I grew up like most Canadian kids. I know Roch Carrier’s classic The Hockey Sweater by heart. I learned about the ’72 Summit Series and Paul Henderson’s winning goal (and Team Canada’s deliberate slashing of Valeri Kharlamov’s ankle during game six) in Mrs. Biondi’s grade 11 Canadian history class.
I watched all the men in my life (and some of the women) play hockey on outside community rinks or, if we were lucky, a dark small-town arena while trying to keep warm with a rink burger and watery hot chocolate. I was taught how to do a slapshot in my 2nd-grade gym class, and shoulder-checked my brother into a wall during a game of floor hockey at church when I was a teenager.
A love and respect for Canada’s national sport was definitely part of my upbringing. It wasn’t forced on me like piano lessons and German-immersion school was. It was just there. Hockey Night in Canada was Saturday night. On Monday nights, my brother and dad played in a father/son hockey league. April 28, 1996, was forever known as the day my family said goodbye to our home team, the Winnipeg Jets. One-minute TV spots about the Rocket, the first goalie mask, and Maple Leaf Gardens ran for years, stating this was all “part of our heritage.”
From a very young age, you catch on quickly to what’s expected of you when watching your national sport. Always yell “Woo hoo!” when “Song 2” by Blur comes on over the arena’s sound system. Yell “Hey” during Gary Glitter’s “Rock n’ Roll part 2” (better known as the “Hey Song”). “Oooh” and “Ahhhh” when a goal is prevented or a hip check well placed. Boo the refs endlessly and declare from your seat that your blind and deceased great, great grandmother could referee a better game. Cheer when your team scores as if you personally had something to do with the gain in points.
The first time I stood in the Post Finance Arena in Bern, Switzerland with my husband and our friend from Brazil, I saw fans raise an 80-foot flag over one section of the arena while singing the official canton anthem. It was in that deafeningly loud moment I recognized this was not the hockey fandom I was brought up with. The Swiss don’t just like hockey, they love hockey. And watching the synchronized dance moves and the trumpet- and drum-playing fans, I realized maybe Canadians don’t like hockey as much as we think we do.
I found myself feeling completely unprepared for the experience, despite my hockey-loving pedigree. Everyone knew the players’ names. All the announcer had to do was say their first names and the crowd would respond with their last in a great roar of enthusiasm. The beer my husband handed me was not in a disposable plastic cup but a hard plastic reuseable one emblazoned with the SC (Sport Club) Bern logo. Each cup had a 2 chf deposit, which you got back if you returned it at game’s end.
As the game unfolded, the singing picked up fervor. This wasn’t your average “woo hoo!” or “hey!” — this was singing songs about how SC Bern was going to win, in Swiss German, to the tune of “Oh When the Saints.” I asked my husband, “Did we miss the song sheets on the way in?” There was a song or chant with accompanying dance moves or hand gestures for every occasion: penalties, bad calls, when the fans for the other team were cheering louder than our fans.
Speaking of fans for the other team, I noticed they didn’t mingle with us. I thought this was odd. I remember my dad and older brother going to a Winnipeg versus Edmonton game in the early ’90s where my brother was one of the very few people in the whole place wearing a Jets jersey. Standing in this Swiss arena — yes, I paid to stand to watch a hockey game — I couldn’t find any of the opposing team’s fans.
I knew they were there, somewhere. I could hear them and see the gestures being made towards them, but where were they? Our friend from Brazil finally pointed them out to me. They were in their own section, which had its own security, its own entrance, and its very own concession. There was no fan intermingling to be had.
As we stood, mumbled along with the SC Bern fans’ songs so we didn’t stick out too much, and ducked more than one large flag being waved around us, we couldn’t escape one thing:
- “So what happened there?”
“Why did that happen?”
“What did he do wrong?”
“Is that even allowed?”
That’s when my ah-ha moment happened. The Swiss love hockey, like they love all their sports. They love the tribal loyalty. They love the speed and athleticism.
Canadians, however, know hockey. Hockey is in our bones. We teach our children about The Rocket, The Great One, and The Eagle. We don’t dance, sing, and wave flags because we’re too busy calculating where the puck is going to be.
In fact, we were starting to wonder if the only reason we were invited was so we could explain the game. Not that our friends didn’t know the basics. They knew when a goal was scored or when someone was sent to the sin bin, but other than that they just opted to ask the Canadians for clarification. The theme for the evening, despite all the joy and dancing around us, was, “when in doubt, ask the Canadians — they know hockey!”
Unfortunately though, we don’t have a song for that.