SATURDAY NIGHT, HOCKEY NIGHT IN CANADA
It’s so quiet for an audience of nearly 20,000. The blades slicing the ice and the thwack of hockey sticks were the only sounds. No music or imploring PA cheers for an NBA franchise. No 12th man for the Seattle Seahawks. Just elegant ice borne choreography.
Rogers Arena in the rain is not the best of Vancouver. Huddled under new construction and the intertwined Skyway transit system, arrivals on foot converge on efficient and friendly ticket monitors who banter lightly and easily with families and children. Consigned to the upper reaches, I found a beer stand where a young man said, “follow me”.
“It’s OK just tell me where to go.”
“My pleasure, where are you from?...Oh, Seattle we go there…Yup, its more expensive these days, but we just go to eat.” We lift to the third floor and he walks me to door 315.
(Hmmm, Vancouverites coming to Seattle to eat. I guess the restaurant scene is that good.)?
“Are you a beer drinker?...May I buy you one?...OK, but hope you enjoy one later.
(There is beer everywhere but my TV watching hockey drought in Canada left me with the long gone ubiquity of Molson; now there is the universality of BUD.)
“Do you have hockey in Seattle?...Gee, I hope you get a franchise. The competition would be great, and you’re right we wouldn’t have to make all the long trips we now have for our games. But the big thing is it might get the fans excited. We need that up here. The fans aren’t really with it.”
This isn’t the hockey crowd I knew in New York where the blue collar Rangers of the 50s and later the Islanders, to say nothing of the bluer collar Bruins and Black Hawks brought out the working stiffs who looked like an aggressive hockey line just walking along.
These were the “fashionable” Pacific North Westerners dressed in layers of dull colors, jeans, some boots against the dripping rain and soggy trainers. Couples with a surfeit of tattoos peeking out from patches of exposed skin and the occasional splash of pink or orange hair under a pretty angular face with way too much bright lipstick. Lots of families with another reflection of a changing Canada: Asians, and Middle Easterners of all varieties, Southeast Asians and the rare black face.
The circular track that ringed the arena at each level moved the crowd smoothly as the regulars knew their paths and split off to the tunnels that led up into the seats. Hockey night in Canada is a cultural landmark.
Rogers is an older style arena built in 1995 (that qualifies for old in these days of short-lived stadiums) with high-banked seating. Not quite the near vertical of the basketball arena in Chicago where the top cheap seats let you watch Michael Jordan’s magic from the top down, a unique perspective and treat. Or the old Madison Square Garden that gave you the best ballet seats to watch the Rangers do their thing. But Rogers Arena is fine. I was near oxygen-needed level at one end of the stadium with a clear, unobstructed view, and as luck would have it two rare empty seat to my left leading to an aisle.
South Asian seatmates to my right. A young couple below me, she Asian, he white and a late-arriving yuppyish couple below me to my left. He was annoying and ignored the “please do not lean forward” plea written on the hand bar in front of him. I let it go and moved over one seat. Gotcha.
The young Asian woman had a mobile with at least 7 inch screen that she had attached to an arm-lengthening rod and handle she used to improve her selfie-selection and ability. She and her boyfriend cuddled convincingly. What was left the pre-game was consumed with their selfies, his attentiveness to their selfies and mutual absorption.
The Canucks were hosting the Dallas Stars.
Dallas? Hockey? Inconceivable. What can Dallas know of ice hockey? Field hockey. Lacrosse. Even cricket. But ice hockey in Dallas? The journalist’s mantra clicked in: follow the money. There's an arena. There's TV, even if it is only local. Translation: There are ads.
I remembered. They sing the American National Anthem and O Canada when teams from the two countries meet. A strong male baritone with tenor range did justice to the aggressive and unsingable American anthem. O Canada is almost sweet by contrast; a national love song with promises of defense rather than the rockets red glare.
Rogers Arena had a multi-million dollar TV rebuild to install the TV Jumbotrons. The Bose audio system had been replaced with something bigger, better, clearer. Take that vaunted Bose!
The arena fills up just before the first face-off. Before that you might believe the franchise and the city are in trouble. Vast empty seating areas, but all is well. The cheers and applause that greeted “YOUR VANCOUVER CANUCKS” as they first came on the ice has dissipated and silence greets the face off.
No team controls a face off. It’s a melee of sticks and bodies until someone skates clear and play is underway. The result is no cheer even when your team has the puck. Way too early to consider an advantage. But one and a half minutes into the match Dallas scores. Sloppy defense on the part of the Canucks; they seem to be slow starters. Does not bode well, but the inherent rhythm of ice hockey takes hold and the ballet is on.
3 minutes into play comes what I had expected, a fight. Helmets off but gloves remain and arms swing wildly. Down they go. Out they go, Five minutes apiece for fighting.
Hockey had been a skater’s paradise when I first fell in love with MY NEW YORK RANGERS. Then TV came along and more was needed for the bloodthirsty viewers so hockey nights became fight nights.
I am a coward clothed in non-violence. I deserted hockey and have not been seen since.
But this early fight was the only fight and lasted less than 30 seconds to the enjoyment, but hardly overwhelming shouts and cheers of the arena.
Then it was back to ballet. Dancing, ballet, hockey, basketball are among the activities where the best seats are high up. The top down view is where you see what is going on: the development of play, the patterns, not the whirl of randomness that is seen from the high priced ringside seats on the flat.
