When I was a student, I took an elective called ‘Canadian Studies’ in which we learned all about the history and culture of the colder part of North America. During that course, we studied three instances of civil disobedience in Canada, one of which was triggered by conflict between the French and British settlers. The cause of the other two was ice hockey.
To say ice hockey is serious business for Canadians is like saying Scottish people are partial to deep-fried food. There was thus a visible air over despondency over Calgary when I went to visit, for the city’s top-flight hockey team were, and still are, going through something of a slump. “Oh, the Flames suck”, the hotel receptionist told me. “They even got beat by the Oilers last week, the only team sucker than the Flames this year”.
‘Johnson: no end in sight to misery’, boomed the front page of the Calgary Herald from inside its dispenser box.
“Don’t go see the Flames, you’ll just get depressed”, the tourist information lady warned me flat-out, clearly never having heard of the Scottish Football League.
Even if I had wanted to get depressed watching the Flames, I wouldn’t have been able to. The only home game when I was in town was against the Pittsburgh Penguins, and the whole city seemingly wanted to see their captain Sidney Crosby in action. Crosby has just been named captain for Canada’s Winter Olympics team, and at the age of 26 is widely regarded as one of the greatest ice hockey players ever. The sell-out was entirely understandable. After all, you’d still want to watch Barcelona even if you knew Lionel Messi was going to tear strips off your team, wouldn’t you?
But there was other hockey to watch, and hockey where I had a chance of seeing Calgary win at that. The Flames’ junior team, the aptly-named Calgary Hitmen, were playing the Kelowna Rockets the following night in the same arena. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was a ‘top of the table’ clash, the best team in the West up against the best team in the East. Most of the players in the junior leagues are in their late teens or early twenties, and many of them go on to play in the top-level NHL – Calgary’s nineteen year-old goaltender, for instance, had already been picked as a prospect by the Ottawa Senators. Although both teams play in the regional Western Hockey League, the distances involved are staggering – Kelowna is a seven-hour drive from Calgary in the east of British Columbia. It was thus something of a surprise to see not only a team bus outside the arena, but also Rockets fans in Calgary for the game. Never again will I complain about away fixtures in Stranraer.
With the sun still up and the sky blue and clear, I elected to walk out to the Scotiabank Saddledome from the city centre. I received slightly horrified looks from every Canadian I told this to over the course of the following week. “You what? You walked to the Saddledome?” It turns out walking is not the done thing in Calgary, even over relatively short and flat distances. Between Eighth Avenue, where I got off the train, and the ice rink I passed six fellow foot travellers. Sunday afternoon in the middle of a city of one million people, and barely a half-dozen walkers. It was cold, granted, but still.
I was curious as to why the ice hockey arena was called the Saddledome, and as soon as I saw it I realised there was no clever phraseology or double meaning being deployed. It is, quite simply, a closed arena with the roof in the shape of a cowboy’s saddle. I kid you not. Built partly in preparation for the 1988 Winter Olympics, the Saddledome was also intended as the home of the Flames and Hitmen, and also the Roughnecks, Calgary’s lacrosse team. It is adjacent to the extensive Stampede parade grounds, where a giant rodeo by the name of the Calgary Stampede takes place every July, and the architecture of the dome thus reflects the area’s equine heritage. Yee-haw.
The walk from the city centre had taken somewhat less time than anticipated, so I arrived at the Saddledome a good hour and a half before the game was due to start. After purchasing my ticket and availing myself of a Hitmen toque (i.e. woolly hat) from the club shop, I went for a short stroll round the Stampede grounds to pass the time before the doors to the seats opened. Twenty-five minutes of looking at oversized four-wheel drive vehicles, mounds of icy snow, ticket gates and bronze cowboy statues later, I was back inside, significantly colder and more knowledgeable about the different varieties of Dodge pick-up trucks on offer, but no more educated on the history of the Stampede.
