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A Ranger Fan Searches For The Game's Soul In The Canadian Heartland

Bob BirgeContributor IMay 13, 2009

NEW YORK - APRIL 22:  The New York Rangers celebrate after defeating the Washington Capitals in Game Four of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Round of the 2009 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs on April 22, 2008 at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Rangers defeated the Capitals 2-1 and lead the series 3 games to 1.  (Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)

By Bob Birge

    The idea was born late one night in November, 2003 as I lay awake in my bed  unable to sleep. What would it be like, I wondered, to do a western Canadian hockey  trip.

    The plan was to attend one game in each of the NHL’s three western Canadian cities 

-- Vancouver, Edmonton and Calgary. If I actually decided to make this journey, it  would have to be in January or February because I wanted to experience a real Canadian winter on the prairie.

    There’s just something I like about winter, whether it’s the snow or the crisp, invigorating air. While must people are nursing colds and dreaming of the summer, I look forward to the winter. I just seem to feel better in the winter months.

    Few things get me as excited as the season’s first snowfall. I am like a little kid watching  the snowflakes. They are hypnotic, mesmerizing, and surely there would be snow in Alberta in late January.

      I studied the teams’ schedules to see if such a trip was logistically possible. Finally, I found a week in late January when the schedules meshed. Vancouver was home on Monday, Edmonton the next night and Calgary on Thursday.

      I didn’t bother asking anybody to go with me because I knew I could never find anyone crazy enough to give up a week of vacation to go to Canada in January, but my mind was made up. I would make this insane trip alone.

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      When I told the three guys I met in a Calgary casino why I was in Canada, they seemed impressed. Hockey fans, after all, have a unique, almost  cosmic, bond. They instantly understood why I would travel more than 3,000 miles in he dead of winter just to watch a few hockey games, even if nobody else did.

        “You came all the way from Connecticut?” they asked me.

        “Yeah, I did,” I said, surprised they even knew where Connecticut was.

        “Cool.”

         Then they surprised me even more, showing me they weren’t just hockey fans.

         “Since you’re from Connecticut, you must root for UConn,” one of them asked.

         They must get ESPN in Calgary.

        “No, not really,” I said.

        Now they were surprised.

        “I thought everybody rooted for the Huskies in Connecticut,” one of them offered.

        “ There’s a few people in the state that don’t,” I informed them.

         I further told them how much I admired Canadians for their passion toward hockey  and wanted to see it first hand. I had already attended NHL games in the three eastern  Canadian cities – Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa. I came west, I told them, because I  wanted to be able to say that I had seen at least one game in every Canadian NHL rink.

         But my reasons for coming to the Great White North were much more complicated than that. I came looking for the game’s heart, the game’s soul, and thought I could find it in the country that invented the sport.

       With the threat of a lockout that would wipe out the entire 2004-05 season already

looming on the horizon, I had grown disgusted with the state of the NHL. My dad took me to my first hockey game when I was eight years old and it was love at first sight. That love affair has endured for nearly four decades.

      But the NHL circa 2004 was not the NHL of my youth.  The game was hurting, hurting badly, and it broke my heart.

      As a supporter of the New York Rangers, who I believe had the most passionate fan  base in all of professional sports as they chased the most prized possession in hockey for more than 50 years, nothing could possibly top the night of June 14, 1994.

    At one minute before 11 on that night of all nights, the Rangers won the Stanley Cup, ending a 54-year-old drought. Rangers announcer Sam Rosen said the victory would last a lifetime, and he was right.

    Grown men cried. Strangers, young and old, embraced.  Champagne flowed.

    But even more than that, hockey actually mattered outside of Canada. The ’94 finals between the Rangers and Vancouver Canucks captivated the audience. Experts said it  was the best final in years. The hockey was compelling throughout the series: tense, dramatic, emotional.

    The series went the distance -- the Rangers squandering a three games to one lead -- and Game Seven was one of the highest-rated contests in NHL history.

    Six years from the end of the century, the NHL was poised to make dramatic strides. The league was hot, so hot, in fact, that Sports Illustrated wrote that the NHL was ready to surpass the NBA in popularity.  But the league never took advantage of the notoriety created by the Rangers’ momentous victory.

      During the next decade, the NHL lost its way, fell off the track, faded back into  obscurity. There were so many reasons why: league-wide incompetence, lack of vision, no public relations savvy, labor strife, too much expansion diluting the product on the  ice and defensive-minded coaches choking the life out of the game with their neutral zone traps and left wing locks.

       I will never forgive NHL commissioner Gary Bettman for forcing the lockout on the players. I also never will forgive Bettman for abandoning the game’s roots, for betraying Canada, in the 1990s.

      Under Bettman’s watch, Canada lost two of its franchises because here was more money for the owners to make in the United States. Bettman let it happen.

