Last night I popped out to get some fish and chips. As usual the guy in the chippy asked whether I’d just finished work. For reasons I cannot fathom he remains convinced that I worked in Game and had sold him a console. Despite my protests to the contrary he’s decided this is fact, and I’ve long given up correcting him. He also often asks whether I’ve seen ‘the football’. I’m always vague and non-committal on the ‘did you see the match?’ question. To be honest, when a guy asks about ‘the match’ it’s easier for me to feign mild-interest and nod until he stops talking than to speak my mind and kill the conversation, “I’m sorry, but football bores the shit out of me.” I was always picked last during PE lessons, I can’t kick a ball for toffee, and one of the teachers seemed to take a peculiar interest in watching us shower; thus I was never imbued with even a passing interest in ‘the beautiful game’. So, as the guy wrapped my chips, I said that I actually preferred to watch ice hockey. He gave me the puzzled expression of someone who isn’t quite sure whether they’ve missed the punchline to a joke. We will undoubtedly have the same conversation the next time I’m waiting for my cod.
So, how did I get into a sport that is alien to many Brits, and ultimately become a New York Rangers fan?
When I was twenty-six, with the realisation that thirty was just over the horizon, I had something of a mid-twenties crisis. I’d taken up snowboarding at the local dry ski slope. A group of kids seemed mildly impressed by my ability to board down the run backwards. Buoyed up by smug self-satisfaction I booked (on a whim, without any consideration) a three-week residential course in Canada to be coached by professional boarders. Three days after Christmas 2008 I stuffed a large backpack with warm clothes and bagged-up the used snowboard I’d bought on eBay and headed out to The Rockies.
In an isolated town in the Southern Rockies I came to realise that Canada was somewhat different to Suffolk – it was twenty degrees below freezing, and on the day of my arrival six people died in an avalanche. In my first week I trailed one of my hosts, a pot-smoking cage-fighter with a death-wish, down a double-black run (how’s that for hyphenation?) For the most part I slowly skidded down it on my arse, muttering through clenched teeth “Fuck! fuck! fuck! I’m going to die!” So, I resolved to make the rest of my time there more pleasurable by taking advantage of the $15 pitchers of Kokanee Glacier Beer. From that point onwards my diet comprised of cheesy chips with gravy and 4-pint pitchers of the local brew; I put on several pounds. However, I took advantage of my time in the wilderness to grow a very manly beard. In retrospect I looked as though I’d been sleeping rough.
Anyway, I digress. Just over the road from the room in which I was staying was The Fernie Memorial Arena. On the night of my 27th birthday the town’s hockey team, Fernie Ghostriders, were playing and I wandered over there to watch. In a town where the temperature was as low as -30c at night and the snowdrifts on the sidewalks were a meter in height it made sense to head out somewhere nearby! As soon as I’d kicked the snow off my boots and gone into the arena I was already enjoying the atmosphere – the Zamboni cruising around the rink laying a skim of fresh ice, the teams clattering around the dugouts wearing their skates, the reasonably-priced drinks. The game began and angry Canadians chased each other on skates, grabbing at one other’s vests and slamming each other into the perpex wall behind which I sat. The guy standing next to me yelled at one of the players “Boo! You’re wearing your sister’s skates!”
After years of shunning ‘boring’ spectator sports it was ice hockey that metaphorically grabbed my nuts, beat me with a stick and yelled in my face, ordering me to love it. It’s brutal, but very persuasive. It’s an exceptionally fast game, the puck travels across the ice at such speed that it makes football look as though it’s played in slow-motion. Can footballers sprint at 25 miles-per-hour? Nope. Fighting is illegal, but that doesn’t stop teams from occasionally beating the shit out of each other with their sticks, or for that matter just having a good old-fashioned punch-up at the goalmouth. This in itself is a graceful and choreographed art, not many men can claim the ability to throw a decent punch whilst skating backwards at speed yet not come even close to losing their balance!
But best of all, NHL stadiums have live organists to add musical accompaniments to the games – now, who could fail to like that?