By Jason Menard
Will NHL fans come flocking back to the league? Absolutely — it’s part of who we are and it’s part of what makes us a community.
I was asked this question yesterday by an old friend Scott Kitching on Blackburn Radio and I replied honestly: some fans may want to play hard ball, but once they start seeing the previous night’s highlights on TV, hearing the fans banter on sports talk radio, or overhearing the annual debates around the watercooler, they’ll want to be part of the action again.
Being an NHL fan isn’t just a choice — it’s a feeling.
And while I said and believed it yesterday; today I felt it for the first time in a long time.
It’s easy to dismiss hockey as a business. And when it comes to dealing with the aftermath of the latest lockout, fans would be well served remembering that no matter what your utopian desire may be, the bottom line is the bottom line for the corporation that is the NHL.
But for fans, the NHL is much more than a business — it’s a community. It’s a shared experience that brings together people from across all races, creeds, and beliefs. And while being the fan of a team can be religious in nature, fundamentalism in hockey fandom leads only to gentle ribbing and schadenfreude over your opponents losses, instead of intolerance and violence.
I’m not a jersey guy by nature. I own a few, but rarely wear them in public. Today I wanted to experience the reaction and feel what the NHL’s return mean. I put on my (Guy Lafleur-signed) Habs jersey and went about my daily activities.
From the farmer’s market to the pharmacy, everywhere we went, we were engaged in conversation with hockey fans about tonight’s opening game. Living in London, ON, of the nine interactions, obviously all nine were with Leafs’ fans.
What was most noticeable were the smiles, laughter, and joy that everyone was expressing about hockey’s return. The lockout was a distant memory, in favour of the simple joy of seeing our favourite teams in direct competition for the first time in months. It was like a much-delayed cathartic release of pent-up frustration from a season delayed.
“An easy two points for the Leafs tonight!”
“Good luck to you — not tonight, of course, you can have that starting Monday!”
“It’s our year this year…”
The comments, the feelings, and the jokes fit like a well-worn jersey. And the barbs, jibes, and gentle ribs are just as comfortable.
Chances are, from London to Tuktoyaktuk; from Vancouver to Halifax, the same conversations were happening in grocery stores, breakfast joints, sports bars, and street corners. Woven in English and French — and, increasingly, in other fabrics of this Canadian cultural mosaic — the story of our community is written using a common reference. Hockey.
For those who don’t like hockey, this is often the missing ingredient. On its own, hockey can be at times boring or confusing to eyes unaccustomed to its pace or strategy. It can seem needlessly aggressive or abstract in its machinations.
But for those who do love the game, we understand why it’s meant so much to Canadians for decades. We understand why it’s Canada’s unofficial sport; why the Golden Goal or “Henderson scores for Canada!” are anthems unto themselves.
It’s the community of hockey fans of which we’re a part that will keep us coming back to the game. Players, owners, even cities may change, but that common frame of reference is what tethers us to each other.
A playfully snide comment; a wink and a thumbs-up at someone wearing the same jersey; a “Go Habs Go!” from across the street — that’s why fans will come back.
Because no matter where we are, being a part of this hockey community ensures that we’ll always feel at home.