     The Quebec Nordiques, a team that waged some epic battles with their provincial rivals,  the Montreal Canadiens, moved west to Denver, Colorado. They became known as the  Colorado Avalanche, who only went on to win a pair of Stanley Cups.  The Nordiques were on the cusp of winning championships, then picked up stakes, leaving a devoted fan  base devastated.

      The same thing happened in Manitoba, where the Winnipeg Jets wound  up in that hockey hot bed in the southwest, Phoenix, Arizona. They are now the Phoenix Coyotes.  The only ice they know about in Phoenix is what they put in their drinks. At  least Colorado has snow.

      The NHL expanded too often and too soon in the 1990s. The league’s manifest destiny resulted in too many teams and not enough talented players to  fill the rosters. Consequently, the quality of play on the ice suffered terribly. 

     To be competitive, coaches of less talented teams had to compensate and thus was born the scourge known as the neutral zone trap.

     The trap is like a press in basketball. As the name  implies, it is a defensive strategy intended to trap the puck carrier as he enters the neutral  zone. When executed properly, it can be highly effective, but it takes all the excitement  out of the game.

     There are those who will say the NHL died the night the Rangers won the Cup, or maybe it was the first work stoppage that delayed the start of the next season. In  1995, cooler heads prevailed and the league was able to salvage an abbreviated 48-game schedule but all the momentum had been lost.

      The league had changed, seemingly over night. An innocence had been lost. Things could never be the same. The seeds were planted for a bitter war a decade later that would be cataclysmic.

      In the spring of 1984, there was a changing of the NHL guard taking place on that

Alberta prairie I wanted to visit. Led by youngsters Wayne Gretzky and Mark Messier,

the Edmonton Oilers were coming of age. That season, they dethroned the four-time

Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, then would go on to win four more titles in the next six years.

    Edmonton, the NHL’s northern-most outpost 400 miles north of the American border, a place you really couldn’t get to in the middle of nowhere,  became the center of the hockey universe. 

    Purists argue the Oilers didn’t play enough defense to be the equal of the great Canadiens’ dynasty of the late 1950s or even the  Islanders’ dynasty in the early 1980s. Maybe.

    By the time Edmonton won its first cup in  1984, the Islanders were getting long in the tooth, but those Oilers were breathtakingly fun to watch. Filled with a roster of immensely skilled players, they played the game with a verve, a panache, an esprit de corps,  perhaps unrivaled in the history of the sport.

    They set all kinds of scoring records, turning the game into a track meet on skates and

giving new meaning to the  term wide-open hockey.  But the game was so much different

back then in the good old 1980s, so much better .

     There was no neutral zone trap and coaches allowed the players to utilize their skills. Also, the quality of goaltending wasn’t what it is today , and scouting techniques weren’t as advanced either.

    In the 1981-82 season, teams combined for 8.1 goals per game, an all-time record.  Less than a quarter century later, that average had dropped by nearly three goals per game, to levels last seen during World War II. As scoring plummeted, so too did  television ratings, even in Canada. In the last season before the lockout, the per-game average had fallen to a measly 5.2.

      In the years following the Rangers’ championship, it was as if the NHL had been  reduced to its least common denominator. The league acted in a socialistic manner. It didn’t want stars, or so it seemed. 

    There were stars but the league didn’t do anything to promote them, to market them, because it was lost in a 1950s mindset.  Individuality and creativity were stifled in the name of defense.  So many games became difficult to watch – joyless, tedious, affairs.

    Hockey is supposed to be about speed and skating and  making plays and scoring goals.  The rising anticipation of an end-to-end rush may be  unmatched in all of sports. But there was so little of that in the bad new NHL. 

   Since so many coaches were concerned about implementing their system rather than exploiting their players’ skills, watching the NHL was like watching players skate in quicksand.   

     Former New Jersey Devils coaches Jacques Lemaire could be considered the father of the neutral zone trap. He perfected it in 1995 while leading the Devils to the first of three Stanley Cups in a eight-year span.

    Since Lemaire had success with the trap, it was emulated league wide. The great irony is that Lemaire was a star on the great Montreal teams of the 1970s who never played that way. The Canadiens in those days were known  as the “Flying Frenchmen” because of their speed and skating ability.  When they smelled  blood, they attacked like bees swarming – relentless and overpowering.

    The  Oilers in the 1980s were like that as well. But when he got behind the bench, Lemaire – and his coaching brethren around the league – changed the game. They didn’t make the game better, they made it worse.

    There was so little room to make plays, so little room to be creative, because the neutral zone always was clogged. Players repeatedly got away with clutching and grabbing because the referees were lax in calling the obstruction penalties.

