(Monday, 01 March 2010, 0900; Whangarei, New Zealand)
Here we are, in the flow of the Winter Olympics season. The 2010 games are happening in a city that’s become well known to me, and I’ve been keeping up via internet and from frequent updates from friends and family all over the US and Canada. I admit that I’ve not been following the Games play-by-play, and I don’t know if I can name one emerging superstar. But the spirit of the games always captivates me, and it’s in the spirit of camaraderie and memorable moments in sports that I’m writing today.
I find myself torn between the three dominating nations — the US, Germany, and Canada. The US has the most medals, with 36 (9 Gold, 14 Silver, 13 Bronze), but the Germans and Canadians are close behind with 29 and 25, respectively. And the Canadians are making history with a record number of Golds: 13 so far, over the Americans’ 9 and Germans’ 10. So as far as I’m concerned, it’s hooray for all of them. Which makes me sound wishy-washy, I know, but the truth is, all three of these places represent something significant to me — they have all been home at one time or another. Indeed, perhaps it’s good that I am not following the Games so closely, as my schizophrenic soul would surely be put to the test. At least I’m not further conflicted by the Kiwis, since the only shiny thing they’ll be bringing home (by the looks of it) is the silver fern on their snazzy winter outfits. Most days pass here in New Zealand without much mention of the 2010 Olympics.
The biggest challenge for me comes today, when the Canadians face off on the ice in the Men’s Hockey Final (it’s Sunday, 28 February, in Vancouver, and the game’s about to begin). Well, it’s not really much of a challenge, because in truth I’m rooting for the Canadians. I know: traitor! turncoat! Benedict Arnold! But hear me out.
Everything I know about ice hockey comes from Canada, not America. I grew up playing field hockey, but never even considered the sport speeded up on ice until I moved in with a Canadian. Like all American kids, my siblings and I spent our childhood tossing around a football in the fall and a baseball in the spring. The biggest sporting event for us was a trip to Memorial Stadium to see the Baltimore Orioles in action. Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripkin were heroes in our Maryland household. We spent weekends year round with our father in the front yard, running furiously between two bases in our homespun games of “Pickle”, in which two end players toss the baseball — sometimes low and fast sometimes high and long — while the other kids in the middle scramble back and forth and try to get to the “base” before being tagged “out”. I don’t know if this was our invention or not, but we spent a lot of time mucking up the front yard in gleeful games of Pickle.
But ice hockey? It just wasn’t part of our winter life. As we grew up, we hung up our baseball gloves and became college basketball enthusiasts. North Carolina natives tend toward zealotry when it comes to college ball, and we were no exception. Add to that a Demon Deacon mother and a Blue Devil brother, and you can imagine the lively noise during winter breaks. Since my brother Kirk was the most devoted fan of all, we gathered in each others’ homes and New England bars to support Coach K and the triumvirate of Grant Hill, Christian Laettner, and Bobby Hurley in the early 1990s, long after we were done with college ourselves. I always felt a little bad that we favored Duke over Wake Forest, but at least we were united as a family against the Tarheels.
It wasn’t until 1997 that I went to my first ice hockey game. And then I was hooked. Perhaps it was the fever pitch of the fans that drew me in (I know, I’m mixing metaphors here, but I do like a good Nick Hornby yarn). Or perhaps it was because it was raw energy of college competition – which I find more compelling than professional sports. In the same way the Olympics make us cheer for sometimes wholly unknown athletes, I was amazed at the grace and agility of these teenagers flying up and down the rink. I spent one winter in Ithaca, New York, and I attended almost every home game of the Cornell Men’s Ice Hocky team.
Looking back, I think a lot of my new-found enthusiasm for the Cornell hockey team had much to do with the deep hole I was actively filling up at the time. Family circumstances had changed; a meaningful marriage had ended. Two dead brothers haunted my dreams, and with them the era of the Blue Devils had passed, at least in any personal way (though my heart still skips a beat today when I see anything in the news about the legendary Mike Krzyzewski). Winters in Ithaca are long, and hockey is to Cornell what basketball is to Duke. So Bernie and I routinely purchased our $10 student tickets and watched the the Big Red skate through one exciting game after another. And if you’ve never been to a Cornell men’s hockey game, let me just say that their fans rival those of the Blue Devils.
In the first game of the season, Bernie and I witnessed the rival team skate onto the ice with their names torn off their jerseys. Turns out, the Big Red fans are known for their cruelty, and possess a sharply refined skill when it comes to mocking individuals from the other team. Picking on Number 18 is just not as effective as a chorus of “Hey Dawson, you suck!” – and the other teams know it. From that moment on, I could have been in the Blue Devil bleachers: the clever shout-outs, the coordinated insults, the histrionics of 4200 students in Lynah Rink was pure theater.
