by William Bedford
When Paul Henderson scored the winning goal in the first Canada-Russia hockey series, the whole country went on a high the like of which no drug could induce. Only a hockey game, it seems, can get Canadians en mass to shuck their reserve and yell their heads off. Of course every country has a favourite team sport and legions of fans to cheer them on, but only in Canada will you find a national sport that is virtually a religion for everyone regardless of his or her true religion or ethnic origin.
Back in 1966 the late John Lennon of the Beatles, caused an uproar in the pulpits of the United States, and even received numerous death threats, when he claimed that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. Somehow, I don’t think it would create much
turbulence in Canada if someone like Wayne Gretsky, for instance, were to make the same claim for hockey.
Americans consider baseball their national pastime, but in many areas of the U.S. South, football is the game of choice for the majority of sports fans, and in big northern cities, basketball is the only game in town.
Australian and New Zealand sports fans are divided between cricket and rugby. In Ireland, the national sport is Gaelic football. In England sports are, as you might expect, class related. The upper classes wouldn’t be found dead at a soccer game, while the masses
consider cricket to be a pastime for the tea-sipping upper class. The Scandinavians, Germans and Dutch are big on skiing and skating, and while hockey is also popular in these countries, soccer remains their number one sport. Even in Spain, where the bull-fights draw millions, soccer is the number one spectator sport. So, you see, Canada is unique among nations in having one national sport that draws its fans from all walks of life.
Sure, the Toronto Blue Jays have their fans, too, especially when they are on a winning streak. As for football, the Canadian Football League lives in constant fear of being sacked by the National Football League. In fact, the Super Bowl is as popular here as the Grey Cup. As for basketball, it’s really a regional sport in Canada even though a Canadian invented it. Hockey, though, for better or for worse, is part and parcel of the Canadian psyche. Even those who never watch a hockey game, or any other team sport for that matter, have the names of the big NHL teams, and its great players, such as Bobby Hull and Wayne Gretzky, etched into their subconscious.
From Quebec Separatists to disgruntled westerners to Bay Street tycoons to skid row bums, all are agreed that hockey is, absolutely, more than just a game. And when a Canadian team takes to the ice against a foreign team, (and we now include our terrific female hockey teams) even the fans of sissy games like soccer and baseball turn out to cheer.
These days, except for the Grey Cup, I seldom watch football. And I only watch a few hockey games, usually when the Leafs are playing, as I am basically a fan of the hapless Blue Jays. Nevertheless, I have no hesitation whatsoever in stating that hockey is Canada; and Canada is hockey. And whether you are a native born or naturalized citizen, I’m sure you’ll agree that Canada is the only country in the world that has a national game with as many devoted fans inside our borders as there are in the rest of the world put together. And the name of that game is hockey!