    Some players, most notably the great Mario Lemieux, complained the tactics were killing the NHL. The powers-that-be didn’t listen. Consequently, the game lost its personality. The NHL product became bland, vanilla.

       There was something else happening in the NHL that felt like a dagger to the heart --

the decline of the Rangers. After reaching the semifinals in 1997, the Rangers missed the

playoffs for seven straight seasons, not easy to do in the NHL, where it seems everybody

makes the playoffs.

      The Rangers may have been the most ineptly run team in all of professional sports in the late 1990s and at the turn of the new century. I endured a crisis of faith. I stopped going to see my beloved team play at the Garden.

      The boycott was a protest. I was fed up with the state of the NHL in general and the state of the Rangers in particular.

     Through all those years when the Rangers didn’t win the cup, the one thing that made them different from any other team was the passion of the fans. We sold out every game, every season. We rooted with every fiber of our soul.

     The Garden on hockey night was a very special place. It took on the feel of a bar room brawl in the old west. We yelled, we screamed; we cursed, we fought. And more than anything else, we drank a whole lot of beer. Through annual disappointment and heartbreak, nobody cheered harder or cared as much as we did. Nobody. I will take that belief to the grave.

 But by 2000, the Garden was dead, all the energy and passion gone. I stayed away for three and a half seasons until Messier, the Messiah,  pulled me back on January 12, 2006 – the night the Rangers retired his uniform No. 11. That event ranks as the most memorable sporting event I have ever attended. There were not too many dry eyes in the house.

      There was a great deal of anger and disillusionment as I contemplated my trip north

of the border. But this wasn’t going to be just any trip. It was going to be a journey to the

holy land.

      I hoped that in Canada, where the game is worshipped, I could rediscover exactly what is was that caused me to fall in love with a sport taught to me when I was eight years old by my grandfather. He passed away when I was 11. But before he did, he  told me he was a Gordie Howe fan in the 1950s.

     I never forgot that. Wow, my grandfather followed Mr. Hockey in his prime.

     As I began the first leg of my pilgrimage from Newark to Toronto, I hearkened back

to a scene that unfolded on the streets of Manhattan two years earlier.

     About 30 minutes after Canada defeated the United States, 5-2, in Salt Lake City to win its first Olympic gold medal in 50 years, three guys, in their early 20s, emerged from the Ninth Street PATH station.

      They appeared quite intoxicated. One was wearing a Team Canada jersey, another singing a dreadfully off key version of the Canadian national anthem. Then all three started doing the Bob and Doug McKenzie routine (“Take off, you hoser”). Bob and Doug were fictional characters created by brilliant Canadian actors Rick Moranis and  Dave Thomas on a comedy show called SCTV that aired in Canada and later the United  States from 1976-84. 

     Bob and Doug were two simple-minded, beer-guzzling brothers who became cultural icons north of the border even though they poked fun at Canadian  stereotypes, like ending every sentence with the word, “eh.”  Bob and Doug would have approved of my journey to the “Great White North.”

       Looking back on the trip five years ago, I’m not real sure what I was expecting. It’s

not as if I was really going to a foreign country. Canada is merely an extension of the

United States, only colder and further north.

     There were no seminal moments, no life-changing experiences, although I nearly got frostbite walking around downtown Calgary in a snowstorm without a hat. Not even Bob and Doug would be that dumb.

     The three hockey games I saw were average at best, proving the quality of NHL hockey in Canada was every bit as bad as it was in the United States, but at least I was in the Mecca of the sport or as they proudly say in Edmonton, “the Heartland of Hockey.” And I’d go back in a  heart beat. Maybe next year.

      The 200-mile drive from Edmonton to Calgary was humbling yet stunning: miles and miles and miles of nothing but open fields. You instantly understood why Alberta is one of Canada’s three prairie provinces, along with  Manitoba and Saskatchewan. You also got a glimpse of just how vast the world’s second-largest country really is.

       I imagined the junior hockey players, some as young as 16 years old, enduring 10-hour bus rides through this nothingness in the middle of a bitterly cold Canadian night.  That is where hockey players learn a work ethic and respect for the game.

      There is nothing in the United States that compares to the three major junior hockey leagues in Canada. The age of those players range from 16 to 20. Teenagers play 60- to 70-game schedules while trying to juggle school work, sometimes arriving home at  3 o’clock in the morning on school nights. Critics have called the system abusive but the kids put up with it, a price they are willing to pay to have a chance to play in the NHL.

       The best part of the games I saw was listening to18,000 people sing the Canadian

 national anthem in unison from start to finish.  It is so different from the U.S., where fans

 stand with hands in pockets and shoulders slouched during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner.

       Then again, O Canada is a much easier song to sing. I think it is the world’s most beautiful anthem.  The Edmonton Oilers took it to a new level last spring during their stunning march to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006.

