I have no doubt that many of you find some of our Canadian customs a little strange, particularly our choice of sport. Canadians are obsessed with hockey and you’ve probably already noticed that hockey conversations happen everywhere and that everyone claims to be an expert. Hockey comes from small town Canada, because during the dark days of winter, there’s little to do in small towns besides meet at the hockey rink or the local Tim Hortons. Heck, even Tim Horton was a hockey player.
Hockey is played throughout Canada, but Winnipeg has the craziest hockey fans. There’s a reason for this. The original Jets left our beloved city back in 1997 after being purchased and moved to Arizona to begin anew as the Phoenix Coyotes, now the Arizona Coyotes. People in Winnipeg were sad and bitter: we lost our identity, we lost our optimism, we lost our hockey team!
Jump way ahead to the year 2011 and a group called “True North” Entertainment was in secret negotiations with the NHL to purchase the Atlanta Thrashers and move their team to Winnipeg. (Take that Georgia!) Then on May 31st it became official and the new Winnipeg Jets were born and Winnipeg fans vowed never to lose the team again. Even now, to honour True North Entertainment, whenever we sing our National Anthem—O Canada—we scream out “true north” during the section “with glowing hearts we see thee rise the TRUE NORTH strong and free.” Try this at home.
If you want to Canadian it helps to be able to talk about hockey, but for many of you the rules may seem a little confusing. Fortunately I’m here to make sense of it all. Each team has five players and a goalie on the ice at one time. The purpose of the game is get a little rubber disk, called a “puck,” into the opposing team’s net. The players wear skates and use a “stick” to shoot the puck. Top players can shoot the puck at over 100 miles per hour so players and goalies wear a lot of padding, helmets and masks.
It seems simple enough, but there are also two referees and two linesmen on the ice. The linesmen watch the “blue line” which is the thick blue line on opposite sides of the “red line” which is the thick red line that dissects the sheet of ice. When a player wants to enter the opposing team’s zone, the puck must cross the blue line before the player, otherwise the linesmen will call “offside” and the play will be blown dead then restarted after a “face off.” The face off happens at the start of each period (there are three 20 minute periods per game) and whenever the game has to be restarted after a whistle or goal.
The two referees ensure the game is played fairly, which rarely happens in hockey. Referees can call all sorts of penalties throughout the game and most penalties are self-explanatory: slashing, high-sticking, roughing, tripping or hooking. When a player receives a penalty, he is removed from the ice and must sit in a penalty box for at least two minutes or until the opposition scores. When a player is in the penalty box, the team plays one person short, increasing the odds the opposition will score.
Hockey can be a very rough sport because hitting (or checking) is allowed. Hockey players frequently collide with each other or hit each other into the boards causing injuries and anger. Sometimes tempers get so high that players start fighting. Fighting and intimidation have always been part of hockey and some teams even have a designated enforcer or “goon” whose job it is to seek revenge on an opposition player they feel isn’t playing fairly. Canadians claim to be a peace-loving people, but don’t be fooled; we cheer loudly when two hockey players punch each other in the face.
Watching hockey and discussing hockey are great ways to practice English and understand Canada a little better. It can be a very enjoyable game to watch and if the Jets make the playoffs, Winnipeg will adopt what’s called “hockey fever,” which means people will talk about nothing else for as long as the Jets are in the playoffs. If you see a group of hockey fans, you only have to remember one thing, our chant: “Go Jets go!”