Once upon a time, in a café in Montreal, a very nice, very drunk, very old man tried to tell me that Winnipeg was the true heart of Canada. I am still not very clear on his exact argument, for as I say he was very drunk, and my French is not good. But according to this man, there was at one time in Winnipeg the opportunity for a synthesis of French and English and Native cultures into something uniquely and substantively and originally Canadian, something beautiful and new to the world
It might have had something to do with Louis Riel, or perhaps not, but whatever it was it sounded very grand, and the old gentleman was very sad indeed that it had never come to pass, for he said the tragedy of Canada was that it was too long beholden to the identities and rivalries of the Old World, and had not the courage to be itself. Maybe it is true, maybe it’s not, but between this wistful old man and Guy Maddin, I have developed a superficial but persistent soft spot for Winnipeg.
These days, of course, that’s nothing special. Everybody has a soft spot for Winnipeg right now. The resurrection of the Jets has drawn forth from the Canadian hockey-populace a wave of misty-eyed sentimentality so thick and fluffy you could use it to ship a million wine glasses to Vladivostok, if that’s your idea of a good time.
It won’t last. Canadians love the idea of Canadian teams on principle, but in practice they seem to hate all of them save their own. Look at what happened to poor Vancouver. There is this fantasy that floats around, occasionally, that a Finals-reaching Canadian team will become not just ‘a Canadian team’ but ‘Canada’s Team’, that the great mass of the Canadian people will come together in nationalistic support of their squad against the American usurpers. There are certainly a few people who feel that way, mostly diplomatically-minded general-NHL sportswriters, but it always looks to me like the balance of fan sentiment in Canada tends to tilt against the Canadian team rather than for it. Certainly it worked that way with all the Canadian fans I know personally, although to be fair I know a lot of contrary-ass motherfuckers.
It makes sense, really. If you’re a big NHL fan, you spend all season rooting against your closest divisional rivals, which means in practice that if you’re a fan of a Canadian team you’re wishing despair, destruction and despoliation on at least two other Canadian teams. It’s tough to turn all that antagonism around, for any cause. Moreover, there’s the better-no-one-than-someone-else problem: bringing the Cup back to Canada is a font of glory unending, grounds for justifiable swagger and braggadocio, and no one wants to have some other team’s fans lording that shit over them for the next twenty-five years, just as everyone longs to be the ones doing the lording.
I heard all kinds of excuses for refusing to support Vancouver in the Final, long before the riots provided the ultimate excuse. The team is too European, their fans are assholes, they already got the Olympics so they don’t need anymore good shit, the city is full of drug addicts, Luongo sucks. All, obviously, thoughtful and well-reasoned arguments, but all I think bullshit, because it basically comes down to the fact that the primary mode of relation between the various Canadian fanbases is antagonism, and that as they say is that. In a couple of years, Winnipeg will be just another rival, and nobody in Toronto or Edmonton or Calgary will have any warm fuzzies for them.
But in this moment, while the Jets are still fresh triumph, how are you supposed to try to score on them, in their own building, in their first game in fifteen years, on Thanksgiving weekend, with thousands of hopeful prairie folk making plaintive puppy eyes at you? If there is any certain proof that the NHL hates Montreal, it is that they put the Canadiens in this most villainous of roles. They might as well just go the whole way and make my Habs wear long black Snidely Whiplash moustaches all game long, to be twirled nefariously between shifts. They might as well take away their water bottles and make them tear the throats out of helpless baby bunnies with their bare teeth and drink the blood that flows therefrom. They would not put their precious Leafs or Flames in this patently evil position; nor less the sainted Penguins, the holy Capitals. No, it falls to Montreal to be the bad guys, crushing the nascent joy of Manitoba in their feverish Quebecois jaws.
They have to try to win, of course. You can’t not try to win a game a hockey game. Deliberate losing goes against the entire point of the thing. Like the court system, it is the pursuit of truth through competition. Everyone tries their absolute hardest to achieve victory for their side, and through the battle we discover how good the game can actually be. If players went around doing less than their best, we would never know what the best of the best might be. Professional hockey cannot tolerate slacking, even slacking for a good cause, for such would undermine the integrity of the sport.
But, O Hockey Gods, this city has lived the very nightmare with which the rest of us are continually threatened. Every time the arena is getting a little old, every time the Canadian dollar falls, every time there’s talk of a tax hike, some dour man crawls out of the front office and solemnly tells the papers that, if things keep going this way, the team might have to move South. Whether it’s true or not, it is the only thing the rest of us really fear, and in Winnipeg it happened. They had a team and they had to watch it go and be left with no one to root for, no next season to dream upon.
Goddamnit, I don’t wanna be Snidely Whiplash to these people.
Winnipeg deserves to win this game, because this moment has been such a long time coming. Because sentimentality aside, they’ve got a weak team and the seasons ahead are going to be hard. Because Montreal has had so many moments, more than anyone, more than everyone, because we are rich in everything that Winnipeg lost. Because every story needs a bad guy, and it’s not so bad to be the villain, so long as you don’t win, because the whole point of evil in stories is to lose to the good. Because it is the beginning, and in these tender early days of the season we can afford a loss, because there are still eighty games left in which to earn the fate we deserve. Because soon enough the charm will wear off and they’ll be crying woe-is-me and hounding long-suffering Scandinavians out of town the way the rest of us have been doing for the past twenty years, and they’ll need something beautiful to look back on. Because a resurrection is a miraculous thing, even in the NHL.
Of course, the Canadiens shouldn’t try to lose, because that would be unethical and contrary to the spirit of competitive sport. But if they do, just this once, it’s okay, because this is the one where the story is rightfully bigger than the season, and it would be better- for all of us, for hockey- if it were a good story. So for this one and only one game because come Monday morning you guys are my ENEMIES for evermore no matter how plaintive your puppy-dog eyes…