By Jonah Keri
Special to Page 2

Every spring, the ritual repeats itself.

One by one, each of the Canadian Stanley Cup playoff teams gets knocked out until only one is left. When that happens, millions of Canadian hockey fans embrace that team as their own. Canucks fans in Kelowna, Maple Leafs fans in Halifax, even jilted Jets fans in Winnipeg jump on the bandwagon, hoping this could be the year the Stanley Cup returns to the Great White North.

It's not something most Americans would understand. Oh sure, you're not lacking for national pride when it comes to sports. A recent poll showed that one of every 50 million U.S. households might actually tune in to watch this year's World Cup. Then there was NBC, which famously triggered the current global energy crisis with its high-wattage pro-U.S. propaganda during the Torino Olympics.

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But none of the major pro team sports playoffs brings the same sense of urgency for Americans as the NHL does for Canadians. Except of course for Baltimore's heroic run to the Grey Cup final in 1994, an event that created an army of American CFL junkies still suffering from withdrawal to this day.

So what is it about hockey, and about Canadians, that makes an entire country rally around a team like the Edmonton Oilers? One of sports' greatest dynasties in the days of Gretzky and Messier, today's Oilers aren't nearly as glamorous. Geographically, living and dying with a team from Edmonton would be like Americans going nuts for the Missoula Missoulians.

"Being a Canadian, I am obliged to root for the Oilers in the Stanley Cup," explains Adam Cooper, a small-business owner from Toronto and a Maple Leafs fan. "Sure, all NHL teams are composed of a mix of international players, and Edmonton doesn't have more Canadians on their team than the average NHL team. But cheering for the Canadian team is just how it has to be. Hockey is Canada's game.

"I would equate cheering for the Oilers to cheering for a team within your NCAA conference to win a national championship after your favourite team has been eliminated. Say, you're an Oklahoma football fan. You hate Texas, they're your conference rivals. Yet, when Texas plays USC in the Rose Bowl, you find yourself rooting for them to win. Difficult to explain why, but it just happens."

(Adam insisted I keep the proper Queen's English spelling of "favourite" intact, by the way. He also wanted you to know he'll always root for the Canadian team, except for the hated Montreal Canadiens, of course.)

Maybe we're getting closer to the truth here. Americans don't sew U.S. flags to their backpacks when they travel abroad. Most can't sing their national anthem in two languages, at least not yet.

Then there's the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, the ubiquitous CBC. Any American network -- OK, any American network that doesn't have "American Idol" -- would kill to have the kind of avidity the CBC gets every Saturday night, when a whole country tunes in to watch one show, "Hockey Night in Canada." "Monday Night Football" pulls big ratings, but ABC wouldn't have deigned to call the show "Football Night in America."

Jon Selig, a Montreal native, remembers growing up watching the Canadiens all the time, listening to Dick Irvin call the action as Guy Lafleur and Larry Robinson led the team into battle. Just as no single network resonates with Americans the way the CBC does with Canadians, no sport dominates kids' imaginations in the U.S. the way hockey does in Canada.

"The Stanley Cup is something every Canadian kid dreams of when he's playing on the street with his buddies," Selig says.

Talk to many Canadians long enough and you'll drill down to something few want to confess publicly: There's an inferiority complex at work here, too. Whether we want to admit it or not, we're heavily influenced by American culture, maybe a little jealous of it, too. Saturday night aside, you'd be far more likely to find "American Idol" on the tube in Calgary or Ottawa than the public television fare the CBC offers the other 165 hours a week.

Canadians know this is happening, yet they keep doing it. After all, you guys get all the cool stuff first. DVRs are just now hitting Canadian homes in earnest. Americans already were cranking up their TiVos halfway through the Chretien administration (that's Clinton's second term for you Yanks). So after we do our cross-border shopping in Burlington or Buffalo, we speed back home, douse ourselves in Canadian Grade A maple syrup, and devour as much hockey as we can. And we don't have to turn to Channel 7,842 on our dial to find it on the Outdoor Life Network, either.

"Americans tolerate hockey but don't seem to have the same entitlement to the sport," argues David Bajurny, producer of the feature hockey documentary "The Chiefs," a real-life "Slap Shot" story about a minor league team from Quebec. "When [a Canadian team] is winning, everyone is a fan, like how everyone seems to be Irish on St. Patrick's Day.

