Dilemma: watch big men in bulky underwear, or play pool and eat chicken wings

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The Independent Online
I think I now know what happens when a Canadian comes to Britain for the first time.

What happens is that this newly arrived Canadian clears immigration, goes to where he is staying, unpacks and walks down the road to find a British pub. He goes into the pub and buys a drink, then turns to look at the television set which is switched on beside the bar and almost faints with horror because there is no ice hockey game showing.

I base this observation on my experience last weekend, which I spent working on Vancouver Island in the west of Canada, and where I went into as many pubs as possible for reasons which seemed good at the time. In every pub I visited there was a television set on and every time I looked at the TV set it was showing an ice hockey game. Big men in bulky underwear were wheeling and dealing across the ice, often avoiding each other on purpose, often crashing into each other on purpose, and very occasionally scoring goals.

Everyone was wound up to breaking point, with one strange exception. The players on the ice seemed tense to the point of snapping. The players waiting to come on at the side looked like troops about to leave the trenches and charge the Germans. The crowd at the stadium were going wild. The only people who showed no interest at all in the game were the people in the pub where the game was showing. I think I was the only person I ever saw in any of these pubs watching these games.

Apart from Gary. Gary was a man I met in a nice pub called the Horseshoe Bay Hotel in a nice town called Chemainus on Vancouver Island (which sounds small but is actually the size of Wales) and he was watching an ice hockey game on TV between Edmonton and Calgary. He was the only man watching this game apart from me. We sat and watched while everyone else in the pub ate, drank and played pool, including one man who had ordered 50 chicken wings and was slowly picking and licking his way through these joyless objects, which apparently he did every time he came in, and for all I know he may have decided that it is more enjoyable than watching ice hockey on TV.

"You a stranger?" said Gary.

I said I was a stranger. He said he was a goldsmith. He gave me a card more covered in gold than any card I have seen, so maybe he is a goldsmith at that.

"Why are you watching this game?" I said. "Nobody else is."

"I grew up in Calgary," he said. "I'd like to see them beat Edmonton."

It came as a surprise to me to learn that this was a game between one town and the next. Until then I had started to believe that there was only one ice hockey game on Canadian TV, just one never-ending, 24-hour, non-stop, perpetual, ceaseless ice hockey game somewhere in Canada, which goes on endlessly simply for the purpose of being relayed to bars up and down Canada where nobody except me and Gary watches it, but this cast a new light on matters.

"Which is Edmonton and which is Calgary?" I asked.

"Edmonton are the bad-tempered ones," he said.

As aggressiveness seemed to be shared out fairly between both teams, this was not much help. If it had been basketball it might have been different...

I have to be honest and admit that I did once go into a bar this last weekend in Canada where there was no ice hockey match on the TV. There was a basketball match instead. Basketball is a game for extremely tall black men, who are told what to do by white guys looking more like university professors than coaches, and these very tall black players never lose their temper in the way that ice hockey players do. Gary told me that the fights between ice hockey players are all more or less pre-arranged, a bit like wrestling matches, and that it all adds to the fun, and the blood looks kinda nice on the ice...

Despite which, only me and Gary were watching. It strikes me as odd that the whole of the national Canadian television effort was going towards bringing ice hockey to the masses who weren't watching. The masses were all doing civilised things like socialising and drinking, and playing pool, and eating 50 chicken wings. Or anything but watching ice hockey. Except me and Gary the goldsmith.

"Well, that's a draw," said Gary, disgusted, as after the last possible period of overtime it was still 15-15 to Edmonton and to Calgary. "I won't be watching another match for a while."

"I won't even be here for the next match," I said, as we started watching the first of the interminable after-match interviews, and spontaneously switched off. "So I won't be watching any more ice hockey either. I may not see any more ice hockey ever again in my life."

I just think that the people who run Canadian TV ought to know that last week only me and Gary were watching ice hockey and that this week nobody is.