      As the Oilers got deeper into the playoffs, the anthem singer would only sing the first part of O Canada. Then he would stop, turn his microphone toward the crowd and let the fans do the rest by themselves.

      I was inspired just watching on television in Connecticut because I had not ever seen

anything like that. It was an extraordinary display of pride, patriotism and love. If ever a group of people deserved to win a Stanley Cup, it was these wonderful fans. Alas, life isn’t fair. The cup was won by the rednecks from Raleigh, North Carolina, the Carolina Hurricanes – another blow to tradition.

       After spending a week in Canada, after enduring two days of single-digit

temperatures in Edmonton, I think I learned what I probably knew all along. The soul

of hockey is not found at the NHL level. The soul of hockey is found on the backyard

rinks, the frozen ponds, in places like Yellow Knife and Moose Jaw and Good Soil.

      Since I have never played hockey, I can only imagine the pure joy of skating out of

 doors on a beautiful, clean sheet of ice, one with nature.  I saw it in Lake Placid, when I visited during the 25th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” in 2005.

      There was a pond behind the hotel where I was staying. Some kids had cleared off a patch of snow to play hockey. I stopped at the top of a small hill and watched, only for a few minutes. It was a cold, gray day with a light snow falling and the sun beginning to set beyond the barren trees in the distance.

      The kids appeared to be maybe 14, 15 years old. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, the wind whipping at their backs as they glided up and down the ice, their breath turning to steam. That’s hockey.

       I wish more people would try to understand this sport I love. I wish more Americans

would appreciate what the game means to our northern neighbors. Oh, sure, Americans

are passionate about sports, but it still doesn’t match the love affair Canadians have for

ice hockey.

       The game is so deeply embedded in their consciousness, in their social fabric. Wayne Gretzky was on skates when he was three years old. Few fans have embraced a team the way the Edmonton fans embraced the Oilers in 2006.

      As  the Oilers advanced deeper into the playoffs the crowds grew larger on Whyte Avenue  and Jasper Avenue, Edmonton’s two biggest thoroughfares. On the night the Oilers clinched a berth in the Stanley Cup Final, as many as 30,000 people, according to some estimates, gathered on the two streets.

    As popular as baseball is in New York, I could never imagine that many people congregating on Fifth Avenue after a big playoff win by the Yankees or Mets. New York is too big, you might say, and that is precisely the point.

   Another thing I rediscovered when I was in Canada –  hockey is about small-town roots and values. Because of their background, hockey players do not have the arrogance and sense of self entitlement you see from athletes in other sports.

    I get annoyed when ignorant people ridicule hockey.  “I went to a fight last night and a

hockey game broke out.”  Ha, ha – real funny joke.  The sportscaster in Tupelo, Mississippi or Little Rock, Arkansas who knows nothing about hockey, will go out of his way to air highlights of the fight on his nightly sportscast but ignore the three beautiful goals.

    I know that in some places hockey never will be more than a fringe sport and I guess I have accepted that.  I also know that as long as there is ice, there will be hockey. You either get it or you don’t and if you don’t, you never will.

    Hockey is different. You can love other sports but to love hockey, I think you have to feel it in your soul.

       You park your car on a bitterly cold night and walk to the arena, shivering, the

wind cutting through you like a knife, but loving every second of it. You walk into the

arena and buy a cup of steaming hot chocolate to warm your bones.

      Then, you buy a beer and walk to your seat to watch warm-ups. Down below, is the most beautiful, glistening ice you’ve ever seen.  You hear the “click-clack” of the frozen puck making contact with the wooden hockey sticks. You listen for the whoosh of the hockey skates turning as the players make their figure eights.

    You see the nylon mesh bulge when a player shoots the puck into the net. As always, there is a slight chill in the building to keep the ice frozen. You’re in heaven. This is hockey night.

    Now I remember. It was the Heritage Classic, the first outdoor game in NHL history

played in Edmonton on November 22, 2003, that triggered my idea of a western Canadian hockey trip.

   The NHL, under Bettman’s watch, finally did something right, finally recognized its roots. The game, between Edmonton and the Montreal Canadiens, commemorated the 25th anniversary of the Oilers joining the NHL in 1979.

   To show how special Canadian hockey fans are, a crowd of 57,167 packed Edmonton’s Commonwealth Stadium despite near-zero temperatures and wind chills near minus-20. But that’s hockey.

                      “Hello, out there, we’re on the air

                      It’s hockey night tonight.

                      The tension grows, the whistles blows

                      And the puck goes down the ice.

                      The goalie jumps and the players bump

                       And the fans all go insane

                       Someone roars, ‘Bobby scores’

                       At the good old hockey game”

--- First verse of the Hockey Song, the greatest song about hockey ever, written by

Canadian folk legend Stompin’ Tom Connors.

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