How to Have a Hockey Night in Canada
How To: From Montreal to Sault Ste. Marie, the sport is the country's greatest passion. Eva Holland explains where to go to indulge -- and who you need to know.
04.16.08 | 4:25 PM ET
T he situation: It’s Saturday night, a.k.a. Hockey Night, in Canada, and across the Great White North the local arenas, bars and family rooms are filling up with fans. If you’re ready to immerse yourself in a bit of genuine Canadian culture, then look no further.
The basics: The game’s origins are murky, but hockey in a recognizable, organized form was first played in Canada (naturally) in the mid-to-late 1800s. In 1892, the Governor General of Canada, Lord Stanley, donated a silver cup to be awarded each year to the best Canadian amateur hockey club. More than 100 years later, the Stanley Cup remains the most sought-after hockey trophy in the world.
The National Hockey League: The NHL is the sport’s premier professional league: Thirty teams in cities across the United States and Canada compete each year for the Stanley Cup. But the NHL’s “product,” as it’s called these days, has become increasingly dull and the pro rinks lack atmosphere and community. Ticket prices have gone far beyond the reach of the average fan, and corporate boxes predominate.
Still, it’s the longstanding rivalry between two classic NHL teams that has made the biggest impact on Canadian culture. The Toronto Maple Leafs and the Montreal Canadiens have been going head to head for more than 80 years, and any match-up between them is worth seeing. Their mutual dislike has often mirrored Canada’s troubled English-French divide, and even been used in literature and film to explain the country’s so-called “two solitudes.” Roch Carrier’s The Hockey Sweater (”Le Chandail de Hockey”), about a Quebecois boy who is forced to wear a Leafs jersey, is as essential a children’s story for young Canadians as “Curious George” or “The Cat in the Hat” for Americans.
Expect to book far in advance or deal with a scalper if you’d like to see the Leafs play at home, and Montreal tickets are only slightly easier to come by. If you have your heart set on seeing this legendary match-up, you may want to consider bellying up to the bar at a local sports ‘n’ wings joint. (See “Hockey on TV,” below.)
Canadian Hockey League: While the NHL brass write business plans on how to re-brand their product in a growth market like China, many fans have turned instead to the Canadian Hockey League (CHL)—and, as a visitor, you’re likely to have a more memorable experience by doing the same. With 50 teams in 10 provinces, the CHL showcases the world’s best amateur players under the age of 20. This is classic hockey: small-town boys putting on a show for 4,000 of their biggest fans, knowing that they just might be the hottest ticket in town. For a tenth of the price of an NHL game, you’ll see a fast, hard-hitting game played by skilled young men who aren’t yet weighed down by millions of dollars and the expectations that come with them.
Where to go: One town where you’re guaranteed a vintage CHL hockey night is Sault Ste. Marie, in northwestern Ontario. The “Soo” Greyhounds have been competing in one league or another since 1919, and their Hall of Fame alumni include Ron Francis, Paul Coffey and Wayne Gretzky. The team has a rabid following in this isolated northern town, and a night out at the Greyhounds game won’t disappoint.
The Soo is way off the tourist track: a cool 450 miles northwest of Toronto, at the meeting point of Lake Superior and Lake Huron, and just across the border from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. (So if you have an uncle in Mackinaw City, you’re in luck.) But if a long drive into rugged untamed wilderness isn’t your thing, there are also plenty of teams within easy striking distance of the big urban centers. From Toronto, try the Oshawa Generals, who lay claim to NHL stars all the way from “Terrible” Ted Lindsay and Bobby Orr to Dave Andreychuk and Eric Lindros. Out West, the Red Deer Rebels are within reach of Alberta’s major ski resorts at Banff, Lake Louise and Kananaskis. Visitors to Quebec can check out the Drummondville Voltigeurs, on the South shore of the Saint Lawrence between Montreal and Quebec City.
At a pro game, as in baseball, you’d find the biggest fans waaay up in the cheap seats. But in the CHL’s smaller rinks, you’ll see many more die-hards and far fewer corporate types wooing their clients. Up top or rink-side, it doesn’t much matter where you sit.
Know the etiquette: Hockey purists have been resisting the transition from “game” to “entertainment” for a long time, and so most rinks are still catching up on the modern pro sports experience you might be used to. Cheerleaders are a rarity and there is no equivalent to baseball’s seventh-inning stretch. One constant, though, from coast to coast, is Stompin’ Tom Connors’ classic, “The Hockey Song.” It’s up there with the national anthem, “O Canada,” as far as most hockey fans are concerned. Learn the words and be prepared.
And, speaking of the anthem, fans are expected to stand and remove their hats, singing along is encouraged, and most people don’t tend to wait until the end to start cheering their team on. The first time you hear “we stand on guard for thee” (or in the French version, “protegera nos foyers et nos droits”), it’s time to start hooting and hollering.
Hockey has a whole book’s worth of unusual terminology, and while no one is going to expect you to know where the goalie’s “five-hole” is, they will expect you to know that in hockey, he is a goalie or a goaltender or a netminder—under no circumstances should you refer to him as a “keeper.” Booing or razzing the opposing goalie is common, as is the heckling the referees, but it’s considered bad form to boo your own team unless they are putting on a spectacularly sad display. Don’t be surprised if a fistfight draws a standing ovation.
The “hat trick” is not unique to hockey but the fan reaction seems to be. If a single player scores three goals in the same game, the fans respond by tossing their hats onto the ice—hat tricks are relatively rare, but if you really want to come prepared, you may want to bring an old cap. No hat-throwing is required for the “Gordie Howe hat trick,” though. That’s when a single player, following in the footsteps of the feisty old-timer for whom the feat is named, scores a goal, is awarded an assist on someone else’s goal, and joins in a fight, all in the same game.
Watch on TV: If you can’t make it to the rink, track down some televised hockey in the nearest pub—a night out with a handful of avid fans is sometimes more fun than the rink itself.
CHL hockey is rarely televised and doesn’t draw crowds to the bars even when it is shown, so seek out a high-profile professional or international-level game. Big games bring out the most (and the most boisterous) fans, so look out for the classic rivalries already mentioned.
Hit the bars and street parties: While any sports bar (and really, any pub, nightclub or restaurant with a functioning TV) is almost certain to be showing a hockey game every Saturday night from October to June, not all locations are equal. Calgary’s 17th Avenue (dubbed “The Red Mile”) is a legendary bar strip where Flames fans congregate to watch the games. At playoff time, which starts this week, they’ve been known to let the party spill into the streets. Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue (“The Blue Mile”) and, to a lesser extent Ottawa’s Elgin Street (“The Sens Mile”) boast similar party scenes.
Know the icons: Hockey, like baseball, has a long, colorful list of iconic moments and characters. You won’t need to know them all, but there are a few names so big, you might want to make a note of them. Gretzky (“The Great One”) is almost undisputedly the greatest player of all time. Hot on his heels are Gordie Howe (“Mr. Hockey”) and Maurice Richard (“The Rocket”). Bobby Orr (he doesn’t have a nickname—most folks just call him Bobby) is the player most people argue could have beaten Gretzky for the number-one spot, if his career hadn’t been cut short by injuries.
Lastly, Canada’s hockey legends aren’t all found on the ice. If you end up catching a game on TV, chances are you’ll be watching CBC’s venerable Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. The irascible intermission commentator, Don Cherry, was an unlikely finalist in a recent contest to name the greatest Canadian of all time. Hearing his theories on the innate cowardice of European and French-Canadian players, or how helmets actually cause concussions, is almost as essential a Canadian experience as the game of hockey itself.