A nation’s solid foundation – of ice

How Canadians think about hockey and identify with our nation's successes at the rink help set us apart from Americans

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(Troy Media) The new hockey season is now in full swing. For a Canadian living in the United States, the beginning of play feels like a letter from home.

Sure, the U.S. has more National Hockey League teams than Canada. They always did – even when it was just the much ballyhooed Original Six. But proportion doesn’t equal passion, nor does it tell the story of how hockey lives in the hearts of Canadians in a way that no Yankee soul will ever truly understand.

Make no mistake, a rabid subset of Americans from coast to coast embrace and cheer for their teams in ways that outwardly resemble the same devotion that Canadians know all too well. But it’s not the same.

No matter how many successes their teams enjoy – no matter how many Stanley Cups are won in places like Chicago, Los Angeles or Pittsburgh – they just don’t have the same deep emotional investment in what Ken Dryden simply and famously called “The Game.”

I’ve lived and worked amongst Americans for many of my adult years. A few may be devotees of a particular team, but it goes no further than measured success or failure on the ice. The result is what counts with them, not the game itself.

Not so in Canada, where fans live and breathe the sport in a way that makes them intimately connected to their teams. The love for the game crosses generational boundaries and provides a common language where shared joys and disappointments are lived out in family rooms across the country.

When I moved to Los Angeles in October 1990, I was more than a fish out of water. I was a Canadian searching for something familiar to hold on to amidst the sun and palm trees of Southern California. For a young man who grew up in Edmonton and pursued higher education in Montreal, precious little looked like home.

But I quickly found that elusive feeling of belonging thanks to the quirk of fate that had sent Wayne Gretzky there a couple of years earlier. That famous trade also landed Marty McSorley in LaLa Land and Jari Kurri would join his former Edmonton Oilers teammates in 1991. All of a sudden, Los Angeles felt very cozy for a young Canadian. If the Great One was nearby, then home couldn’t be that far away after all.

Americans’ national hockey memory is defined mostly by the unlikeliest of victories, when the U.S.A. beat the Soviet Union at the Lake Placid Olympics in 1980. During one turn in my life as a substitute teacher in Las Vegas, I had the privilege (misfortune?) of watching Miracle on Ice four times in a single day with four sets of American adolescents. The teacher I replaced had chosen it as a way to begin discussions about the Cold War.

And therein lies the difference. When Americans think of their shining moment in the hockey sun, it can’t help but be wrapped up in a vaguely unsettling military blanket that uses a beautiful game played on ice as a metaphor for national domination. When Canada erupts in joy because Paul Henderson scores or Sidney Crosby nets a golden goal, it’s an affirmation of our deeply-held identity: who and what we are.

“Look at us, look at what we can do,” we seem to scream.

The Americans say much the same thing – with a big difference at the end: “Look at us, look at what we can do … to you.”

I’m not the only Canadian who has recognized this difference. In a 1987 interview with the CBC, actor Michael J. Fox commented: “I’m real proud of the fact that, you know, if you say to the average American ‘Russia,’ they think Cold War and if you say ‘Russia’ to a Canadian, they think hockey. I’m proud to be part of a country that thinks like that.”

Me, too.

Troy Media columnist Gavin MacFadyen is a Canada-raised, U.S.-based writer. Blending insight and wit, he brings a unique perspective to the issues of the day.

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