Welcome to another instalment of Project America: my ongoing quest to finally experience first-hand all the quintessentially American pastimes I grew up watching on TV in Australia
You’d be hard pressed to find a child of the ’90s who doesn’t have a soft spot for The Mighty Ducks (and to a lesser extent, D2 and a faaar lesser extent, D3). Emilio Estevez, Pacey from Dawson’s Creek, that fat kid who farted a lot, uplifting training montages… fond memories.
Even though, to my knowledge, ice hockey is barely played in Australia, the film succeeded in convincing a generation of Aussie kids that field hockey, which is widely played in Australia, is pretty weak by comparison. In all honesty, I rarely hear anyone talk about ice hockey around here, but it is forever cemented in my mind as “something Americans do”.
My first encounter with ice hockey since leaving Australia was actually in Canada, not the States. In October, the boy and I had to go up to Vancouver to renew our visas. (I didn’t bother to blog about it; the experience was decidedly smoother and less eventful than our original visit to the US consulate in Melbourne, although I will say that the Vancouver consulate made us wait outside, in the Canadian winter, until it was our turn to go in. Other than that, Vancouver is a very attractive, if not particularly remarkable city; people were cool and we ate some great food, but there wasn’t a lot to do there in shitty weather). One of my cousins was living there at the time, in between winter shifts working at Mt Panorama (apparently Canada’s big ski resort towns are staffed in large numbers by Aussies and Kiwis; a journalist from Whistler’s alt-weekly told me the Whistler Blackcomb would barely function without Australians on working holidays. There was a very entertaining reality TV series about this), and had started following the Vancouver Canucks during her residence there, so she took us to a game.
Ice hockey is a big freaking deal in Vancouver, and I would venture to say it’s probably the same everywhere in Canada. Even though the NHL only has seven Canadian teams, versus 23 American ones, 53% of the players currently in the league are Canadian, compared with about 24% from the US (the rest come largely from Europe).
The 18,890-seat Rogers Stadium where the team plays was packed on the cold, drizzly night we saw the Canucks take on the St Louis Blues. I would say well over half the crowd was wearing a Canucks jersey—these things retail for upwards of $100, so that’s no small thing.
The actual game is surprisingly intense in person. For the first ten minutes, I flinched every time the players came *this* close to crashing then turned on a dime. It’s crazy fast and rough and I was very worried that someone would lose a finger.
Some things I really enjoyed about this game:
- There are three periods. I have a short attention span, and four would have been too many. Three is good.
- An enclosed playing field means you rarely have to worry about players or the puck going out. There are very few breaks in action.
- There are apparently some rules about fighting and striking, but clearly not many; the players were constantly body-slamming each other against the sides of the rink with no repercussions. I like fight sports.
- There were, however, pretty strict rules about crowd behaviour. There was a number to text your seating area to in case someone near you was acting like a dickhead. Someone near us started acting like a dickhead (he stripped down to his long underwear and tried to start a Mexican wave), and sure enough, security came and took him away with a few minutes.
- The sticks hitting the puck and ice make these space-age “pew! pew!” sound effects.
Portland does not have an NHL team. It has a WHL team. It is a junior hockey league. That means the players are under 20, and most are younger than that. It is, however, the highest level of junior hockey, and is still considered a big deal.
So a few weeks back, The Boy—not usually known for having any interest in sport whatsoever—sends me a message saying he bought a Groupon for cheap Portland Winterhawks tickets. Sure.
The Winterhawks play at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which is the city’s secondary stadium after the Rose Garden, where the Trailblazers play. It seats 12,000, and was perhaps three-fifths full at 3 pm on a Saturday afternoon. Some of the audience wore jerseys, which I’d never seen in Portland before. There were a lot of families there, which is nice, I guess (except for the toddler behind us, who was a brat). I don’t think I would take young kids to see the Timbers—who usually play lateish, outside in the cold, to a crowd of dickheads—or the Blazers—who also generally play late, and decent tickets are really expensive. Hockey is easy to follow, doesn’t require too much concentration, and, as I mentioned, is over fast with minimum interruptions. The Boy observed, “There’s a broader selection of bogans here than I usually see in Portland.” I concur.
The vast majority of the Winterhawks players are Canadian. The WHL itself is actually Canadian. There are a couple of Americans, one German and one Swiss. It must be rough to be drafted to a US-based team in a city that doesn’t really care about you, but these kids played hard.
The Winterhawks were not as good as the Canucks. But nor was their opposition, so the game was far more entertaining—they scored 11 goals (the goalies in the NHL game were too good for many goals to go through) and both teams had two players send off the ice for brawling. That’s good value.
Also, whoever DJd the game was great—lots of Ramones and Beastie Boys, no Jock Jams. They play “TNT” by AC/DC when the team scores a goal.
I would probably go to an ice hockey game again, and I would probably rather go to a WHL than an NHL game.
Coming soon: After only two years, I finally go to an NBA game!