The kington family all went to Canada this year to spend Christmas with the wife's relations, and very nice it was too, especially as I was taken to my first ice-hockey game, to see the Toronto Maple Leafs play the Buffalo something or others. It was a cold day by British standards, and maybe by Canadian too, which I guess is why all ice-hockey games are played indoors, where the audience sits in the warm behind tall plastic walls, which protected us from the flying pucks and also from the superb athletes who go about skating at 100 mph or come to a complete standstill as they attempt to punch each other senseless.
"See that?" said brother-in-law Keith, my mentor, at one point. "Our number 16 was nearly crushed to death against the wall by one of the opponent's fellows, so he's having a good look now at his number. We may expect some retributory action later on."
In fact, ice hockey is a wonderfully skilful game most of the time, more like ballet than anything, as the skaters twist and float, accelerate and double back, improvising their whirling choreography constantly according to the whims of the puck. That's in the middle of the ice. When you get to the edge it's a different matter. The puck never goes into touch, it simply bounces off the wall, and when it goes behind the goal it is still in play, so ice hockey then becomes more like a game of pin ball, as the players attempt to whizz the puck round the wall and back up the rink.
Inevitably it hits a stick or a skate and gets jammed, so there is a frenzied outburst of tribal dancing as four or five players scrabble for the puck, like Morris dancers turning very nasty. In fact it seldom turns nasty. It just gets clumsy, as if ballet dancers suddenly started kicking each others' shins. That's the puzzling thing for newcomers, the way that ice hockey alternates constantly between street-corner rough-housing and ballroom dancing, though it's something that the hockey fans themselves no longer notice, rather like the way that the citizens of India no longer notice poverty.
And if you happen to miss any of the action, don't worry – it will be repeated instantly on the Jumbotron, a giant screen hanging from a media centre high over the arena, which also, during fallow periods, picks out old hockey celebrities in the audience, as well as, at the game I attended, an elderly barber-shop group called the Mistletones, who sang national anthems and Christmas carols with equal maple syrupiness ("Could be their only gig of the year", said Keith sagely).
The odd thing is that you can only see these people on the screen – although they are somewhere in the stadium you have no idea where to look to see them – and there is a sense in which, although we are all at a live event, we are also at the movies as well, certainly if the consumption of popcorn, food, beer and souvenirs is anything to go by.
In fact, it wasn't the success of the Maple Leafs that bothered Keith so much while we were over there as the progress of Canada in the World Junior (under-20) Ice Hockey Championships in the Czech Republic, which was fully covered most days on the television in Keith's kitchen. I was sucked in and found myself getting behind The Canadian juniors as well, especially as they seemed to be beating everyone, though they had a tough time overcoming Sweden in the quarter-finals, squeaking through 3-2. The United States had already been knocked out by the Russians, which seemed to give the people of Canada a small smile and to put a spring in their step.
"I think that Finland are going to be the team to watch out for," said brother-in-law. "I really fancy them to meet us in the final."
As I left Canada to come home, he had been proved wrong. The Finns had just been knocked out by the Russians 2-1, and it was they were going to meet Canada in the final. I have spent the two days since I got back scouring the papers to find the result of the final, and I finally ran it to earth in yesterday's Independent, in the smallest print on earth, down in the Sports That Don't Really Matter section. Canada 4 Russia 5. Disaster. I would like to pass on Keith's post-match comments to you, but I haven't plucked up the courage to ring and ask him for it.Reuse content