about a city and a team. The Cup

This essay is about Vancouver, about hockey, and about the hardest trophy to win in professional sports. It was written in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on June 15, 2011, during the third period of last game of the Stanley Cup Finals. The Vancouver Canucks lost, 4-0.

It is dedicated to my dad, my brother, and my city.

I’ve known this city my whole life. Except for an aborted year at the University of Victoria, I have always lived in the suburbs outside Vancouver. From the other side of the river, every city looks like New York. That’s where every kid wants to be. That’s where I wanted to be.

When I left Vancouver this most recent time, the feature exhibit at the art gallery was a collective manifesto to the city. A documentary played in a dark corner of the gallery, black and white footage with writers, poets, artists talking about their Vancouver. It didn’t sound much like my Vancouver, and that’s when I realised I would have to leave this city before I could write my book about this city.

But I didn’t know when I bought my plane ticket that my last month in Vancouver would be the most Vancouver. I didn’t know it would be so hard to leave. I wanted the distance and the perspective, but as soon as I landed in Halifax, I knew my desire to be back there would be what got me writing.

The Olympics left us all with an odd feeling, that feeling when the rest of the world notices Canada is there, that Canada is winning.

Being from BC feels the same, only you’re waiting for your own country to turn its head. I don’t know how often you’ve looked at a map of Canada, but there’s an ocean on one side of BC, a mountain range on the other, and we border two US states, top and bottom. We’re cut off from everyone. It’s taught us to fend for ourselves, to make our own identity, a patchwork of all the refugees who find themselves knocked to the edge.

Nobody who cheers for the Canucks expects the rest of Canada to join the bandwagon on the way to the Cup. We’re delighted the Toronto media have made a story out of their own indifference of our Playoff run. Maybe we deserve it. We don’t like Toronto, let alone the Leafs, and our rivalry with the Calgary Flames is well-established. We can do this without you. Don’t worry.

But it would be really nice if you came along.

The games are all we have, really. For as much as Canadians love hockey—and we do. I grew up in a house where my dad played goal, and my brother played in the street because he couldn’t skate, and I still love hockey, though I hate watching it on TV.

As much as we love the game, we don’t actually create a lot of cultural product about it. I like The Hockey Sweater, and we all know the words to The Hockey Song, but most of our enthusiasm goes into the actual game.

I’m not convinced that’s the fault of our industry, though, of the way we’ve let American stories dominate our national identity. Rather, it’s our national identity summed up: we’d rather play hockey than watch.

Watching makes me nervous, more nervous than excited. Exhibition games or the playoffs, my stomach rolls and I have to watch between my fingers, out of the corner of my eye. If I don’t look directly at the net, maybe the puck won’t go in. I’m not one of those fans who yells at the screen. I know I can’t do anything to help them, and that’s why I worry.

Out on the streets, though, watching a game on the big outdoor screens, surrounded. It feels brand new, though our city has been here before. Last year, in fact. We’re remembering what it felt like to be Canadian during the Olympic Games. Any Canadian, from anywhere.

It felt OK, for the very first time. It wasn’t us, but we started to believe that maybe it could be.

The Olympics opened something inside all of us that hasn’t had time to close yet. Now, we’re filling up that space we opened for our country with our city, with our team. The Olympics happen every two years, and most of us don’t follow our Canadian athletes through their national and world championships, to the Pan-Am or Commonwealth Games. Most of us don’t know how to be a speed skating fan. But you can’t escape hockey in Vancouver.

The Olympics are big, but the Stanley Cup Playoffs come at the end of a long, cold hockey season. The climax has been building since October. The rivalries have been building since the beginning.

It doesn’t matter to us if the rest of Canada is cheering along. It doesn’t even matter if they care. Because the streets of Vancouver are full.

My brother says I picked the wrong time to leave. I had been wanting to travel, to see something new. I wanted to leave two years ago, but the Olympics were coming.

