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Hockey au Canada francais

October 24th, 2011

Driving from Ottawa toward Montreal, I noticed an increasing bias towards the French language in the signs and advertisements along the road.  Then I crossed the border, and the English language seemed to be wiped from the Earth.

The Canadian flag became as rare as a unicorn, replaced instead with the azure-and-argent Fleudelise in front of businesses, homes, and provincial government buildings.  Strange restaurants appeared in place of more familiar chains.  The colors of the road construction cones changed from the black plastic with orange stripes seen in the rest of Canada, to orange plastic with white stripes.

I was not in Kansas anymore.  Then again, I have yet to visit Kansas at all on this trip.  But I digress.

There’s no Canada like French Canada.

— South Park, “Christmas in Canada”

The brilliantly warm orange and red colors of the rural Quebec autumn quickly gave way to the cold steel and concrete of Montreal.  Pastoral scenes changed to vast expanses of black tarmac.  I had been going along at a decent clip until then, but once near the city, the traffic was terrible.  Not once in the 48 hours I spent in Montreal did I see something other than bumper-to-bumper traffic on the freeways.

Eventually, I made it to my hotel.  I popped on the tube to watch the Habs regular-season opener against the Leafs, but I found that the only broadcast of the game was in French.  I do not speak French.  I watched anyway.

The game was exciting in the same manner that watching a soccer broadcast in Spanish draws you in.  There was something about hearing the action described in that Romance language that seemed to enhance the subtle flourishes of skill usually missed.  Perhaps I was simply better able to pay attention to the game without trying to simultaneously process the call.

South Park's depiction of French Canada was inaccurate: I saw no beret shops the entire time I was in Quebec. (From "Christmas in Canada")

I played hockey of my own the next day thanks to Vimal.  Most hockey players I’ve seen on this trip have been white males.  Almost all of them, if I’m honest.  Vimal helped to break that pattern: he was of Indian heritage.

Talkative, energetic, and outgoing, Vimal was a student at Concordia University in the southern part of Montreal.  He had invited me to join him at a pick-up game at a nearby rink, and I jumped at the opportunity.

I wasn’t sure what to expect on the ice.  Would people shun me for not speaking French?  Would the game be noticeably different?  Would guys be drinking wine after the game instead of beer?

No, no, and no.

I was the only goalie to show up for the skate despite a good number of skaters being present.  That might have been the rink’s fault: that rink was the only one up to that point in the trip that had required goalies to pay to do the drop-in.  It was only a few dollars, but at risk of sounding entitled, that was an affront to goaltending norms.

Once past the greedy rink gatekeeper, everything was fine.  The guys appreciated having at least one goalie, the teams were horribly lopsided, and nobody played defense.  It was just like pick-up hockey in English Canada and America.

Vimal and me. Observation: this rink in Montreal was one of the only ones I saw in Canada that had an American flag; almost all rinks in the US have Canadian flags. Then again, this was also one of the few times in Quebec where I saw a Canadian flag.

I switched ends every 10 minutes during the game.  At one end, I just stood around.  At the other end, I had quite the workout.  I think I was doing pretty well for most of the game, but near the end I was getting pretty tired.  I needed something to recover: poutine.

I had gone out to the bars with a group of people in Jasper, Alberta back in June, and during that experience I ordered a poutine off the menu.  What came out was, according to the Canadians present, not a very good poutine.  They told me I had to try it in Quebec and that it would be better there.  When I made it to Ontario, I asked Matt about poutine, too.  His advice was similar: order it in Quebec.  Thus, after the hockey game, I asked Vimal about poutine.  He said he wasn’t a big fan of cheesy gravy fries, but he knew a good spot.

Not where I ate poutine, but I thought the mascot sculpture deserved a photo: it's a bird eating a fry.

The poutine in Montreal was far better than the one I’d had in Jasper, but it only reinforced my suspicion that it wasn’t really my thing.  At least I learned.

As in Ontario, I decided that Quebec had enough influence on hockey to justify playing there multiple times.  I squeezed in another game the morning I left Montreal.

A woman named Steph invited me to skate with her Saturday-morning group.  Half the time would be for working on skills, and half the time would be for a scrimmage.  They needed another goalie, and I was happy to help out.  The big difference from past ice times: gender.  Mike (the coach) and I were the only men on the ice.  All of the skaters and the other goalie were women.

Thus, Montreal added a second strong dose of diversity to my hockey trek cast.

The skill levels of the women varied widely.  Some had the refinement of high-level competitive play.  Others looked like they had learned to skate the previous week.  They all shared a love of the game.

A love of the game is really what keeps all of us adult rec and pick-up hockey players going.  We do not play for fame, glory, or money.  We put up with the expenses of time and money, the damage to aging knees and backs, the often horrendous ice times — simply because we love playing.  We are children again when we are on the ice, living the youth we have not lost.

I played pretty well except for two goals: one that went in high-glove, and one that went in after I didn’t seal up to my blocker-side post.  That isn’t to say the women made it easy.  Even those who were at the lower end of the skill spectrum had a hunger for the puck; they never gave up.

The women all cheerfully thanked me for coming to their skate, I told them I had a wonderful time (because I had), and then I set off towards Quebec City.

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