SB Nation

Steven Godfrey | February 18, 2014

They are winter

The high anxiety of the Canadian Olympic hockey fan

Ken and Phil sit side-by-side at a table in the very front of McLean's Pub, up against cold windows keeping out the business-as-usual movement of a Wednesday afternoon in Dorchester Square, part of Montreal's City Centre. Both sit, arms folded, dryly assessing the state of the state of Canadian hockey as their team begins to loosen up with a 1-0 lead.

Ken: "I can't say it's always felt like this. There's been a real surge in national pride, a big push to get excited about the team."

Phil: "I think a lot of that's come from the government investing more into the Olympic team as a whole. And now you see all the commercials and campaigns, that stuff like the hashtag 'We Are Winter.' 'We' haven't always been winter."

"They're all watching ... but they are not excited."

I picked Phil and Ken -- both 31, Montreal natives and working in finance -- to bother because of the near-capacity afternoon crowd, Ken is the only one wearing a piece of Canada-related clothing. It's a Team Canada beanie he purchased at the 2010 Vancouver Games that sits somewhat ironically atop the business casual daywear of a finance guy stretching his lunch break across two periods of hockey.

Phil: "You won't see much Canada gear, probably. This is Quebec. Not many people here care about showing off Canada."

I picked this bar to bother local hockey fans after a long chain of recommendations turned up 22-year-old McClean's, a pub sitting on a century's worth of bar history inside a beautiful tavern of hand carved wood, an ornate tin ceiling and a fireplace dating to 1910. Except for the modern addition of flat-screen TVs in every nook and a few Montreal Canadiens flags, at first glance on entrance from the cold weather it's as much a Viking hall as a pub.

I picked Montreal because I was told it wasn't Toronto, the New York of Canada, and therefore too big to show its emotion on this opening day of Olympic hockey in the country that owns the sport like no other. Here in Montreal I was promised a reaction to Olympic hockey that would be something like a snowbound Rio on the day of a World Cup game, yet there's nothing in the way of revelry in this city.

They are watching -- they're all watching because in two-plus days I never see a television carrying any other programming -- but they are not excited.

***

Outside the weather is clear but freezing and the streets are at a steady pace of everyday bustle. There is no sign of a forced holiday just because Team Canada is on TV.  McClean's quickly fills in a matter of minutes before the game begins, but in a quiet succession of businessmen and women. The streets have not shut down. There will be not be a famous Canadian hockey riot today.

Phil: Hasn't been a riot in a very long time.

Ken: I think '08 was the last one. The Bruins series. Sometimes this city riots whether they win or lose.

Phil: That particular one was overblown. There was a Wu-Tang concert letting out right near the Bell Center. It was just a couple of kids that started messing with people and next thing you know they're turning over cars.

Ken: I think we could blame that one on Wu-Tang. Honestly, I love Wu-Tang but let's try and say it was them, OK? They brought the ruckus.

"To be honest we didn't know quite what to expect. We were a little curious to see what the turnout would be for the first game," McClean's general manager Stuart Ashton confides. It's just after noon on Wednesday and Canada has begun Olympic play against a hapless Team Norway. Despite the mismatch of talent, the first period quickly runs by without a score. Canada pushes the puck with ease, but their lines are just as out of sorts as the locals had worried.

Ken: "It's not fair, but the slow start is going to be compared to how well other countries have already done this morning, with the Americans and Russians both starting strong."

Between periods the infamous hockey analyst Don Cherry appears, chuffing that all is well despite the scoreless first period and a clear lack of rhythm among Canada's scoring lines. Behind the bar, a manager glances at Cherry's face on screen and makes a garish sound in French Canadian, nearly spitting in the process. I track down a waitress with a similar accent for a translation.

"Uh... means he is not liked," she says with a smile.

"She'd be the one to ask. She's really French. Like 'smokes in church French,'" jokes Jay Farrar, a bar manager and sports talk host at TSN 690 who becomes my unofficial Montreal tour guide. He explains that while Cherry holds a solid approval rating across Canada, he's particularly loathed in Quebec for his insults towards Francophone players.

Patrice Bergeron feeds to Jamie Benn, who fires a shot inside the left post. It's 2-0 Canada in the second period and a local TV crew on hand captures a round of polite golf claps from the crowd. A nearby table of software programmers claps and yells loudly, but they're aided in part by two "beer towers," which are four foot tall plastic flutes of beer dispensed table side. They were all smiles even after a scoreless first period, no doubt because their boss had informed the table they could drink through the afternoon. But the exultation of Phil and Ken registers no higher than a shrug.

Phil: "That was Benn? Huh. I actually forgot he was on the team."

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* * *

The night before the game I spend 20 minutes listening to a bodega shop employee explain how pointless it was for me to have travelled "all this way" for such a meaningless game. He lectures me from behind a plastic booth adorned with newspaper clippings of Quebec MMA fighter George St. Pierre, with his quotes and stats covered in yellow hi-liter. When I ask him about Norway's chances, he spends twice as long breaking down Canada's game as he did telling me how little it matters.

