Apr. 9, 2012
The guy spoke with the slow, heavy accent of the Quebecoise.
“I love this kind of hock-ee,” he told me. He was talking about playoff hockey at Madison Square Garden in New York.
“I wish more Ameri-canz could see this.”
So do I. I think.
The National Hockey League (NHL) playoffs start this week, and they are a truly unique spectacle in sports: two months of always grueling, often exhilarating hockey, the best you can see in the world. And yet, few Americans actually see it. TV ratings for the championship of the biggest and best league in the world remain a fraction of those of other sports here in the States, a sign that the sport still has a cult, rather than mainstream, following.
That my beloved New York Rangers are in the tournament, and a prohibitive favorite to win the Stanley Cup, the oldest championship trophy in North American professional sports, make this spring all the better. But even I don’t need a rooting interest to enjoy playoff hockey.
Well, okay, maybe…
Anyway, NHL champions are Stanley Cup champions, not world champions, as the other major pro sports in North America—baseball, American football and basketball—arrogantly, and inaccurately, claim. And this is an important distinction.
Hockey is truly an international sport; NHL players hail from Canada (of course), where the sport is religion, as well as the U.S., Sweden, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other nations in Scandinavia and central and eastern Europe. This aspect of the game’s culture has created some awkward moments recently as the U.S. grows increasingly jingoistic and xenophobic.
Unfortunately, these days, it is not unusual to hear chants of “USA! USA!” at NHL matches south of the Canadian border—especially when Canadian and American clubs faceoff. This is not only absurd—most of the players, even on U.S.-based clubs are either Canadian or European, and not American—but the fans involved are missing the big point:
Chasing the Stanley Cup is about club, not country.
And, those who do understand the culture of the sport know that for their team to win, all of the players—regardless of their nation of origin—must all, as the cliché goes, pull in the same direction.
On the night I took in the game with the guy from Quebec, I can’t remember whether or not the Rangers won or lost (likely the latter), but I do know that they didn’t ultimately win the Cup, and that there were no chants of “USA! USA!” in the building that night.
You see this was long before the World Trade Center towers fell, and our nation started fighting an aimless war on multiple fronts. And so it was also long before a rather loud minority told us that we needed to be suspicious of all things foreign—and that we needed to demonstrate our patriotism at the top of our lungs.
So I guess I do hope that more Americans don’t let some petty—and unrelated—matters keep them from enjoying what I think is the world’s greatest sport. But I also hope that if they watch, they know exactly what they are getting themselves into.
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