For the love of the game

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:07 AM ET

INNSBRUCK -- This is not a place to get a good night's sleep. And for that matter, an afternoon nap is pretty much out of the question as well.

This is a place that is playing host to hockey's world championship, and even though interest in North America is sometimes muted, it's a major event in this part of the world. Nationalistic fervour still runs high in an increasingly unified Europe, and for most hockey fans in this part of the world, this is the major event of the year.

It is a time to paint your face with the colours of your country. It is a time to make sure you are never seen in public unless you are wearing a sweater proclaiming your allegiance. It is a time to shout national chants, to sing national songs and to engage in quaint national customs -- like getting so drunk that you can't stand up.

The Latvians and the Finns are particularly adept at that last one, but they're not alone. The bars, restaurants and gasthauses take a cavalier approach to the licensing hours, which in some cases involve a 5 a.m. closing time, and as a result, there is no such thing as a quiet evening.

You can go back to your hotel if you want, but likely as not, a group of well lubricated fans will wake you when they come staggering home. And they don't all arrive at once. It's remarkable that even though they can hardly walk, they can time their arrivals with such military precision that they are meticulously sequential. Every half hour with astonishing regularity, another group gets in.

Naturally enough, fans from each nation tend to stick together, so some hotels have lots of fans in residence, whereas others don't have any. Those hotels tend to be the ones across from the churches.

If you live there, you get to experience the talents of the local campanologists. It seems to be about 6 a.m. when the first peals of the monstrous bells begin, but if you do manage to sleep through them, there are a few more opportunities to make up for the oversight as the morning progresses.

By noon, the revellers are back in business. Two games are played each day -- around 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. So the fans whose teams are in the early game get out and warm up for the day's activities.

The warmup usually involves air horns, whistles, drums and singing -- and lots of lubrication.

When that group leaves for the rink, the fans whose teams are in the second game take over. And by the time it's their turn to start the safari to the arena, those who watched the first game are back.

Still it's hard to get upset at any of this. These are true hockey fans and although they might hurl chants at each other, there doesn't appear to be any hooliganism. It's just good, solid support of national teams without any physical confrontation.

Some of the Latvians who were singing their way home about 2 a.m. one day this week were shouted at by a hotel resident who had been trying to sleep. One of the Latvians hurled back the ultimate insult. "You must be Russian," he shouted.

Another reason it's hard to get angry is that as true hockey fans, these people revere and respect Canada -- and they tell you so.

Year after year, Canada is either on top of the hockey world or close to it. Back home, we regularly criticize our national program, so much so that not long ago, the newspapers were full of multi-part series decrying the demise of Canada as a hockey power. But at every level, Canada is a hockey force, and the people who are here in Innsbruck, being avid hockey fans, fully appreciate the magnitude of the Canadian achievements.

These fans speak with awe of our players and they envy the depth of our talent pool. And they like the way we play the game. The goon image that we built in the seventies has finally faded.

After spending a season dealing with lawyers, labour struggles and dark arenas, it's wonderful to be among people who love the game and love what Canada means to it.

Even if they do keep you awake.


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