Hockey’s Return a Boost to Sagging Spirits

Hockey’s Return a Boost to Sagging Spirits
Hockey action between Toronto Maple Leafs left-winger Kyle Clifford and Columbus Blue Jackets defenceman Dean Kukan during the first period NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup playoffs in Toronto on Aug. 4, 2020. (The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette)
Brad Bird

Christmas came early for millions of Canadians when the National Hockey League confirmed Dec. 24 it had an agreement with the provinces to allow teams like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, and Vancouver Canucks to play at home. There was a real possibility, given the pandemic, that wouldn’t be allowed.

It means we’ll have an all-Canadian division with super matchups when the season starts on Jan. 13. It means we’ve won a big victory over the blasted shutdowns. It means the health ministers of the five affected provinces have used good judgment, and maybe a bit of good old hockey bias, to preclude two undesirable outcomes: a bubble in one Canadian city or moving the teams to the United States for the season.

“This means the Maple Leafs can drop the puck as scheduled at Scotiabank Arena against the Montreal Canadiens on opening night, while the Canucks will face the Edmonton Oilers,” writes Bruce Garrioch in the National Post. All seven Canadian teams will be in the mix.

Hockey is more than a sport in Canada, much more than a business. It’s a gut-deep part of our culture, an integral part of our identity, a perhaps unequalled unifying force. Across this disparate land, from the fishing boats of St. John’s to the church steeples of Shawinigan, from the slush of Toronto to the ice of Temiskaming, from the white foxes of Churchill to the prairie dogs of Medicine Hat, from the snowmobiles of Nunavut to the sailboats of Victoria, hockey reigns, after 103 years of the NHL, as our most glorious pastime.

Curling is a great sport, and lacrosse has its moments; pickle ball is fun for many, and where would we be without competitive swimming, CFL football, and skiing? But NHL hockey, with renowned players like Cyclone Taylor, Howie Morenz, Howie Meeker, Gordie Howe, Darryl Sittler, Bobby Orr, and Wayne Gretzky, is an iconic Canadian passion.

All of us—girls and boys, women and men, city and country folk, thinkers and doers, craftsmen and professionals—have either played the game on ice or pavement, seen the game on TV or in person, or read about it in newspapers or books. All of us have been touched by it, graced by its magic (think the 1972 Summit Series) and pleased by our national reputation as hockey’s greatest hotbed.

As I write, the World Junior Hockey Championship is happening in Edmonton, itself an escape from the forebodings of the beast that has hijacked the news. We see hockey on TV in real time, the joy of youth having fun on the ice—and none of the sappiness of old Hollywood movies. Hockey is real, usually sportsmanlike, and almost always entertaining.

Watching Auston Matthews face off against Elias Pettersson is enough to excite the most cynical among us.

Seeing the Canadiens, with their rich and fabled history, play the Calgary Flames, a much younger franchise, pits the east against the west in a uniting and positive way. The players shake hands after playoff series, like curlers before and after a game (until recently). Foes on the ice, hockey players are often friends off it.

In the post-Confederation years, when the Dominion of Canada was still in a grey zone between colonial status and independence, when little united us and much kept us apart—religion, language, geography—hockey grabbed us by the scruff of the neck and bound us as a nation.

It all began when a governor general, Lord Frederick Arthur Stanley, a middle-aged aristocrat, fell in love with the game in the late 1880s. “Every winter, Lord Stanley had his staff build an outdoor rink on the grounds of Rideau Hall, the governor general’s residence in Ottawa, and he sponsored a team known as the Rideau Rebels,” writes D’Arcy Jenish in his book “Stanley Cup: A Hundred Years of Hockey at Its Best”

In 1892 Lord Stanley felt that what the game needed, if it was to grow and develop, was an annual champion. As Jenish relates, he spent $48.67 of his own money to buy a silver bowl, about as high as a beer glass, which he named the Dominion Hockey Challenge Cup. But from the start it became known as the Stanley Cup.

At least one year, the son of John A. Macdonald, Hugh John Macdonald who was the eighth premier of Manitoba and a soldier in the 1885 North-West Rebellion, took part in the cup celebrations.

Such was the eagerness to win the new trophy that far-flung teams fought for it. In December 1904 the Dawson City Nuggets, for instance, set out to play for the cup in Ottawa, a gruelling three-week, 4,000-mile (6,437-kilometre) odyssey that began with a 320-mile trek to Whitehorse. But the Ottawa Senators vanquished them in the end.

Writes Jenish: “In the space of 10 short years, the Cup had become the most hotly pursued prize in hockey. … Lord Stanley’s simple silver cup had aroused common passions among ordinary Canadians, and made heroes of ordinary men.” It had become, he said, a legitimate and potent unifying force.

And now we’ll have NHL hockey again, in our own rinks, as teams vie once more for the cup. Things are looking up, eh?

Brad Bird is an avid hockey fan, a Leafs fan, living in British Columbia.
Views expressed in this article are opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.
Brad Bird began his career by freelancing in the 1970s. He worked for the Winnipeg Free Press in the 1980s and various smaller papers since, as well as abroad in conflict zones and for a Conservative MP in the Harper government. Also an author, he divides his time between Manitoba and B.C.
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