While I’m sure that there’s no shortage of American ex-pats sharing their harrowing stories of assimilating to Canadian life, I feel compelled to toss my Uncle Sam Wants You top-hat into the virtual ring. However, rather than complain about the cost of beer and cheese–which is the crux of any conversation between Americans living here, trust me—I’d rather focus on the ways I’m uniting with my new countrymen. Sports, I’ve found, have a large role to play; because much like baseball and hockey, our two lands are similar, but not at all the same.
Super Bowl: Something For Everyone. Even you Pete Townshend.
With the largest North American sports spectacle looming over the horizon (it’s the Recently Ravaged Metropolis vs. America’s Intersection!) I’ve been thinking about Super Bowls from years past and how getting together for that game has always transcended what happens on the field. People in the States have chosen a football game, perhaps the only one they’ll watch all year, as a way to precipitate feasting, drinking, socializing and celebrating. Some vicariously celebrate a place in the spotlight, but most are joyous about simply getting together and eating foodstuffs that they regret long after the trophy is hoisted.
So, with this being my first Super Bowl since getting settled in Canada, I’ve been wondering whether the gentle citizens north of the 49th Parallel would balk at my suggestion of getting together to watch the game and participate in a “heaviest nacho” competition. Is my expectation for an orgy of excess on February 7th simply another ugly American trapping that I have to eschew as part of my path to Canuckdom? I have several reasons for hoping that it isn’t (beyond the fervent belief that everyone loves a Bacon Explosion).
Now, I’m not going to trot out that tired old saw and wax on about sport’s role in the “harmonious development of man…[and] promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” (Thanks Olympic Charter!) Instead, my reasons for believing that Canadians will make room in their hearts for both the Grey Cup and the Lombardi Trophy begin with two other sports that I think illustrate the similar yet separate trajectories of our cultures. I call my theory the “Hockey Equals Baseball Hypothesis.”
Hockey = Baseball – Teeth; Baseball = Hockey + Obesity
As a sports lover, and—modestly—a fairly perceptive fellow, I’ve noticed that the game of hockey is prrrrreeety popular up here. And that’s strange to me because the game seems impossible to follow, full of a mastery I can’t appreciate, and lacking compelling drama in everyday games. Canadians, I’ve noticed, are shocked and outraged by my indifference to the game, and rather than just shrug it off, I totally understand where they’re coming from. You see, I think most Canadians feel exactly the same way about baseball. And I love baseball.
After doing some thinking and weathering incredulous Canadian jeers, I’ve come to the opinion that at the core, hockey and baseball have more similarities than differences. Speed, difficulty, and excitement aside, I see each sport capturing the same mix of nostalgia, nationalism, and community. I think that, more than any other sport, both Canadians and Americans pour a bit of themselves into these “national games” and in doing so, they build important links to the past and each other. Moreover, many of us grow up with these sports playing a central role in our maleable years. We endure an oftentimes humilating rite of passage by playing in Peewee and Little League games, and we get that first sweet taste of independence (often taking the shape of sno-cones) by wandering with packs of friends around the rink or at dusk outside the diamond. In many ways, our interactions with these sports in particular get packaged together and form some small part of our inner personal experience, for better or worse.
Sports as a Mirror and Magnet
Now, I’m not suggesting that these games are part of the lifeblood for all Canadians and Americans, but as we grow up and decide to either become fans or not, the mythology of hockey and baseball persists. Reinforced by the weight of culture and yore, Americans and Canadians are surrounded by stimuli linking these sports to our national identities. The faded photos and reverential tones for past legends (or even the fact that retired athletes are called “legends”) ensure that a certain familiarity with the sports becomes public knowledge, generation after next. The experience of attending a game is something we’re excited to do, partly because we hope to participate in something remarkable but also because it’s something decidedly “American” or “Canadian” to do. There’s an especially strong community in a ballpark or on the ice, and we feel good plugging into it.
The fact that baseball and hockey are difficult things for outsiders—even sports enthusiasts—to understand and enjoy illustrates my point. Divorced from the gravitas that each sport carries in its “home” country, the slow pace of the game, or difficulty following the puck, become true hindrances instead of afterthoughts. But my current difficulties with hockey do not discourage me. Much like the bacchanalia surrounding the Superbowl, we use these sports not just to root for a team but also as a way to strengthen our connections with neighbours. So, I’ll happily trade my knowledge of a save situation for an explanation of what exactly constitutes icing over a plate of deep-fried Snickers any day.
In my research I found that there’s a shared etymology among some baseball/hockey terms. For example, striking out four times in a single baseball game is dubbed a “golden sombrero,” which was derived from hockey’s “hat trick.” (The rationale being that a four-strikeout performance merits a larger and more embarrassing hat.) Interestingly, striking out five times in a single game is labeled the “Olympic Rings.” I’ll leave you to draw your own conclusions.