When it comes to state of hockey — or to “chuck,” as they call it in Québec — the question of pain thresholds, mental toughness and capability of playing with pads are all as much in play as skill, skill and composure.
Fortunately, in the maple leaf heartland of Quebec, hockey is a thing that we take seriously and people continue to take the game seriously. Last night, Canadians seemed to take hockey more seriously than ever. More Canadians turned out than usual in Quebec City, for the first Hockey Night in Canada televised game of the season, to watch Canadian-born players (and soon-to-be American-born players) take on the Great White North in Russia, in the NHL’s first ever Russian world championships. And the turnout was raucous.
Amidst a spirited crowd the ultimate expression of the game, the crowds began chant, “We want our team, we want our team,” which some suggested was either an action or trick of a Canadian hockey market: a way to quiet public hysteria that the stars of hockey, Sidney Crosby and Jonathan Toews (no relation to me), were taking their talents home. Some also took it as a reference to the Canadian national anthem and the sport’s indigenous origins. (My friends call it chant du sauvage, puns on the French word for aboriginal.) In this case, it was a joke.
But the fans were no kidding. Hockey is king in the province that gave us the sport, but this was something else. It was a unique blend of patriotism, morbid curiosity, fandom and dire anticipation, mostly coming from the Irish-Canadian base, comprising the tens of thousands of people who flew to the French part of Quebec City to watch the game and support their own Canadiens. Some assumed that this was just their time of year, an opportunity for a day off of work. But one look at the faces of the beer-hugging cowboys leaning against the barricades, waving Canadian flags and welcoming home Denis Laviolette — a former head coach for the Canada Cup, a grand showcase that makes this the kind of hoopla that takes place on the world stage — and one could hardly put aside the possibility that it was something more.
Last night’s game in the Russian Hockey Hall of Fame is now considered part of the lore of Russian hockey and to get a measure of how good the Canadian team is, a slight reminder of how far off from its time, many Canadian teams are, came the showing in which a long-time team is sent across the border with an eight-year old player. When the Green River Rangers first emerged on the Canadian hockey scene, in the 1930s, they’d win 12 games in a row in the 1937-38 season. Last night the Rangers — dressed in black tights, short sleeves and no name — topped those wins by scoring five consecutive goals to oust their Russians in an intriguing 18-16 victory.
It’s easy to see a growing trend taking shape between the various NHL franchises, many of whom have been shut out of the playoffs over the past two years and have not won a championship since 2013. With Montreal dominating at home, California Kings kicking up a ruckus in Los Angeles, and the Bruins and Stars partnering up to dominate at American Airlines Arena in Dallas, all the big NHL prizes seem at home in a region that shares a love of hockey with the rest of the country and has never had better support at the rink.
In this development, Quebec City is catching up to Canada as a whole. Maple leafs can be proud of having Canadian roots, but this is a different slice of culture and Canadian hockey can be traced, at least in part, back to Québec City. After last night’s game, the Argonauts, who I ran cross country with in high school, won the Grey Cup in 1952, a victory that forever immortalized the memories of an ageless old hero, Jimmy Cowan, in Toronto. Canada’s national team took three out of four contests from its Russian opponents and its national ice hockey league still plays a game that defies predictions that it may never again take the ice again. Canada is still an unlikely hockey powerhouse. And now Quebec City has learned that Russians are even more unpredictable.