It’s always a gamble dating someone who doesn’t know about hockey and for all you know, might hate it.
Even more so when you live in Nottingham, England, famous for Robin Hood and er, a statue of him we have in town. In the short time we’d been seeing each other, I knew this girl was a sports fan – even if it was the decidedly less violent sports of netball and tennis she preferred.
On this night, though, is the first real test of our relationship – I’m taking her to her very first hockey game.
Hockey is a true minority sport in Britain and on the international stage, well, we suck. At the World Juniors I found myself seated alongside a severely inebriated Canadian-Hungarian who through a fog of booze slurred at me that he once witnessed a game between Britain and Hungary, calling it “categorically the worst f***kin’ game I’ve ever seen in my life… the only way I got through that is by drinking and shouting Hungarian slogans all game long”.
In our rainy Midlands city, though, we have one of the better domestic teams in the Panthers, who are hosting the dominant Belfast Giants in the 5,000 seater National Ice Centre. We’ve gone to the game with my friends, one of whom takes his seat, beer in hand, for the 1st period with a favourite slogan of his own.
“F*** HOCKEY!” he bellows in his aggressive Newcastle accent, a beloved phrase of his which often finds itself taking pride of place in the comments thread of any hockey-related Facebook post of mine. Slowly, a mother with her 3-year-old daughter in the row in front turns her head, eyebrows raised. “Oh dear, I’m ever so sorry,” he says, instantly. “I do apologise.” Charm personified. He’s only along for a few beers.
It doesn’t matter if the hockey sucks, which often it does here. Most people will tell you that that moment, the one when you walk from the atrium into the seats and the whiteness of the ice hits you as hard as the speed of the players warming up on its gleaming surface, is one of the best bits of any hockey game.
This is a big moment for me, as these occasions are for any hockey obsessive. Will she be thrilled, or will she be like the nightmarish hockey-hating girl from Fireworks by the Tragically Hip? “All I remember is sittin’ beside you / you said you didn’t give a f*** about hockey, I never heard anyone say that before…” Please, let that not be me.
“Oh my god, this is awesome,” she says, cradling a beer. Yes, yes it is. That’s it, feel the pull of the hockey. There’s no escape. “What are the blues lines for?”
A smug grin crosses my face as I prepare to dispense my expertise. “Well basically…” I won’t bore you with my explanation – safe to say it was a confident, authoritative performance, animated by excessive pointing and sweeping hand gestures.
It begins. The Giants are a ludicrous 20 points clear at the top of the league, by the way – the game means nothing. But that’s beside the point and six minutes in, I hit the jackpot.
“Oh my god!” she shouts, as everyone stands up and starts baying for blood (the anti-fighting controversy hasn’t reached these shores yet – we just reintroduced touch-icing, for goodness’ sake). “What are they… bloody hell! Are they allowed to do that?” Two players have squared off and are doing the pre-fight circling. The fight ends in a decisive win for the Panther. All of my anti-fighting prejudices have been completely put aside, of course. “They get sent off for that, surely?” she asks.
“Nah, just five minutes to sit and think about what they’ve done,” I reply.
“That’s crazy! Have you ever done that?” You must be joking, I play non-checking pickup hockey.
“Oh yeah,” I breeze. “Couple of times, but they weren’t that great.”
The game doesn’t get much more exciting than that, with Nottingham barely able to get out of their zone for the majority of the three periods. But it’s of little consequence. Of the eight of us, my girlfriend is by far the most vocal, screaming with increasing intensity and frustration as Belfast run out 3-1 winners. Quite simply, she can’t get enough of it. Job done – she’s a hockey fan.
Next I’ll have to find a way to get her to the Air Canada Centre.
On second thoughts, perhaps not. That might just put her off hockey forever.