The Blackhawks in Canada: My Experience as a Fan North of the Border

It all started one weekend night a few years ago in my basement back home. My dad and I were watching the Blackhawks and commenting about everything from how the week had gone to our future plans and goals. When intermission came on we were treated to some highlights of the Senators and Canadiens, and my respect for Canada’s hockey culture seemed to be especially evident that night. And that respect led to a thought:

“Hey dad, don’t you think it would be cool to see a Hawks game in every Canadian arena?” I asked in an innocent tone.

“Yes, it would be very cool. Let’s do it.”

And thus our mission had begun. That simple conversation started a quest for the two of us and my younger brother: The Tews family men would see a Blackhawks game in every Canadian rink, visiting one new city each year until every opponent had been checked off our list.

The city of Ottawa was the first stop on our Canadian tour
The city of Ottawa was the first stop on our Canadian tour.

First it was Ottawa, where Antti Raanta’s nightmare of a game meant that we saw the defending champs get blown out by a struggling Senators team. Last season it was Toronto, where James Reimer had a career-game in recording 45 saves to beat Kane and crew in a close contest. This season, Winnipeg was the destination, and not even a terrible stretch of play by the team could ruin Andrew Ladd’s first game back in Winnipeg as the Hawks won 4-0.

Regardless of the outcome of any of those games, each experience was incredibly enjoyable and unforgettable for different reasons. But the three trips combined provided me with some eye-opening experiences that I could not have gained otherwise.

Ousted in Ottawa

One of the first eye-opening experiences I had was going to dinner with some of my dad’s friends in Ottawa. And no, I’m not talking about the first time I tried poutine. The thing that so vividly caught my attention was the jersey choice of one of my dad’s friends at dinner.

In a restaurant full of pre-gamers and Ottawa natives, this Senators die-hard was wearing a Patrick Kane jersey. His rationale: respect for the talent level of the American-born Kane. I was used to seeing Kane jerseys nearly everyday in high school and walking around the streets in my hometown, but I did not expect to see someone proudly displaying a Kane jersey in the middle of Ottawa, especially not on a night when #88 would be suiting up against the hometown Senators.

This highlighted the influence and popularity the Blackhawks carried with fans of the NHL, even those beyond the Chicago market. As strange as it may sound, I had never truly been able to understand the reach of Chicago hockey until I was able to see firsthand how involved in the team hockey fans were.

That perception was only strengthened when another friend at the table brought up Teuvo Teravainen’s recent performance at the World Junior Championship for Finland. I talked to him about the basic scouting reports and few live games I had seen from Teravainen for a few minutes, before I realized that this Ottawa fan knew far more about the Blackhawks’ top prospect than even I did.

Seeing Hossa return to Ottawa was a great experience
Seeing Hossa return to Ottawa was a great experience

When the fan sitting in front of us at the game gave me Peter Regin’s entire NHL career-path, I realized that Canadian hockey fans don’t mess around. Not only do they look for and acknowledge talent in distant markets, they’re also general hockey fans that follow the game regardless of its geographic focal points.

But the best part of the night still had yet to come for us. The game itself was the prize in our journey, and even Raanta’s performance couldn’t dampen the experience.

Aside from the privilege of being able to see world-class talents perform at both ends of the ice, the game in Ottawa had an extremely unique fan environment that provided an excellent contrast to the one typically on display at the United Center. Whereas fans at the UC are always loud (especially during the anthem) and use Blackhawks games as more of a social event than anything else, the fans in Ottawa maintained an exceptional focus on the game being played for the entirety of the contest.

Everyone was silent during game-play, and most of the conversation around us revolved around the flow of the game. There were also noticeably fewer fans heckling the Away goalie than there would have been at the United Center.

Leg Two: Toronto

But the attention Ottawa fans gave to the game was not unique to that Canadian city alone; Toronto fans meticulously dissected their team’s game at every opportunity they were given. What I most distinctly remember from the fan experience in Toronto was a play Phil Kessel made in the second period.

After a successful Chicago rush up the ice to gain the offensive zone, a Maple Leafs player reached center ice and dumped the puck in past a flat-footed Hawks defender and into the far corner. The lone Toronto player with a chance at making a play on the puck was Phil Kessel. But rather than pursue the opportunity before him, Kessel pulled up and went for a change. That kind of play from a star player is not uncommon in the NHL today, but Maple Leafs fans made sure Kessel knew of their frustration with his laziness.

‘Boos’ cascaded onto the ice from across the arena, and the fan in front of me had the nerve to yell “lazy bum,” from his perch in the 300 level of the Air Canada Centre. To be fair, I don’t think I would ever criticize Patrick Kane for pulling up and changing on a play like that, but it definitely isn’t the kind of play that coaches and talent evaluators appreciate from high-profile players.

Seeing the Cup in Toronto was an all-time highlight
Seeing the Cup in Toronto was an all-time highlight.

And the fact that Leafs fans recognized the situation enough to boo their highest-paid player struck a note with me. Most fans aren’t knowledgeable enough to realize what was wrong with what Kessel did, but Toronto fans knew enough about the game to not only acknowledge the play, but also to respond negatively to it. After the game fans flooded into the freezing streets to celebrate what would turn out to be a rare win for their team that season. I couldn’t handle the cold well enough to stay out with the fans, but their excitement was on full display as they headed for Toronto’s post-game entertainment.

The day after the game we went to see the Hockey Hall of Fame. It was a fascinating experience, full of history and opportunities to learn more about the game. Looking back, I don’t think there is a better city than Toronto to house the Hall of Fame; the city doesn’t need to be the capital of Canada to deserve its status as the Hockey Capital of the World.

Completing the First Trio

This season we were able to see a game in Winnipeg for Andrew Ladd’s first game back in the city. Although Winnipeg is a small working-class city that seemed almost abandoned for most of the weekend, fans still poured through the doors of the MTS Centre to watch their faltering Jets. The pre-game video urged fans to be loud by proclaiming, “Our Jets need us to be the loudest in the NHL,” and the crowd lived up to their reputation regardless of the final score.

However, since their team couldn’t put a puck past Scott Darling, the loudest moment of the game may have been standing ovation natives gave Andrew Ladd. Ladd was the franchise’s first captain after their return to Manitoba and clearly held a special place amongst fans. He was visibly emotional on the ice during the ovation, and was able to channel that emotion to score a key goal in the third period.

Fans again rose to their feet to acknowledge Ladd, although this time it was for scoring a goal against the hometown team. I have never been at a game with such an appreciative fan base, and it certainly left an impression on me.

Overall, each trip brought with it unique experiences and memories that helped me understand the importance of hockey in Canadian culture. The fact that I was able to have these experiences alongside my dad and brother just made them all the more memorable and special in my mind.