I was captivated but also wrapped in the silence that helped concentration. The ice is white, the puck is black, but it’s still two eyeballs' reach to follow the whipped speed of passing, capturing, banking to the next skater, and the instant reversals of play. It all gets lost as players crash into the boards nicely designed to be shock absorbers that leave players with their limbs and muscles largely intact. Not so sure about knees. But hell, running hurts knees too.
The play was a delight as I settled in. Period one ended 1-0 Dallas but the play had patterned.
“The second half face-off is bright to you by Bridgestone.”
The narrow strips of neon ads that cycled every few seconds on the face of the third tier announced this astounding fact. As did the Jumbotron, a four-sided recently installed set of LED high definition screens that permitted the TV addicted to watch play as they do at home, with the benefit of replays…all brought you by…
How much did Bridgestone pay to sponsor the second half face-off? If I went around and through the arena could I find a single fan that was aware of the tip-off sponsor, and would there be one who bought a tire from Bridgestone because the name resonated the next time they went to “Firestone” or “Goodyear” or “Discount Tires”?
I lost track of the number of in-the-arena-sponsors. Banks and travel services, cars, NEXT (free) from the Pepsi stands (30% less sugar and no additional sweeteners). If you have 30% less sugar why on earth would you even think of having additional sweeteners?
You would? Caveat emptor.
Period two evened the score for the Canucks at the far end of the arena in a scrum in front of the goal. The replay made it clear, as it always does. The live event was strictly: take my word for it because you did not see it.
Dallas was Stars when it came to set piece plays. Their patterns were visible; you could see it coming from on high. The challenge of defense was to break it up and the Canucks were doing OK but Dallas was better, at least marginally.
The break between periods two and three were the real half time with the score now tied. Perfect scenario for period three. Anticipation. Suspense. Tension. The conflict that every good story needs and now comes a resolution.
But you wouldn’t know it backstage. Backstage being the fans circulating among the beer and popcorn and hot dog and everything-is-overpriced food and drink stands. I had gone to the lower level to meet friends and was struck by the relaxed nature of the ruminating crowd as it ebbed and flowed. I did not feel tension, nor could I see it. No snarling "we'll get em" epithets. Or "what the hell was the ref thinking?"
The line waiting for the men’s toilet was awesome. Flow control lines that doubled and tripled capacity. Men waited for what turned out to be another efficient traffic flow with: in on one side out on the other. A steady stream that moved.
The toilet scene made me think of a high school physics class when my teacher told us the unforgettable tale of how sanitation engineers learned of their real challenge in designing sewer systems long after the first major sports franchises hit Los Angeles. No, not the fact that an arena of 80 thousand peed and crapped at half time. Rather the late 50s and early 60s when TV became ubiquitous and millions headed for their toilets at every time out, much less half time, in an NFL game. The problem was national reaching into every city, town and village in North America.
(Did you know there are less than 12 minutes of actual play in a 60-minute professional football game? You do the math.)
See high school physics does stick with you. (I flunked first time around, but did a makeup after a summer of tutoring...still only got a B.)
Period three was high tension at 2-2. My high tension that naturally led to conspiracy theories. This is too good. The sport looks impossible to fix. Could the players be that good? Well, I suppose so. Follow the money. The levels of betting are bound to be high. Las Vegas surely has a hockey book.
Dallas scored with about 4 minutes to play. 3-2. Game over?
Crowd noise had been subdued from what I expected. Good plays produced cheers; a score produced a short eruption of joy or sorrow but hardly ear-splitting. A counter score produced the long dull AWWWHHHOOO that tapered off to hurt silence. The Dallas 3-2 score produced a resigned sad, audible lament. No anger. No blame. Just: AW. A few shifted in their seats and prepared to leave.
But no respite on the ice. The Canucks had not given up. More conspiratorial thoughts as the pace of play quickened. Pressure from the Canucks and with a bit more than 2 minutes left: TIE SCORE.
I had forgotten my NFL rules and assumed I had what Bob and Ray on radio had intoned when they announced a tie score: “A wasted day”. I date myself children. For the younger of you, Bob and Ray were American versions of the British Goon Squad (that’s dating me internationally). OK, how about: John Cleese? Does that help?
OK forget it.
Score tied. 5-minute overtime. Someone has to win is the North American mantra. Well, the NHL anyway.
The fans are happy. More hockey. The players? I wondered. Would they rather go home to their families or roadie entertainment for the visitors with a meaningless tie (they get paid no matter what)?
No matter, duty calls. It called louder to the Stars who scored with less than a minute to play. The lonesome Canuck goalie, deserted by his team, slumped alone standing next to his betrayed net.
But the night was young. Don’t try to leave the Rogers Arena on a rainy, chilly Vancouver night and expect the cabs that the cab driver that brought you promised would be there. The two cabs I saw were full.
There couldn’t be more. Traffic stood still from three directions amidst the maze of sleeping construction machinery. Weather festooned police officers with colorful wands couldn’t even wave them at the cars and limos. No one was moving. The stretch limos in threatening black and virginal white, those penile substitutes for common transportation, lined every curb. Hmm, one to five people in each?
It’s a six-block walk to Granville Street and then another five blocks to the hotel. Half way on the soggy walking slog a cab grateful for a fare he did not expect in that part of town swings around to retrieve me from the rain. The promised 5-dollar fare according to the hotel clerk was 13 dollars going and 10 dollars returning. But then the Canadian dollar is below the US dollar for the moment.
I’m going to support Seattle’s efforts at an NHL franchise. It is back to being a beautiful sport if one night’s experience is a legitimate example of play after the NHL’s “fight night” period. And if not Seattle, its worth a trip to Vancouver live Hockey Night In Canada.