The first time I saw a hockey game in Toronto, there were so many goals that I missed one of them. I was pretty upset.
December 21st, 1999. The Maple Leafs blew out the Pittsburgh Penguins 7-1. I was 14 years old.
The strongest memories from your childhood exist only in snapshot. I have three from that night – walking up the stairs to see the ice emerging in front of me, seeing a helmetless Penguin being led away by a linesman after a fight and later, walking down the stairs to get a hotdog and hearing a goal go in.
Missing a goal is a big deal when you live in Oxford, England, and your Toronto-native father has only managed to get tickets through a scalper who advertised on the back pages of the Toronto Sun. (Make that four memories – the guy walking into our restaurant and producing an envelope from the inside of a cheap leather jacket – goodness knows how much my father forked out for them).
As a child with a Canadian parent living in the UK, I was pretty much alone in my obsession with hockey, with the exception of a few friends who I had roped in via the medium of EA Sports. I had to make do with wearing my Maple Leafs jersey in goal on my school field hockey team, number 31 for my hero, Curtis Joseph, on the back.
I would only visit Canada every other year with my Dad for Christmas. When I did I was immediately, burningly jealous of all the kids my age who had learned to skate before they could walk. I wanted ice hockey to be a part of my childhood like it was theirs. I wanted a frozen rink outside my house, a goal in my garden and piles of sticks to be thrown into the street to pick teams like I saw on Molson adverts.
But I wasn’t going to get it. I had to make do with Mighty Ducks and football, which was fine. But when I went to see a Leafs game, I could be part of that life I feel like I narrowly missed and at least pretend, from the moment I walked down a crowded Toronto street to the moment I walked out of the Gardens, that I was a true child of hockey, despite my Prince William accent.
I’ve been to games since. I’ve been to one or two more Leafs games, all at the exciting if decidedly less hallowed Air Canada Centre. But that one was different.
Now, though, I’ve got the opportunity to go back to something resembling what I felt back then. Along with my Swedish friend and my Welsh friend who’ll be supporting Finland (don’t ask) I am a Canadian fan.
I’ve got a flag to tie round my neck like a cape. I’ve got my 2010 Olympics jersey, with that mesmerising native design on the crest. But most importantly, I have the chance to experience with other Canadian fans that unique obsession with a tournament that sends the country into overdrive.
I can still remember being even younger than I was on that day. Holding my Dad’s hand in Nathan Philips Square and watching children my age skating better than I ever could.
I got somewhere near there eventually – I used university as a means to take up hockey at 18 rather than study with any particular level of application, and played hockey outdoors in Finland in 2010 – but my week in Malmo will be the next step in a life peppered, though sadly not dominated, by the game of my father’s country.
Who knows what new images will be burned into my mind in from Malmo. It might not be a gold-medal-winning goal from Connor McDavid – but it will be another experience that makes me grateful to have enough Canadian blood in me to love the game.