Canada's passion knows no bounds

Nothing in the United States compares to Canada's love affair with hockey. And that's too bad.

Updated: February 24, 2004, 7:59 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

Canada, we're jealous.

You have one sport, far more than any other, intrinsically linked to the national spirit and character.

In the United States, we don't. Not any longer.

Today, the six Canadian-based NHL franchises matched up in three games, and the CBC and others are treating it as a coast-to-coast, "Hockey Day in Canada" commemoration of what the game means to the nation.

At every level.

On hockey's Canada Day (not to be confused with the official July 1 national holiday), we Americans can be envious, but we can also thank the nation that gave us the Guess Who, Barenaked Ladies, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Molson's, Labatt Blue, Canadian Club and Tim Horton's for also exporting its national sport.

We probably would be laughed out of the U.S. media if we tried to bill this as a corresponding USA Day, involving the other seven games -- all involving U.S.-based franchises -- on Saturday's NHL schedule.

The same would be true if we lobbied that the NHL should have all 30 NHL teams play on a specific Saturday, so three games could be part of Canada Day, and the other 12 could comprise USA Day.

Either could be a celebration of hockey from Farmington Hills, Mich., to Bend, Ore., to Framingham, Mass., to Bismarck, N.D. A TV network could start the day showing a pee wee game in Warroad, Minn., and conclude with an adult recreational league game shown live from Chicago, where hockey interest has outlived the Blackhawks.

Nope. That wouldn't fly. Though hockey has become a national sport in the U.S., it doesn't have a national hold and it doesn't define us.

But if the argument is that, well, hockey is the No. 4 sport in the U.S. and we could have a corresponding coast-to-coast celebration in another sport, the truth also is we have nothing in the U.S. that is directly analogous to Canadian passion for hockey.

Our Canada Day, perhaps, is Super Bowl Sunday, but that has more to do with gambling, with parties, with the feeling that this is the culmination of a season, than it is an illustration that football passion defines us.

We used to be that passionate, within the limitations and context of the times, about baseball. Once baseball lost its mysteriousness, once geeks began to try to make it a metaphor for the American existence, once scribes began writing about it as a numbers racket rather than a sport, and once it had more intimidating competition from football and basketball, baseball was receding from the U.S. consciousness.

Baseball was much more of an All-American game when fans stood in Times Square and watched the play-by-play being posted, when kids could memorize the rosters of all 16 major-league teams, and when the boxscores in the paper or radio broadcasts had to serve as the script for games unfolding in the imagination. Baseball used to spawn both dreams and great literature; now the big deal is that it spawns fantasy leagues.

When was the last time you saw a 12-year-old keeping score at a major league game, or in his bedroom as he listened to the radio -- or even as he watched the game on TV?

That's what I thought.

But Canada still is like that with hockey. I'm not even sure this is explainable, but when if you attend the pee wee tournament in Quebec City or a major junior game in Kamloops, you somehow feel a bit of the same aura that you sense in the Air Canada Centre on a Maple Leafs night.

It is part of a national passion, and one that is catching. In a diverse nation, the Pakistani cab driver might have honed his English by watching "Hockey Night in Canada," and though you can barely understand him, he is telling you Pat Quinn is using the wrong guys on the point. Canadians often grouse about the NHL and sometimes even seem to hate what it has become, but they care enough to invest the energy and passion in the discussion.

There have been thousands and thousands of empty seats at NHL games in Canadian cities in recent years. Canadian journalists often cling to the view that empty seats in Canada reflect discerning and wise consumers, while empty seats for rotten teams in the U.S. means they are bad hockey markets.

But even those of us cynical about that concede this: Hockey's hold on the Canadian consciousness remains strong and like nothing we have in the U.S., whether that means minor hockey at the local rink or the NHL.

For those six NHL franchises, shuffling of lines merit entire stories, though it only happens, oh, 228 times a season.

Two losses in a row and the coach should be fired and the roster dismantled; two wins in a row and, by God, the boys are never going to lose again and the civic fathers better start planning the Stanley Cup parade.

Twenty-six writers and 18 television cameras jam into the dressing room. The visitors' dressing room. After the morning skate.

In many U.S. markets, television sports anchors need a map to get to the hockey dressing room -- if they ever show up. The two or three beat writers often have the dressing room to themselves.

The sports section at the bookstore -- Chapters or Coles -- has a handful of first-class books about hockey, and Roy MacGregor's "The Last Season" is the kind of quality novel American writers used to do about baseball.

Here, hockey interest is a solid and passionate niche, and the game more and more is trickling down to the grassroots level in such markets as Dallas and Denver. USA Hockey, the game's national governing body, has been an effective overseer of the sport from the ground on up. But we'll never get to where Canada is.

Let's put it this way: In the U.S., Mike Eruzione is a celebrity.

In Canada, Paul Henderson is a hero.

Happy Canada Day, everyone.

Wherever you are.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming," available nationwide, and 2004's "Third Down and a War to Go."

Terry Frei

ESPN.com contributor
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."