George explains. "Media coverage is overly excessive, every TV station and every radio station covers it, you could have forty or fifty people in the press box for most games."

When you consider how successful the Canadiens have been in seasons gone by, you could be forgiven for assuming that the team should contend for the cup on a yearly basis. In recent weeks, Montreal has endured more problems than some teams would be faced with over a two-month period.

On January 30th the Canadiens current leading goal scorer Michael Cammalleri was injured in a game against Ottawa. Cammalleri may be sitting in the team’s sickbay for at least a month.

To make matters worse GM Bob Gainey resigned on Feb 8.

It seems like Montreal’s troubles are going to continue, as it will have to add two more players to the teams IR list. This week, it has been announced that defenceman Marc- Andre Bergeron and Benoit Pouliot will be inactive for at least six weeks.

It’s obvious the Canadiens are having some bad luck, although luck can’t be blamed for everything. George gives his thoughts on his teams’ less than perfect season.

"They’re simply mediocre. They don’t have many draft prospects, the coach doesn’t match the players and they are terribly inconsistent. They need to rebuild, to be honest."

Leafs:

laefs 

Mike MacDonald (34) has been a Leafs fan all his life.

"I am sure I bled blue from my first breath."

His dad was a diehard Maple Leafs fan who has had season tickets from 1975.

"Section 312 row 2 in the old girl on Carlton Street was where I spent many nights, with my idols Lanny, Borje and Sitler, and then Viave, Clark, Leeman and so many more."

Mike was given his first hockey jersey at the age of six; surprisingly it wasn’t a Leafs replica shirt.

It was a white (home at the time) Chicago Blackhawks jersey that was a hand me down, with Doug Wilson’s 24 on the back. Even though it wasn’t a Leafs jersey he would still wear it

".I wore it proudly but it was not the same as the blue and white I saw on the TV. I asked my dad, 'Why cant my hockey jersey be like the Leafs'?'"

He was finally given a Leafs road jersey #17, in 1986.

Mike was born and raised in Toronto; he now lives just thirty minutes away from the city, in the town of Ajax, with his wife and twelve-year-old daughter. Mike’s daughter has also become a fan of the Leafs.

"Last Christmas she asked for Toronto Maple Leafs stuff. I think she has a boyfriend," he explains.

When the Leafs held a seventies night, his daughter and wife had the privilege of watching the game in a company suite sitting four rows behind the penalty box.

"Win or loose it didn’t really matter to her. She had the best time just like I did all those years ago."

Even though the Leafs may not be the best team in the league, most fans remain loyal. Mike is one of those faithful supporters.

"We are in a unique situation in Toronto. This team, no matter how much they may lose, will still sell out every game. This makes for a bit of a paradox when it comes to owners and managers they do not feel the same pressure to win as say a small market team like Carolina. If the Canes aren’t winning Jimmy Rutherford is light in the pockets; if the Leafs aren’t winning its business as usual."

Mike knows that there is still pressure for the whole Leafs organization including both players and management.

"I am not saying that there is no pressure at MLSE, in fact it is probably a pressure none of us could ever understand. It is just a different pressure than the other 28 or 29 teams (give or take Montreal)."

Once again the Maple Leafs season is not likely to end with a triumphant playoff run. But Mike continues to have hope for the future.

"The Leafs are struggling, yes — understatement of the year — but maybe it will be the same team for a few years dwelling in the basement. That’s just the beauty of hockey. No one is there forever. Look at Detroit: they were loosing for a long time but due to the system the Red Wings have, it enabled them to farm young players thus turning them into a winning machine."

With GM Brian Burke at the helm, Toronto may well have a team that can compete for the Cup.

"We have entered the Brian Burke era. Everyone knows what Burke does: he goes into a city tears it apart and builds a winner. That is exactly what he has done this past year and more evident with the acquisition of Dion Phaneuf and Jean-Sebastien Giguere. I don’t think he's done. I know he isn’t done; the future is bright for Leafs fans. When you have reached the bottom the only place to go is up."

Senators:

sen

For fans of the Ottawa Senators the future looks very promising, as Ottawa is currently one of the best Canadian teams in the NHL. Paul Turner (48) resides in the nation's capital and he's devoted to his team. But in the past he has had to follow other teams.

"I haven’t always been a Sens fan because we haven’t always had the Sens."

Still, Paul remembers enjoying hockey from an early age.

"As a kid we always watched Hockey Night In Canada. Even my 90-year-old grandmother watched the games on TV."

In those days there were only the original six teams, so Paul rooted for the Leafs or Canadiens.

"I mostly cheered for the Habs as they were the better team especially in the early 70s!"

The majority of children in Canada long to grow up to be NHL stars and they play out their dream with friends. Paul was no different. Paul even took part in some minor league hockey; unfortunately he doesn’t feel he was good enough — "I was too skinny," he says — but that didn’t deter him from attending a summer hockey school, where he met former players Gary Unger, Bernie Parent, Dennis Hull and Allan Stanley.

Ottawa fielded an NHL team from 1917 to 1934. During the 1933/34 season the Senators relocated to St Louis due to financial difficulties. After one unsuccessful season, the NHL team was permanently suspended. Fifty-four years later the nation's capital was reunited with its former team. Citizens of Ottawa were once again given the chance to support the Senators.

"When Ottawa was awarded its own franchise, we were reminded how the old Senators had played an important part in NHL history. For us it was important for the team to succeed. Having a new owner with a money commitment to succeed put this team back on the rails."

When the 2006/07 season started, Paul was following his team fairly regularly. It was this season when Paul discovered how much of a true Senators fan he really was.

"It wasn’t until a Feb 22 game against the Sabres that solidified my commitment as a fan. A brawl had broken out during the game that had every member of the team involved, including the coach. It was right there and then that I realized something historical was about to unfold."

For the remainder of that season Ottawa, dominated the Eastern Conference and reached the Stanley Cup finals. During the Cup Final, Paul remembers Ottawa coming out to support its team.

"The community was with them all the way. If you were wearing something with a Sens logo on you became instant friends with a stranger who wore the logo."

He still chats with people from those days. Paul believes that the fans rally behind their team and the team rallies behind the public — by making regular visits to the Children’s Hospital, seniors homes and other charitable organizations.

Like all fans, Paul yearns for his team to get another chance at the Cup.

The Overtime Period

Hockey has been though many changes, but one thing that will never change is Canada’s adoration for its favorite winter sport.

With special thanks to:

Ron Grant, Bob Gray, Josh Hall, Cedric Larouche, Katie Lawrence, Rob Lowe, Mike MacDonald, Martin Male, George Prax, David Roy, John Sedore, Paul Turner.

All feedback is greatly received: Follow me on Twitter.com/CanucksEdge

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James C Edgington is passionate about all things concerning the Vancouver Canucks and the NHL in general. He started blogging at Penaltykill.net in September 2009 and since then James has become, what some believe to be the most accurate and up to date supplier of Canucks information on Twitter (Hipcheck44, 4D4Films, bodhi_). Whilst James occasionally does game recaps, the majority of his blogs concentrate on the bigger picture of the game. Coming to you from the UK James continues to write for Penaltykill.net and has recently started blogging for Hendricks Hockey, Hockey Independent The Checking Line and Crash The Crease. James is married and a father to a one and a half year old daughter. In his spare time he enjoys listening to music, watching movies and spending time with his family.
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