On my frozen march back to hotel, across from McGill University, I hit up the circle of kids smoking cigarettes for their thoughts on Olympic hockey. Temperatures have just dipped below 0 degrees Fahrenheit after midnight, yet most of them are sporting leather jackets opened atop v-neck t-shirts, capri pants and Converse sneakers, as if it's not literally freezing cold. I'm mummified in freshly purchased winter wear that likely screams "stupid tourist," but riding a buzz of good cheer in a foreign land I take a chance anyway.

I speak through my scarf when I ask if they're going to watch the game tomorrow afternoon. One exhales and looks at me, the rest simply ignore my existence entirely.

"American?," he asks, in a thick accent ("Uh-Mer-E-Kahn?").

Yes.

"Oh yes, of course we love hockey," he says, turning his head back into the smokers' huddle with a roll of his eyes.

It's a fair response, or at least an expected one. Walk around any city in the world and eventually you'll find someone working against type. Canadians have adopted any number of European tropes when it comes to American cultural criticism, including the belief that they're more educated about us than we are about them. And as such, they would know better than to randomly wander an American city during the Summer games and ask people why they like basketball just because the U.S. is a perennial favorite for the gold. After all, isn't the American identity so much more than LeBron James and slam dunks?

Or maybe that's what a bunch of a shitty teenagers want me to think. Had I grilled them long enough, one of them would've surely copped to a youth spent in pee wee leagues. The truth is that every Canadian I meet can't believe I came all the way to Montreal to study hockey fans. They want to prove they're more than the sum of their nation's stereotypes (in this case, jolly hockey obsessives stuck in the snow). But eventually each one of them ends up admitting just how connected their nation's identity is to a game their children play.

"Absolutely I'm nervous. That's why I came today. I wanted to see what they're going to look like."

Ken, back at the bars, admits it. "Absolutely I'm nervous. That's why I came today. I wanted to see what they're going to look like. Come back here if we win the gold and the streets will be filled like a party all over the city. But not until they get there, and they win it."

He doesn't look worried or excited or even grateful that Olympic hockey has returned. He just looks barely awake. But it's just like those college kids shivering in t-shirts through a Montreal February -- at the end of the day, it's still really cold in Canada whether you dress the part or not.

"There's nothing about Norway that scares me but yeah, of course it's gold or nothing for us. And in Canada there's always a debate about how the team has been built even though you could do it 100 different ways and still be more talented than any other country. I'm worried about the bigger ice. I'm worried about the top lines being in sync so that's why we'll be late going back to work."

Canada is only up 2-0, but have outshot Norway 14-2 in the second period. One of those two Norway shots came on a dump-in to change lines. It's beyond a joke. Apropos of the paltry score and a Norwegian power play at 1:33 remaining, the certainty of Canada's talent fills up the bar with indifference, like we're all breathing Novocain.

Phil: "We could probably go now."

Ken: "And miss this Norwegian power play? Come on. COME ON."

He's mock-pleading but it's obvious they both want to stay, just in case and just because.

***

"So they say you're not from a hockey town, that right eh?," the man with the fuzzy white mustache asks.

Oh no I'm based in Nashville, actually, so--

"--exactly, not a hockey town!," he bellows, laughing loudly and slapping me on the shoulder.

This is Gus, a man you can't help but meet in a darkened bar on a midweek afternoon. He has a permanent seat at McClean's thanks to a metal nameplate that reads "Reserved For Dominic" (this confusion is never explained). He's 62 and grew up in the French-heavy East End, the visual fit of a French Canadian Super Mario Brother. Despite his upbringing he's a lifelong Boston Bruins fan, thanks to "that amazing Bobby Orr" and the "dirty business" of the Canadiens franchise to "trap" all Quebec-born talent in their system.

Farrar and Ashton will later tell me that Gus' upbringing in a working class English family in Montreal's Franco-dominant East side likely contributed to his Bruins fandom.

"Growing up my dad would take me to the Canadiens games. Sixth row, tickets from his boss, and I'd wear my Orr jersey and cuss those boys. Got food thrown on me. It was great, then the old man's boss said I couldn't go anymore. These boys here don't know it, but when I refinished that ceiling up there I put two Bruins flags inside of there!"

Gus' encyclopedic hockey knowledge paired with his treasonous loyalties makes him somewhat of a heretic prophet. He takes questions about hockey fandom from a visiting American exactly where you'd expect.

"Did you know it's cheaper to get on a damn plane here and go to da Florida NHL games than it is to get a Montreal ticket? Because nobody cares. Bettman cares."

Gus is of another particular Canadian voice, one unafraid to show enthusiasm or obsessive attention to the game and quick to denounce the NHL for an ever-compiling list of reasons. Today it's the fact that realignment has robbed Boston and Montreal of more regular season games, an issue he somehow blames on the Carolina Hurricanes.

Suddenly the Canadian hockey worrywart is vindicated - less than 30 seconds into the third period Canadian goalie Carey Price, also the starter for Montreal, misplays a puck behind the net, allowing Norway's Mathias Olimb to flick in a goal and cut the lead to 2-1.

