SUN Hockey Pool

The game we love like no other

CHRIS STEVENSON -- Ottawa Sun

, Last Updated: 12:49 PM ET

It wasn't supposed to be like this, was it?

There was so much anger and bitterness during the 16-month NHL lockout. It was spewed in a lot of different directions.

Somebody would have to pay, right?

Some jilted Canadian fans vowed to stay away from the NHL game when and if it returned.

Some fans blamed the greedy players. Some blamed the greedy owners.

But now, it turns out here in Canada, the anger and bitterness of fans were not directed at either the owners or the players, but towards not having NHL hockey.

It was not what caused the gaping hole in our long winter which made us so angry, apparently, but the hole itself.

This is Canada, after all, and the NHL is, for many Canadians, the embodiment of hockey.

We should have known.

Expecting Canadian fans to turn their back on the game, this game, our game, isn't any more realistic than expecting a federal politician to pay for his own meal.

How else to explain record crowd after record crowd at the Corel Centre -- for pre-season games?

It's expected there will be a sellout for tonight's home opener against the Buffalo Sabres and again Thanksgiving Monday for the Toronto Maple Leafs' first regular-season visit of the year.

LOCKOUT A REMINDER

The lockout, rather than alienating fans here in Canada, appears to have only served to remind them how much they love the game.

A little outside perspective:

"It's like your wife went to Brazil for a year or something. It's like, 'Couldn't you have called to say when you'd be back?' " said Senators winger Bryan Smolinski, an American whose passion for the game was a matter of nurture rather than nature.

A native of Toledo, Ohio, he grew up playing baseball. Hockey was a way to pass time between baseball seasons.

"Coming to Canada to play hockey is like coming into a new religion," he said. "You don't realize it until you're in its grasp.

"The birth of babies were missed because the Leafs or the Habs were playing.

"The kids on my street were coming up to me and telling me, 'That was a goal you scored the other night in Toronto.' They want to know what Wade Redden and Dany Heatley are like. For a hockey player, this is Nirvana."

Hockey is not what we are here in Canada. A country's people cannot be defined by something as inconsequential as a game.

It is not what we do, for we have accomplished much more in the world. What hockey might be for us, like a smooth sheet of fresh ice, is a mirror into which we gaze almost every day.

It smiles back at us with the values we hold high: The ability to embrace and thrive in a cold and harsh environment, the pleasure of hard work for its own reward, the ability to overcome.

It is the values of our country reflected in the face of our hockey heroes, sloping, sheepish, toothless smiles that reflect accomplishment and resolve, but also modesty and humility.

"It's a blue-collar sport. It's a lot of hard work, grit and determination," said Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson when asked what he thought about the connection between Canada and hockey. "I think everybody can identify with that."

Hockey isn't the house in which we live, but it might be the stuff between the bricks.

Car rides to games and practices, grandparents, parents and siblings in the stands, the ride home, the replay of the game over the dinner table.

Hockey is common ground upon which families can often set their feet, an embrace to draw them shoulder-to-shoulder in the car or in the stands, the air for conversations between generations.

"There are not many people who grow up in Canada who are not exposed to the game, either by playing themselves, through a brother, through a sister, a cousin or an uncle," said Senators coach Bryan Murray, the native of Shawville, whose life has been seamlessly intertwined with the game.

"Be it a man, woman or child, they have had contact with the game. If they don't play, their social life revolves around the game.

"We are all so proud to see our kids grow up and become good people because of their involvement in this game."

A beautiful game.

Our game.

chris.stevenson@ott.sunpub.com


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