Hockey was in the news around the world this week, but I discovered a story written by a British journalist that was off the beaten path from most of the stories I read. Alisdair Reid, a columnist in the London Sunday Times, wrote, ‘Is it a coincidence that the country which produced the inexplicably popular Celine Dion should also come up with a sport that is almost unwatchable? If you actually see the puck, you might see the point, but it zips across the ice invisible to the naked eye, the whirling antics of men wrapped in bedspreads stop to have a fight, and all are sent off.’
Two different cultures; two different experiences. The biggest fan I know (other than you, the readers of ‘A Fan For All Seasons,’ of course), is my British-born and -raised friend Tim Burgess, who moved here to Canada seven years ago and adopted hockey as his sport of choice. In fact, while writing this, Tim e-mailed me on a flight from London to Toronto, asking me for results of last night’s contest against the Canadiens. But Tim also loves cricket, and not only do I not understand it, but I have no desire to understand it.
Sitting up in the purple section at Leaf games is always a unique experience. We like to say, “The true fans sit up in the purples,” but I don’t know that the fans in the platinums are any less passionate than those who sit around me. Maybe just better off.
At Maple Leaf Gardens, our section was a community unto itself. We knew each other, asked, “How’s the family,” would note when a regular would bring a new date to the game and were worried when we didn’t see them for a few games. It may be a symptom of the cost of attending games, but there are very few familiar faces around me at the ACC. Many of the season ticket holders in my section sell off the majority of their games, select one or two for themselves and then show up for the playoffs. As a result, there is always a parade of new faces to the section. And the seats next to me always seem to have interesting occupants. On Thursday, two students from Scranton Pennsylvania watched their first NHL game in the seats to my left. A few weeks ago, a couple from Windsor got engaged in the seats. But there are often fans from much further away. Earlier in the season, two buddies from Germany were doing a hockey roadtrip, visiting Pittsburgh, Detroit, Toronto and Buffalo on their week’s vacation. They were having the time of their lives, and although I speak no German and they spoke little English, we communicated in that universal language called hockey. Last week, a couple from Sweden caught the Leafs game. They told me a great story. It seems everywhere they went in Toronto, they were asked where they were from. When they replied, “Sweden,” the person asking would usually then say, “Oh, then you must know Mats Sundin.” After replying, “Actually, no. We live nowhere near Bromma where Sundin is from” so many times, a lightbulb went off over their heads. The answer quickly changed to, “Actually, yes. We’re over here in Toronto to see him.” The revised response had provided them with a couple of free meals. Canada: what a country!
Last season, there was a really nice young boy and his Dad sitting next to me. Jordan Bodfield was all of 7 years old, wearing a Leaf sweater so long it practically swept the corridor and the sleeves were twice the length of his arms. He wouldn’t have been more excited if Santa Claus was on his way down the chimney. I heard father and son talk and realized they were from somewhere in England, so introduced myself and began to chat. It turns out several young players with the Sheffield Samurai minor hockey team follow the Toronto Maple Leafs like religion, so the fathers saved up both their money and vacation time and brought them to Toronto for a holiday. They saw Niagara Falls, went to the CN Tower, visited the Hockey Hall of Fame and, the best treat of all, had tickets for the Leafs game! The various fathers and sons were scattered throughout the arena, but I had Jordan and his father Lee sitting beside me. Jordan was able to eat ice cream, popcorn and cotton candy (usually all at once) without ever taking his eyes off the ice.
During the first intermission, I asked Jordan about his team. It turns out the Sheffield Samurai were something like 25 and 0, and had not surrendered a single goal all season. Jordan hadn’t scored yet, but he had come close many times. I thought this might be a little boy’s imagination talking, but his Dad said no, it was absolutely true.
Jordan told me about some of the British teams he liked. He loved the Sheffield Steelers, his hometown team, but also liked the Nottingham Panthers. As I recall, he had no use for the Manchester Storm and especially the Newcastle Jesters. “Who is your favourite player?” I asked, trying to prolong the conversation. “Tookah,” he replied with no hesitancy. I couldn’t make out what Jordan said through his thick Yorkshire accent. “Sorry Jordan, who is your favourite player?” “Tookah! I really like Tookah!!” he responded, much more demonstrably this time. “Oh yeah?” I said, thinking Tookah must be the star of the Sheffield Steelers or one of the other British teams. “Is he any good?” Jordan took his eyes off the ice surface for the first time since arriving at the Air Canada Centre, glared straight at me and through gritted teeth, punctuated his repeated answer. “I LIKE TOOKAH!!” Then he pointed down to the ice surface at number 16 for the Toronto Maple Leafs. (gulp) Oh my, did I feel foolish! All along, Jordan had been trying to tell me he was a fan of Darcy TUCKER.
Kevin Shea has been a Toronto Maple Leaf season ticket holder since 1985. A FAN FOR ALL SEASONS reflects my views on the Toronto Maple Leafs as observed from my seat in the purples.