"UH OH!," Gus announces to the crowd, tugging on his Red Sox jacket. "Old Carey got himself an assist! Carey to Olimb, mark it!"

Entering the tournament Price was considered to be hotter than 2010 goalie Roberto Luongo, yet fans here are sold on neither despite Price playing for the hometown club and Luongo's gold medal bonafides in 2010. Even as Ken and Phil tell me that Canada could feasibly take two full squads to compete possibly both medal in these games, they'd take either American goalie over any of Russia's scorers if they could fantasy draft their perfect team.

Drew Doughty kills what little suspense Price's error creates, shooting a backhander in for a 3-1 lead just over 90 seconds later. The scoring is over for the day, and one by one the bar empties with no sign of excitement or even relief. Businessmen mumble their goodbyes to one another in French and shuffle out into the late day like they just watched a unremarkable yet vital medical procedure.

***

24 hours later Team Canada will shut out Austria 6-0, providing the kind of doubtless scoring assault the nation's fans expect without exception. On the night between the two games, Farrar assembles an impromptu roundtable of Montreal sports commentary, including himself, legendary TSN radio host Mitch Melnick and Jay's brother Andrew, better known as actor/director/rapper Annakin Slayd.

As Slayd, Andrew arrives to have drinks after 24 sleepless hours editing his latest music video, "Stay Gold," a tribute to Team Canada. Melnick razzes Slayd for not letting him debut the track exclusively on his show.

In person Slayd plays so far against the type of an aspiring celebrity that I have to mention it to him later, albeit after several drinks.

"I get that a lot," he admits between shots of Jameson. "You should see what it's like dating women, what they expect when they meet you for the first time."

Slayd remembers that same Wu-Tang concert, he was there with the group, having previously recoded with group member Inspectah Deck. For the record, he absolves the rappers of inciting anything more than a great show.

"I had to try and explain to them afterwards what was going on. They were like 'they're turning over cars because you won?'"

Slayd is soft-spoken, earnest and exceedingly polite. We talk families, religion and the group even spends five minutes, at Melnick's suggestion, discussing the performances in "Burton and Taylor," a TV movie about one of Elizabeth Taylor's marriages. Not only are we not meticulously breaking down defensive line pairings and debating Price v. Luongo, but I'm continually asked as to just why I'm asking about the pointless Norway game.

"You came here for just for the Norway game?" Melnick asks.

Yeah.

"Why?"

To see what your country thinks about the game, so tell me what you thought.

"You saw it. I thought they sucked."

So you're worried.

"Absolutely not. It's the first game. It's part of a much longer process. Don't get me wrong, they looked bad, but the game was never in doubt."

"You saw it. I thought they sucked."

Melnick is the living, breathing answer to what happens when the record shop employees in "High Fidelity" grow older, but he's a lot friendlier than he wants to admit. I pose enough hypotheticals to the group to the get conversation back on hockey (for a while it feels like I'm at a staff meeting for a pro-Expos, anti-MLB jihadist splinter cell) when I ask if a trade of gold in the 2014 games for Montreal's first Stanley Cup since 1993. The brothers Farrar consider it, but Melnick shrugs.

"You have to understand the age gap of sports fans here. I've seen 11 Cups in my lifetime, these guys haven't."

Melnick says that the dream match-up in the gold medal game wouldn't be USA vs. Canada - that's an Americanized view of a rivalry that lacks history, according to him. The best possible situation for Canada would be beating the Russians on their home soil, similar to the brutal 1972 Summit Series between the two countries in Moscow.

There is a great deal more talk about the Expos, the circumstances surrounding their relocation to Washington D.C. and the parallels between the NHL's consistent attempts to market the game across the American Sun Belt at the expense smaller Canadian franchises. It is impossible to keep the sting of Canada's current Stanley Cup drought and the removal of franchises from places like Quebec City from becoming fuel for nationalist pride in the sport.

"The best way to understand it would be taking the NFL today, and how popular it is.," Slayd says. "The NFL wants to the game to as many people as possible, so it starts to become popular across the world. And maybe 10, 15 years from now you see the talent gap close. Then you see NFL teams going to foreign cities when their teams are having trouble in the U.S., and your players leave too. And then those countries can start trying to beat you. If the NFL is the most important thing in American sports, that's what it might feel like."

Just after midnight we say our goodbyes. The storm has begun in earnest and a cab is hailed for the American stupid enough to bring only a pair of cowboy boots. As the car heads north on Rue Sherbrooke a different group of McGill students are pushing each other into the fresh snow on the sidewalks. Some are trying to slide down the street in the fresh snow. I don't know if it's a uniquely Canadian moment, but the enthusiasm is earnest. The excitement is real.

Editor: Travis Hughes | Photos via Getty Images

About the Author

Photo

Steven Godfrey is a senior reporter for SB Nation based in Nashville, Tennessee. A graduate of the University of Mississippi and a long suffering Atlanta sports fan, he can be reached on Twitter @38Godfrey.

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