It begins with the fans collectively “ignoring” the other team as its members are introduced, which they accomplish by picking up newspapers and showily holding them up in front of their faces, shaking them in unison —followed, of course, by mad cheering as each individual of the home team is introduced. Things heat up when the home team scores; not only do the fans go wild with a show of support, but they further emphasize their glory by chanting “Sieve! Sieve! Sieve! Sieve! Sieve!” in the direction of the poor sod who has let the goal pass – and this too is accompanied by a well-tuned gesture, 4000 index fingers pointing accusatorily at the ends of thrusting arms in the direction of the small individual standing in front of the net at that end of the arena. Finally, when a player from the other team is called off the ice for a penalty, the crowd bids him farewell in unison: after the ref has made the call, and as he skates off the ice, the Cornell fans say with increasing pitch, “Aaaaaaaahhhhhhh…” and time it just perfectly so that, at the moment when he steps of the ice, their voices have swelled to a deafening “Aaaaaahhhhhh…” and then they climax with, “SEE ya, asshole!”
Sounds nasty? Na, it’s fun. You just gotta experience college sports fans to know what I mean. That winter, hockey replaced basketball for me. At the height of my hockey fervor, I even dreamed I was Wayne Gretsky one night, glorying in my very own hat trick (say what you will about the interpretation of dreams, but that goes down as one of my best ever).
These days I live very far from college sports. Even the Vancouver Olympics, which some of my relatives have seen in person, resonate little in my daily life. I am thrilled for my friend Joe who is, even as I write, setting his jaw and fixing his rear into his best chair in his Tivoli, New York home to watch the first period of the US-Canadian battle for the gold. And I am with him in spirit, expecting updates as the game progresses.
But since I can’t offer any first hand stories from the Olympics myself, I will leave you with one more true story, which is also connected to things I love about Canada, winter, and sports – and to that winter in Ithaca, the same winter I learned to love ice hockey.
One fine day, amid our discussions of history and theory and literary criticism and the politics of grad school and nationalism and identity and the meaning of all that in our as yet undefined future together, Bernie and I wandered into the realm of national sports. And he described to me the most improbable of things, a sport in which one guy throws a rock down the ice and others on his “team” sweep the ice with brooms, thus influencing the direction and speed of the rock as it glides to the other end.
‘No way,” I said.
“Yeah, seriously,” he replied.
“You are making that up!” I declared.
“Nope, it’s real. It’s my country’s national sport.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“But you should.”
“I’ve never heard of this. You are totally joking!”
“Nope, I’m not.”
“And you call this sport curling?”
“Yeah, like I said: it’s our national sport.”
“Isn’t ice hockey your national sport?”
“Nope, it’s curling.”
“You are pulling my leg.”
This went on for another ten minutes, until Bernie picked up the phone and dialed his dad. At that time, I had barely spoken a few sentences to his father. I had met him once when Bernie and I flew to Vancouver for me to meet the family, but I found him intimidating and gruff, not the kind of guy you engage casually on the phone to talk about sports. But Bernie put me on the spot, and I was curious, after all. So I took the phone, aware of Bernie taking in my every expression.
“So, Willy… Bernie tells me there’s a national sport in Canada called curling…”
“Yeah, sure. Of course.”
“And it involves…”
But Willy was one step ahead of me. He started describing curling to me in detail, and his words were an almost verbatim repetition of what Bernie had said. I could not believe my ears. Bernie was laughing out loud by now, pleased he had caught me in this delicious moment. Willy was howling on one end of the receiver, Bernie was grinning to my face.
Canada 1: US 0.
Which is, incidentally, the score of the Canada-US Men’s Hockey Game as I write:
Canada opened the scoring with 7:10 left in the period when Mike Richards bulldogged his way through the Americans from a face-off loss, robbed the US of the puck behind their net, ripped it around and found Jonathan Toews for the putaway.
And the crowd did roar.
Canada outshooting the US 10-8 after the first period, with Canada’s Eric Staal having registered three shots on goal so far.
Current scoreline: Canada 1, USA 0
(from The Vancouver Sun)
* * *
When Bernie and I got married a couple years later, we wandered our way through the Canadian Maritimes on our motorcycles for five glorious weeks. Memorable doesn’t even begin to describe that trip. But among the many great moments of those 5000 miles over hill and dale was a stop in Prince Edward Island’s capital city, Charlottetown, where we passed by the Yacht and Curling Club. We took a picture, of course, of me standing in front of the sign, and mailed it off to Bernie’s dad. And he kept that picture until he died.