Thursday, 28 October 2010

A Hockey Obsession

For Canadians, hockey is not a mild obsession with a game of sticks and puck played on an ice rink between two opposing sides.

It's a national fixation with a physical contest between Canadian and American hockey 'gladiators' (square-jawed and heavily-set) clad in modern-day suits of body armour and loaded with skate blades, hockey sticks, shoulders, hips, and hockey pucks forming a vicious arsenal of weaponry against the opposing team.

It's a nationwide frenzy over a competition that stretches from east to west coast, from the continent's north to the south. It's a fast-paced, ultra-physical Canadian habit that the nation doesn't want to kick. After all, this is hockey country.

I've said it before but Canadians are generally very easy going, mild-mannered and reserved. The importance of hockey to the Canadian psyche is therefore demonstrated by the fact that the only thing that can truly animate a Canadian is a game of hockey.  Add an American team to the mix and you've got a pure, unadulterated 'free-for-all'. 

A good ole Canadian rumble in the jungle.

One of the best ways to describe such a sporting obsession is to compare it to the English passion for football or the Indian love of cricket or the Australian pride for Aussie Rules.  Hockey is the premier Canadian national winter sport and, from watching only two games, I could begin to see why.

Enter the arena stage left.  Walk through a vast concrete archway and out onto one of the many seated tiers to face a 21st century ampitheatre filled to bursting point with literally thousands of hockey obsessives eagerly awaiting the start of the game. The mass of spotlights are dimmed, the '80s rock music cranks up, and a rumble turns into a roar which reverberates around the stadium as more than twenty thousand adoring supporters cheer their respective players out onto the ice one by one.

A temporary silence while the national anthems are played. The five players and goaltender take position on each side, the traditional hockey jingles ring out, and the crowd explodes as the referee drops the puck for the face-off.

The game begins and the pace of play mesmerises. The puck slams off the boards as these enormous hockeymen collide. The puck flies free and 120 kilos of pure muscle and strength slides into place behind the small rubber disc and skillfully guides it down the ice, stick flicking from left to right, spinning the puck off the boards, round the back of the goal and out to a teammate in front of the net.  With an almighty slapshot across the rapidly melting ice, the puck slams into the corner of the net as the goaltender falls to his knees. First blood to the home team. This is a seriously high octane game.

A quick commercial break and the game restarts. Players skate furiously around the rink, shooting the puck into the offensive zone and then chasing after it - the dump and chase - before the equivalent force of a ten tonne truck hits home as a player is body checked at high speed into the boards, the impact felt and heard all around the arena.  The crowd screams its disapproval, baying for a fight.  The two players eagerly oblige, sticks are tossed to the ground, heavy gloves are thrown off.  The refs back away as the first weighty punch is thrown. Tiredness creeps in and the fighting becomes scrappy. The players wrestle to their knees and the penalty box comes calling.  The guilty are out of the game for the next few minutes as a powerplay begins. And the players are speeding down the ice again.

This game is addictive to watch but frustrating to understand.  Players clamber over the boards, to be replaced by more players - changing on the fly.  The game stops then starts for no clear reason.  A penalty has been called but the misdemeanour isn't obvious.  There's blood on the ice but who was the culprit.  The game is fast, fast, fast and you either get it or get out.

For three periods of twenty minutes, the game builds and builds.  Anxiety grows as the chances are missed, goals are nearly scored, and players slowly fatigue.  The goaltender surely has the bum deal facing down a high-speeding attacker hurtling towards him at over 30 miles per hour and armed with a lethal rubber disc but, time and again, illogical reaction speeds save the day. The game is lost and won and lost again in minutes - nothing can be assured until the final klaxon sounds and this contest ends.  I think I understand the result but I couldn't tell you why or how.  All I know is this is one intense game.  Skill levels are abnormal, players' fitness sublime. I'm starting to understand the obsession.

This is a game for the brave, unafraid of tough physical contact or the possibility of injuries. It's a real sporting contest with no holds barred. Yet it's a contest of stick handling skill at high speed and of extreme skating ability on the ice. Hockey is tough, it's brutal, and it matches the climate.

This is Canada's thing, let there be no doubt.

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Wednesday, 13 October 2010

Canada's birthday and my disappearing identity

After living in Canada for two years, I still sometimes felt like a passer-by watching someone else's party through the front windows of their house.  Unnoticed, I could watch the events unfold in front of me, not knowing what the celebration was and who was celebrating, but obliged to watch and always wanting to join in. This was the dilemma of living away from the country of my birth.  I fit but I didn't fit.  I was Canadian in my attitude to living but I wasn't Canadian by birth or citizenship.
Key to this dilemma was the celebration of established Canadian public holidays such as Labour Day, Thanksgiving, Victoria Day, and Family Day, which came and went, yet would not register in my consciousness in the same way as it would for your average Canadian.  One such example was Canada Day

Happy Birthday indeed
On the 1st of July every year, Canadians come together across the nation to celebrate Canada's birthday.  The day historically marks the joining of the British North American colonies of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Province of Canada into a federation of four provinces in 1867 (the Province of Canada was divided, in the process, into Ontario and Quebec) and the birth of Canada as a nation.  Canada Day has become a day of celebrating all things Canadian and witness to an outpouring of national pride and sentiment. Furthermore, it takes place ahead of the 4th of July celebrations in the United States and is surely seen as a small victory for the Great White North.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Urban versus suburban living

We were now living in Ottawa.  After moving from the UK to Canada with our two dogs and entire contents of our house, we'd lived in Vancouver in the west of Canada for 18 months during my post-grad studies, moved to Ottawa in the east in pursuit of a dream job, drove for 7 days across Canada to get to that dream job, and endured our first blood-curdlingly cold winter in the national capital. We then bought our first Canadian house.

House buying in Ottawa
I'd always lived in the 'burbs.  As a kid growing up in the UK, I'd lived in a pleasant enough housing estate set amongst the green fields of Hampshire.  These estates were fun places to grow up in, where we played with the other children in our street or ran our dog over the local park. Life in suburbia was generally safe, the streets and parks were clean and well kept, and for most people it was a routine, regular way of life that most people signed up to. 

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