Canada’s sports culture and the rest of the world

From within the confines of an increasingly pluralistic society, it can oftentimes be difficult for countries like Canada to lay claim on any one particular activity, style or happening. However, as one of only a handful of things that stand alone, being distinctly Canadian, the game of hockey has come to embody and dominate our national sports culture.

While lacrosse technically remains the Canadian national sport du jour, de facto, no sport, not lacrosse, nor football, nor curling has permeated the national psyche quite like hockey. Many Canadians identify both our passion and our talent for the game as a point of pride, while the Stanley Cup — awarded annually to the champion of the National Hockey League — has become a full-fledged national icon in itself.

During the winter months, CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada has continued as one of the highest-ranked programmes in Canadian television history with nearly 1.9 million viewers tuning in on Dec. 19 to watch a meaningless midseason matchup pitting the underachieving Boston Bruins against the lowly Toronto Maple Leafs. Likewise, the annual International Ice Hockey Federation’s World Junior Hockey Championships are always a ratings bonanza for TSN and the event has become a venerable holiday tradition for thousands of Canadian sports fans.

Each year, as winter draws down to a welcome close, thousands of Canadians mark the change in season not by the warmer weather, longer days or the sudden emergence of green buds, but rather, by playoff hockey. Starting in mid-April and culminating in early June, with the crowning of a new Stanley Cup Champion, the NHL playoffs showcase the very best of Canada’s sports culture. In cities and towns stretching from Victoria, B.C. to Cornerbrook, N.L., raucous fans from all walks of life frequent pubs and sports bars, sporting their team gear while the pints of Keith’s flow and large flatscreens broadcast live games from all over the continent.

Although the true Canadian hockey hotbeds are located in our country’s small towns and rural communities, when the NHL playoffs roll around, the epicenter of the sport is often in the major cities where the six Canadian NHL clubs call home. In recent years, as both the Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have made deep, and unlikely playoff runs, fans took to the streets in droves to celebrate each victory. Referencing the thousands of fans in team colours, Edmonton’s Whyte Avenue and Calgary’s 17th Avenue have even been dubbed the Copper Mile and Red Mile, respectively. Hockey, at both the club and international level evokes our national sports devotion in its purest form. The sport has undoubtedly retained the unofficial title as Canada’s national pastime.

Still, when you look around at cultures around the world, you get the sense that, while Canada’s passion for hockey is certainly notable, our sports obsession rarely, if ever, reaches the crazed fever pitch seen in other countries. Yes, each spring, thousands of Flames fans clog Calgary’s downtown business district and transform it into the Red Mile, but this is only during the playoffs and only when the team is winning. Compare this to the 92,000-plus who crammed the University of Alabama’s football stadium to witness the Crimson Tide’s 2007 red-white intrasquad scrimmage game, or consider the approximately 81,000 names on the 30-year waiting list for Green Bay Packers season tickets at the often-frigid Lambeau Field. Yes, 2.5 million folks brought in millions of advertising dollars as they sat through the 16-0 drubbing of Latvia by the Canadian National Junior team on Boxing Day, but when the English National Football team (soccer) failed to qualify for the 2008 European Championships, it cost their national economy upwards of £2 billion (C$3.4 billion).

Further, while debate continues to rage in these parts over whether or not the Greater Toronto Area can successfully support a second NHL team in addition to their two CFL teams and NBA and MLB franchises, Melbourne, Australia, with a population of four million, hosts nine different Aussie Rules Football teams (their most popular sport), along with multiple franchises in their national rugby and soccer and cricket leagues. The bottom line is that despite the hallowed place that hockey holds within our own sports culture, Canada rarely competes with other countries in terms of sports-craziness.

This then, for many Canadian sports and hockey fans, myself included, is the promise of the upcoming 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. Not only does Canada have a unique opportunity to demonstrate its winter sporting prowess on home turf with a strong finish on the official medal table, but also with Men’s Hockey as the marquee event, Canada can finally establish itself as a legitimate sporting nation. If the intense media attention and the fevered buildup to the Team Canada selection news conference on Dec. 30 is of any indication, this tournament could be unlike any other in Canadian sports history. After more than a year of nearly constant sportswriter debate, fantasy pools and water cooler discussion over player predictions and analysis, when Canada finally hits the ice in Canada Hockey Place for its first round robin match versus Norway on Feb. 16, hockey fans in this country will likely be whipped up into a frenzy. If Team Canada can then live up to its immense hype and potential and ultimately find itself in medal contention, the country may just shut down in anticipation (and hopefully, celebration).

Even if the national sporting phenomenon only lasts for a couple weeks, it will still be an event for hockey fans to revel in and one for Canadians in general to cherish. The anticipation and fervour expected to accompany the men’s tournament this February promises to be a uniquely Canadian experience. The men’s Olympic hockey tournament will, however briefly, place our sporting culture on par with the other sports-mad countries around the world and by bringing together millions of people in support of a common cause, Team Canada’s pursuit of gold in Vancouver will hopefully be an event for all Canadians to be proud of.