I can’t leave before the Olympics, I said. My brother said, You can’t leave before the Stanley Cup.

On the other side of the country, in Halifax, I’m closer to Boston than to home. There are a lot of black and yellow jerseys on these streets. You can feel the energy of the finals, no matter. I can feel Vancouver cheering from here.

I found myself downtown during the last game of the Western Conference final. Not for hockey, but hockey is hard to escape in the city. I was there to meet a friend for a Shakespeare lecture, perhaps the exact opposite audience. Yet, before we entered the black box bunker of a theatre, they let us know Burrows had scored.

We got word before the Q&A that the Canucks were down by one. We stepped outside, and the bar across the courtyard, behind glass walls, was going crazy. I figured we had won.

Kesler had scored late, almost the latest you can score to stay alive. He sent the game to overtime and the whole city out onto the streets. I had just enough time to walk up to Granville where I knew the crowds would be for overtime. Eyes darted towards every TV.

Every save—and there were a lot of them in that first overtime period—was followed by “Luuuu” for Luongo. It sounds like booing to anyone not from Vancouver. It’s not.

When the game went to a second overtime, I walked a few blocks over to the CBC building. The plaza was packed. The streets were blocked. Despite the embarrassing history of the Canucks uniform, it was a sea of team colours.

I had an OK view, behind very tall teenagers, out on the curb, through the trees. Behind me, a husband asked his wife, Do you want to move where we can see? I turned around. I said, Don’t worry. When they score, you’ll feel it.

We felt it.

Not that we knew what happened. I don’t think Bieksa knows what happened, even now. I didn’t know it was his goal until after I pushed my way out of that sea of blue and green and orange and black and passed Luongo on the TV around the corner. I didn’t see the goal until I watched the highlights on YouTube the next morning. But that’s OK.

Because that goal doesn’t belong to Kevin Bieksa alone. That was a whole team willing the puck into the net, a whole city hoping.

There are some days when I regret not hanging the cost and getting to an Olympic game, any Olympic game. But those are very few days. Because I was there, in the city when Canada’s heart opened up. We felt the Olympics sweep across the city, the river, the suburbs, and the rest of our country.

When Bieksa made that shot, when he scored that impossible goal, the city opened up again. The crowd at CBC Plaza took a deep breath and cheered out loud. It felt so good.

It might just be that the best moment of the Playoffs doesn’t always come in game seven. Maybe the best moment was Bieksa’s impossible goal. Or maybe it was during the first series when Alexandre Burrows vanquished Chicago, in overtime, then left the building to meet his wife having their first baby.

Maybe it was that one game against Nashville where Kesler scored, took a puck to the mouth, then came back and scored again. Maybe it was that beauty of a Sedin pass, blind through Antii Niemi’s legs to Burrows’s stick, and into the net. Maybe we used up our good goals.

Maybe you only get so many best moments, and we used them all up before we got to the final game seven.

Because Vancouver isn’t used to being the best. We’ve had the whole season, listening to analysts telling us we’re going to win the Cup. Since January, seeing our name at the top of the NHL standings. They’re expecting us to win. But no one outside Vancouver really wants us to win. Not a lot of us in Vancouver thought we could win.

We’ve been here before. We’ve been disappointed before, and we haven’t been far enough often enough to know how to get past it. Canada likes to be the underdog. We get excited when the rest of the world sits up and notices us, but it never feels comfortable. Being a Vancouver Canucks fan feels the same way. Montreal, sure. They have more Cups than anyone else. Calgary and Ottawa have made the finals recently. Everyone who loves hockey remembers when Edmonton was Gretzky and the best.

Nobody thinks of Vancouver first. Nobody expects first from Vancouver.

We wanted it, though. I thought that would be enough. My dad came to Canada from England when he was 11. If he had stayed on that side of the Atlantic a little longer, I might be a soccer fan today. But my dad was 11, and three years later, the Canucks joined the NHL, and that was it. He was a hockey fan, became a hockey player. His first job was in the skate shop at our local rink.