What I failed to learn about Calgary’s rodeo tradition was more than made up for with the lesson I got in catering at sports events, North American-style. Expecting some calorific food, I had foregone lunch and taken only a light breakfast, and was about ready for some junk food by the time the grey-blazered doorman took my ticket. The biggest problem was the sheer choice on offer. Pizza straight ahead, burritos at three o’clock, fried chicken at nine o’clock. I walked the whole way round the perimeter corridor and encountered a different stall in each recess, only the burger joint and pizza place repeating themselves. Heck, there was even a gourmet coffee counter. I was also impressed to note that even though this was a junior game, all the stalls were open and fully staffed.
Eventually, I was suckered in by the guy at the fried chicken outlet, who called to take my order as I was straining to read the sign. Being British and thus petrified of creating an Awkward Moment by declining to purchase something now that I had spoken to a clerk, I panicked and ordered the top item straight away – chicken fingers with fries. I was somewhat surprised to see the clerk plucking a half-litre beaker off the top shelf for my coffee and filling it to the brim with ice, until I remembered that due to irritable vowel syndrome, ‘cup of coffee’ and ‘Coca-Cola’ sound virtually identical in Inverness English. One interjection and two very polite apologies (one each) later, I had my dinner. Time to head to the ice.
When I went to take my seat the warm-up was well underway, the Hitmen queuing up and taking it in turns to smash pucks into the empty net, first from the left, then from the right, then simultaneously from the left and right. The Saddledome is geared-up for top-level NHL games, but any fears I had about the crowd resembling crumbs in a biscuit tin during the junior fixtures were quickly allayed. The area behind the goals was rammed full of white-shirted fans, and the whole lower tier was fairly well packed. Even the upper level – the cheap seats – had a good few people in it, albeit not packed to the rafters as it had been for the visit of the Penguins the previous evening. I checked the attendance a few days later and discovered just shy of nine thousand folk had been there.
Practice finished, the lights went down, the gates at one end of the rink opened, and a pair of Zambonis trundled out to re-surface the ice. A Half Life-esque cluster of plasma screens suspended from the ceiling held everyone’s attention whilst the ice machines did their work, homing in on a variety of people in the crowd. A Dad rifled through his pocket for his phone when he realised his mugshot was being broadcast around the arena, the public-spirited cameraman twigging what was going on and keeping the Dad on-screen until he’d had a chance to take a photo of himself. It was that kind of atmosphere.
The Zambonis left the ice, neat parallel tracks of freshly-frozen water in their wake, and two Mounties carrying massive Canadian flags stepped into the rink. The entire arena rose to its feet as a well-built woman with a microphone appeared. Oh Canada, our home and sacred land. She belted out the national anthem, with the entire crowd singing along. I am never sure what the protocol is for singing another country’s anthem, but thanks to Terence and Philip from South Park I knew the words and quietly mumbled along. Three verses of O Canada later, the woman left the ice to energetic applause, the players skated out and the lights came up. Show time.
I’d been to hockey games in the UK before, but this was something else. The skaters were visibly faster, sharper and more coordinated than those I’d seen in Britain, zipping up and down the ice to alternately attack and defend. Just after the Hitmen forced a good save from Kelowna’s keeper, a well-dressed middle-aged woman with a book tucked under her arm made her way along my aisle and took a seat on her own. She opened her novel, slid her spectacles down her nose and seemed oblivious to the hockey – until the next Hitmen attack. “Come on Greg!” she yelled, giving me a massive fright in the process. Kelowna broke back, passing the puck across their well-organised lines and firing off a shot the Hitmen’s goaltender did well to parry away. “Stand tall Chris, stand tall,” came the call from next to me. The book-bearing lady was one of the player’s Mums.
Every sport has a certain ‘sound’ to it, and having lived with a hockey nut I was more than familiar with the noise of hockey that rang round the Saddledome. The clock-clock-sssh-sssh of the players skating up to speed on the ice. The pinging and clacking of the puck bouncing off the boards and skaters’ sticks. The dull thud of athletes crashing into the plexiglass – or each other. And, of course, the goal horn. It wasn’t long before I was able to hear this most familiar of all hockey sounds. The Hitmen broke away to my right, and after a brace of smart passes the number 17 found himself with only a defenceman and the keeper to beat. Jinking his stick right then left, the Hitman rounded the defender, sailed over to the left of goal, wound his stick back and sent the puck cannoning past the goalie and into the top-right corner of the net. A big red lamp bolted to the top of the goal frame lit up, and a deep hoot rang round the arena for a good ten seconds. The cloud of TV screens were showing the replay before most people had had a chance to leap out of their seats and applaud, and down below fresh lines of skaters came on to give their teammates a well-deserved rest.
