Covering playoff hockey in Canada is different than covering it anyplace else. For one thing, you wake up on April 14 and it is snowing.
Not just flurries, either. Big fat snowflakes, the size of Celine Dion’s fake eyelashes. Just to reference another Canadian tradition.
The snow continued to fall all day Friday leading up to Game 2 of the Sharks-Oilers playoff series.
“That threw me for a loop,” said Sharks winger Joel Ward..
This comment was surprising because Ward grew up in Toronto. Which I believe is in, you know, Canada. But it seems even Ward was surprised and charmed when he opened his drapes to see downtown Edmonton blanketed in soft white. But in a way, it is just perfect. There is nothing quite like playoff hockey, unless it is playoff hockey in the Great White North.
I would put it this way: It would probably be fun to eat lunch with Mickey Mouse anywhere. But it would be the most fun to eat lunch with Mickey Mouse at Disneyland. That’s what playoff hockey in Canada is like. Every true hockey fan should experience it once.
For instance, I swear this is true: When I showed up at Rogers Place for the Sharks’ morning warmup skate Friday, the person in front of me at the arena’s security station was Wayne Gretzky.
“How’re you doing?” asked Gretzky.
“Cold,” I said, because . . . well, because I was cold.
Just to be clear, Gretzky does not greet every visitor to all home games in Edmonton. He was here Friday morning with family members to see some friends in the Oilers’ offices. But like the snow, it seemed fitting that the Great One was making his presence felt in his old stomping grounds for the Oilers’ first playoff appearance since 2006. And as the puck dropped again for Game 2, the Oilers’ mission was to make the playoffs last as long as possible.
The verdict will remain out on that, even after Friday’s result. But the last few days here in Alberta have been a blast to witness. The entire town is wallowing in Oilerish bliss. Every overheard conversation revolves around the upcoming game, forward line combinations or defensive pairings. Sharks coach Pete DeBoer said that he stopped at a street booth the other day and the hot dog vendor said he’d pulled out his Oilers jersey to wear it for the first time in 11 years. Ward said his cab driver couldn’t stop talking about the Oilers on the ride to the rink.
“I love the passion,” said Ward.
Me? I love the bizzare-ness of seeing so many human beings wearing the same hockey jersey at the same time: In this case, the No. 97 of Connor McDavid, who is just 20 years old but is Edmonton’s biggest star. He led the entire NHL in scoring this season. On my stroll to Friday’s game, I counted 37 people wearing No. 97 jerseys — in a single block.
Yes, seriously. In San Jose, people going to Sharks’ games wear a lot of teal gear of various types–sweatshirts, tee shirts, jerseys, sweaters, vests. Here, every single person seems to wear a hockey jersey. And the vast majority of them are No. 97.
I asked McDavid himself about it Friday morning. Does it make him feel weird to see his name on the backs of so many people as he drives around town an to the rink?
“You get used to it,” he said, which is probably even more weird if you think about it.
“But I try never to take it for granted,” McDavid added.
We probably should feel the same about playoff hockey in Canada. A year ago, no teams from north of the border qualified for the postseason. This time, we have five — Montreal, Toronto, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton.
In each of those places, I would wager, the atmosphere is the same as it is here. It’s not that hockey crowds in the USA are of an inferior breed. Fans in San Jose can be as loud as fans anywhere and can get as amped up as anyplace. But there’s a whole different feel when most of the people inside an arena have played hockey since they were pre-schoolers–often on ponds or backyard rinks behind their houses.
All I know is, when the series goes back to SAP Center for Game 3 on Sunday, the enthusiasm will be just as electric. But I won’t have to worry about wearing my ski cap and gloves on the walk to the rink. And already, I feel strangely melancholy about that.