Forty years ago this season, the Canucks joined the league, and my dad has been waiting all that time. I wonder if he held me in his lap when his team first made the finals in ’82. I know we watched the games together when they fought their way back in ’94. My brother has been waiting more than half his life to see them there again. We’re a hockey family. We wanted this.

We wanted this for Roger Nielson and Stan Smyl, who got us there the first time, Trevor Linden and Kirk McLean, who got us there the second. We wanted this for the four decades of Canucks who never had the chance. We wanted this for the city with the open heart. We wanted this for Canada, who hasn’t had it for 18 years. We wanted the Cup so badly, and it wasn’t enough.

Wanting isn’t enough in sports. It gets you halfway there, but you have to be better. This year, Boston was the better team. Tim Thomas was the better goalie, and when, in the second period of game seven, I realised he wasn’t going to let anything into his net, I hoped instead that Vancouver would be the better city.

The first photographs of the riots were posted before I went to bed on the east coast. My first thought was, Oh, Vancouver, this isn’t you. We left our hearts open, and maybe that was our mistake.

The city woke up limping. We had long suspected our team was limping, too. Ryan Kesler still won’t tell us how badly he’s hurt. Nobody outside that locker room will know for a long long time.

I thought Trevor Linden’s retirement was the end of an era for me. That retiring his number 16 was the end of my Canucks and the start of someone else’s. Not that I would stop watching the games or checking the scores. But I didn’t think the next generation of Canucks would make me feel the way that ’94 team did.

My brother sent me three emails from Vancouver. They weren’t about our parents, his job, his girlfriend. The subject lines read: Game 6, Game 7, Aftermath. He wanted to prove his point, that I had left too early. But he also wanted to talk to someone who was there with him, the first time around.

I had a Canucks hat with the old orange skate logo that I wore with my ponytail pulled through the back. I wore it until the black turned brown in the sun. That was 1994. My brother was 10; I was 12. Now we’re coming to the end of our 20s. We don’t want to wait that long again.

My memories of the ’94 Playoffs are sketchy. I’m not always sure what I remember and what I read in the commemorative books or watched on the highlight reels. I kind of remember Bure’s goals, but not in order. I can still hear Gelinas’s post.

I will always love that photograph of McLean propping up a beaten-down Linden, who carried his team on his back. (My brother says he would have scored. Even after retirement, not playing for the last three years, Trevor Linden would have scored in game seven against Boston.)

I remember the riots after we lost in ’94. Truthfully, the riots are what I remember best.

This year, I’m going to remember what happened after the riots. The thousands of people who showed up the next day to put our city back together. Seeing the love written on boarded up windows doesn’t feel like second place.

I watched the last game with a collection of far-flung Canadians and bemused Irish tourists in a downtown Halifax hostel. I had to leave the TV room as soon as the game was over. I didn’t watch a whole lot of the last period, either. I put my head down, and I wrote. I knew that even a glimpse Kesler’s face after the loss would devastate me.

I still haven’t watched the interviews, but there’s a 58 second clip on YouTube titled Canucks Salute Fans, and I thought I would be OK to watch 58 seconds. Even as the Bruins celebrated, the crowd kept chanting for their team. Go Canucks Go. They kept waving their white towels. Go Canucks Go. In Vancouver, the white flag doesn’t mean surrender. It means, together, we are stronger than you know. Go Canucks Go.

It’s been a long winter in Vancouver, the cold and rainy weather stretching far into the spring. Summer will be a long time coming.

Hockey will go away, but when it returns, we’re going to cheer. We’re going to wave our towels. We’re going to open our hearts and invite our team in.

The Vancouver Canucks will win the Cup. Some day. I know that now better than I did when this season began. We’ve been here before, and, together, we can find our way through.

⇓ 11.06.15 thecup.pdf