The joy was, however, short-lived. I know precious little about hockey, but it was clear to see Kelowna were a very, very good side. If they were a football team, the word ‘disciplined’ would probably be bandied around the commentary box. Passing back and forth along their orderly lines, they unpicked the Hitmen defence time after time and created chance after chance. The Hitmen ended the first period leading 1-0, but Kelowna had had way more shots on goal. Soon after the break the red-shirted Rockets equalised, then moved into the lead thanks to some fine team play.
One thing I do like about ice hockey is that there’s a good mix of pauses and action. Some sports – I’m looking firmly at you here, tennis and American football – involve brief bursts of action interspersed by incredibly long stretches of waiting for something to happen. There are three periods of twenty minutes, with a one-minute time out in the middle of each. Other than that, it’s pretty much nonstop action – apart from when play stops to administer a penalty or allow a fight to work itself out. Each of these passages of play is accompanied by music, be it a goal, a player being led to the penalty box to feel shame, or a change of lines. Now, in addition to studying riots and rodeos, one other thing we were taught in Canadian Studies was that one third of music broadcast publicly in Canada like this must be performed by Canadian artists. It also happens to be the case that one of the country’s predominant music acts hails from the province of Alberta, and that songs about bar fights naturally lend themselves to ice hockey. All of which manifested itself in an awful lot of Nickelback blaring out over the speakers during the course of the game.
Midway through the second period, the familiar strains of Chad Kroeger returned to the airwaves as a Kelowna skater was shepherded by one of the black-and-white shirted referees to the clear plastic penalty box on the far side of the rink. The door was already open in anticipation of his arrival, and having deposited the Rocket (who thumped the floor of the box with the butt of his stick in frustration), the referee had a word with the black-suited judge in the middle of the box. The judge noted the incident in his ledger, and a two-minute penalty was announced over the tannoy to jeers from the home crowd. The crime? Cross-checking, or; brandishing a stick with both hands and using it to impede an opponent. Rather makes a mockery of soccer players slapping one another across the jowls.
Alas, the Hitmen were unable to capitalise on the temporary man advantage – or, indeed, on several other such ‘power plays’ that came their way over the first two periods. The Rockets continued to create the lion’s share of chances, and added a third goal just before the second intermission. It was turning into a grim day for the Hitmen, who had previously gone twelve home games unbeaten. Must have been the curse of Leslie Mabon that so often affects Raith Rovers at Stark’s Park. Still, Calgarian hockey fans could console themselves with some of the brilliant prizes being dished out whilst the players retired to the dressing rooms. A woman got a Samsung Galaxy tablet for Tweeting she was at the game, a man who had seemingly forgotten to take his Flames shirt off from the night before won a widescreen television for shooting pucks into the net, and one lucky 50-50 ticket holder went home ten grand better off. Overhead, sweaty mulletted men gave short interviews on the screens, bemoaning the lack of luck in front of goal.
The teams returned for one final push, and a quick-fire Hitmen goal brought the crowd back to life. The equaliser proved elusive, and with a minute left on the clock Calgary elected to replace their goaltender with a skater. This would give them a man advantage as they pressed for a goal, but would present the opponents with an open goal should they hit on the break. The hockey Mom next to me put her book away. The entire family in front leant forwards in their seats. The six Hitmen skaters surged forwards, sending the puck out left with a brace of passes. Then a Kelowna defenceman intercepted the play, took three strides forwards and launched the puck up the ice into the empty home net. 4-2, game over. With forty-six seconds still to play the Hitmen goalie sheepishly returned to the ice to limit the damage.
And with that, half the arena got up and headed for the exits. But they took their rubbish with them as they did so.