"Last I checked, both teams had an almost equal mix of Canuck and Yankee players. Like our economy and growing foreign policy, it's hard to tell the difference between Americans and Canadians anymore. Maybe I should travel more with a Canadian flag tattooed on my forehead to find out. I'd say I'm a proud Canadian but fear I'd end up sounding too much like an American."

Talking to other Canadians about their rabid support for a Canadian team playing for the Cup -- there's only one trophy that matters in Canada -- made me realize a painful truth about myself: Until this spring, I wasn't one of those people.

I grew up in Montreal, where hockey is religion. Growing up a fan of the Habs (short for "les Habitants") was like growing up a Yankees fan. Your team represented the royalty of the sport, the one with the most championships (by far), the most venerable stadium, the greatest players and the richest legacy. Just as Yankees fans dismissed Red Sox fans as second-class citizens whose team would never win, we Habs fans looked down our noses at the star-crossed Maple Leafs, a team that shot itself in the foot every time it had a chance to win it all.

On a typical spring Saturday, you'd haul the nets out of your garage, grab your sticks and that rock-hard orange rubber ball, and spend all day playing street hockey. In the winter, same drill, except on ice, in the bitter cold, playing 4-on-4 games of shinny.

It wasn't just playing the game, either. In school, the girl walking down the hallways wearing the Patrick Roy or Guy Carbonneau jersey always caught your eye. On Saturday night, ambitious fans would try to score tickets to the jam-packed Montreal Forum. "Hockey Night in Canada" was great, but there was a certain status attached to fans who could make it to the game in person to see all the championship banners and retired jerseys up close.

I was one of the lucky ones because my family was close with a few members of the Molson clan, the same Molsons who owned the Canadiens for years and ruled the Canadian beer landscape for decades. That meant first-row seats behind the net a few times every season, each game one of the highlights of my year.

But time and distance can make you forget. I've spent the past nine years living in the States. There are a few U.S. cities where hockey's a big deal. But living in Seattle, L.A. and Washington, D.C., isn't the same as throwing octopi on the ice in Detroit. Instead of rooting for hockey heroes, I latched onto Ichiro, Reggie Bush, and, uh ... Ledell Eackles.

This year, things started to change. I drove up to Vancouver in January to see the Canucks play the Canadiens. It was a cold Saturday night, and the city was rocking. Walking up to General Motors Place flanked by thousands of hockey fans, it suddenly felt as though I was back in my element. When the tune from the street performer playing the sax hit me as I approached the arena, I got chills -- it was the "Hockey Night in Canada" theme.

It continued when I got inside. The public-address announcer introduced Canadiens legend Henri Richard, and the crowd -- Canucks fans and Habs fans alike -- delivered a thunderous standing ovation that seemed to last forever.

The anthem started. The singer got through the first stanza, then held up the microphone for the crowd to sing. All at once, the sellout crowd of 18,630 started belting out the words to "O Canada." It was deafening. It was inspiring.

The old patriotic feelings started escalating this spring. After barely noticing them since the Charles Barkley years, I suddenly became a huge Phoenix Suns fan. On my recent trip to Victoria, B.C., the locals were fawning over native son Steve Nash, hanging on every frenetic Suns fast break. This despite most Canadians not knowing Mike D'Antoni from Mike Krushelnyski.

After the Habs bowed out in the first round of this year's playoffs -- and they would have won for sure if Saku didn't get hurt! -- I started searching for a Canadian team to root for, almost without realizing it. The Oilers were already a great story. Here was a No. 8 seed vying to become the biggest underdog ever to make it to the Cup finals. Edmonton had a fun, freewheeling style of play.

When the Oilers were left as the last Canadian team standing, the decision became obvious. What better team to claim the Stanley Cup for Canada for the first time in 13 years? By the time Rexall Place fans did the national anthem one better with this rousing rendition, I was hooked. This wasn't a random group of guys in a faraway prairie town representing a few people in Alberta. This was Prongs, and Ryan, and Roli ... our boys.

With the team down 2-0 and the playoffs' best player out for the duration on a freak injury, it's hard to like the Oilers' chances. But the series is headed back to Edmonton, where Rexall will be full of people ready to shout the anthem from the top of their lungs. Like 32.5 million others, I'll be backing Canada's team. Eh.

Jonah Keri's writing has appeared in the New York Times, Playboy and other publications, including the new book "Baseball Between the Numbers." Regale him with your fondest hockey memories at jonahkeri@gmail.com.




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FOREVER CANADA