The NHL playoffs are here. Better still, the Leafs are tied 1-1 with the big bad Bruins. Game three, the first NHL playoff game in Toronto in nine years, is tonight.
A hockey mad town flies it colours. CN Tower's lights will be in full blue. Ah, it's good to be a kid again.
It's nice for a divided city to get behind... something. But as a point of pride, the good ol' hockey game seems an odd pursuit around which to get too caught up.
But hockey itself is out of step with the times, and arguably the Canadian reality - a little like our mayor, who proclaimed blue and white day last week. Hockey as populist politics? You bet. On that level, it remains the quintessential cultural identifier. See Don Cherry. See the PM. More on that later.
More kids are playing soccer, these days. We've heard that before. But enrollment numbers in hockey leagues ARE also declining. By one estimate, fewer than 10 per cent of all kids play organized shinny. Clearly, fewer parents are as inclined to send junior off to pursue their pucks dreams. Why? The exorbitant costs have something to do with it.
Hockey News writer Ken Campbell has a lot of interesting things to say about that. In Selling the Dream: How Hockey Parents and Their Kids Are Paying the Price for a National Obsession, he posits that hockey has become too important to Canada.
Immigration patterns no longer dominated by western Europeans, also contributes to dwindling minor hockey registration numbers.
Corporations like Tim Hortons, Molson and Esso do their bit each playoff season to sell the game as an enduring part of the Canadian fabric with new commercials that pull at the heartstrings. However, that nostalgia that surrounds the game - the postage stamp frozen ponds in pastoral settings - is reminiscent of another time.
The game today embraces attitudes from a bygone era that no longer reflect Canadian values. The rock ‘em sock ‘em mentality still pervades. When we think of Canuck-style hockey, we're evoking a pride in being tougher than the rest.
Sports are supposed to teach or kids life lessons. Like, for example, that bullying is an unacceptable behaviour and that at some level, the essence of life is getting along. Yet the game we revere is still fuelled by intimidation, and populated by "enforcers" whose sole purpose is to kick the shit out of the other team's enforcer, when the occasion calls for it.
Efforts to banish fighting, which could be done with the stroke of a pen, are resisted or otherwise explained away as "part of the game." No other hockey-playing nation (save maybe for the U.S.) seems to have that problem. And they're surpassing us when it comes to skilled play. Or haven't you noticed? A Canuck-based team hasn't hoisted Lord Stanley's mug since the Habs took it in 1993. Sure, there are Canadian-born players on those teams, too, but seems to me there should be enough homegrown talent here.
Then there's Don Cherry, the embodiment of Canuck values, who was on another one of those tirades last week. This time about why female sports reporters don't belong in the dressing room. His remarks were precipitated by Blackhawks Duncan Keith's remarks to a female reporter.
Cherry went one better when Cathal Kelly of the Star challenged his comments.
"You wouldn't want your sisters and daughters in there I tell ya," Cherry roared the other night during Coach's Corner. There, Cherry was referring to some locker room hijinks involving members of the Boston Celtics of the NBA. Let's not get into the black-on-white racial attitudes that may underlie Cherry's comments.
But since Grapes mentioned the NBA, it does offer a point of comparison. Last week, basket baller Jason Collins became the first active male athlete in one of the "big four" professional leagues to come out of the closet.
The NBA is miles ahead of the NHL when it comes to keeping up with the times. It exudes cool. The league has long embraced its international-ness, recruiting from Europe and now exporting the game to China.
One of Cherry's fave shticks is bemoaning the "soft" play of Europeans or the fact foreign players are taking jobs away from Canadian boys. When former NHL tough guys were dropping like flies - it was speculated from depression and alcohol problems related to their taking one too many shots to the head - Cherry called them "pukes' and "turncoats." With Cherry we can go on and on.
But our PM, too, has gotten in on the dump-and-chase to reinforce ancient stereotypes, and exploit Canadians' obsession for the game for political gain. Think it's just a coincidence that those new attack ads of newly crowned Liberal leader Justin Trudeau, you know, the ones suggesting he's not man enough for the job - and maybe gay too - are running during the playoffs? I imagine the PM's spinners know a thing or two about just who Harp's base is.
The NHL may be starting to acknowledge it has an image problem. Last week, the league and its players' association announced a formal partnership with the You Can Play Project, the gay advocacy group inspired by the late son of former Leafs GM Brian Burke.
The statement released by the NHL head Gary Bettman says the partnership "formalizes the NHL's commitment to make it the most inclusive professional sports league in the world."
Let's hope so, although I recall Burke being criticized by some sports fans in this town for attending Gay Pride last year, when he should have been at work signing free agents. I won't mention by name the nincompoop at Sun News who suggested Burke took on the gay cause because he needed some good PR.
Go Leafs go, I guess.