My friend Cherine had never seen a live hockey game. To rectify this tragedy, she and I decided to head down to the Bell Centre last Friday. Since the NHL players are locked out, we didn’t go to see the Habs, but rather to see two teams from the Ligue Nord-Américaine de Hockey (LNAH): the Verdun Dragons and the Laval Chiefs. There was a distinctive non-pro feel to the night. The crowd was restless, there was a heavy police presence and when the first puck dropped, so too did the gloves. The fight seemed orchestrated—a way for the warriors on each team to say hello to the more than 7,000 fans in attendance. But when another fight began immediately after the next faceoff, it became apparent Cherine’s first live-hockey experience would be a night to remember.
Before seven seconds had ticked off the clock, five faceoffs had been attempted, and five players from each team had had their seats upgraded from players’ bench to penalty box. The game ended with fans throwing each other down the concrete steps of the Bell Centre’s lower bowl and attacking the Verdun players on their bench. This last move was a foolish one. One fan got whacked over the head by a stick-wielding Dragons coach and then faced a flurry of fists from Clint Butler (who was subsequently ejected from play; the Dragons have since kicked him off the team for good). And yes, in between all of that, there was a game. The Dragons won 9-5.
After the initial boxing card—seven seconds of slugging drawn out over about ten minutes—the refs tried to put a lid on the fighting. They didn’t entirely succeed, but they managed to let the players play. In the end, the lax defence of both teams resulted in many pretty goals. There were still a few fights, but it seemed like the opening “faceoff” was part of the show; these enforcers were obviously excited to be offering their pugilistic patronage under the same roof (at least symbolically) as their heroes, the likes of John Kordic and John Ferguson.
Early on, Dragons goalie Martin Villeneuve was hot, allowing his team to jump to a 4-0 lead on two goals by former Toronto Maple Leaf Daniel Marois. I was hoping Marois would get his hat trick, but the only foreign objects thrown onto the ice were a CD and a bottle of pop—the former in response to the bench-jumping, the latter (presumably) in response to the Chiefs’ lacklustre performance. The Dragons never relinquished the lead, though that didn’t stop most Chiefs fans, including one with the name “God” on the back of “His” Chiefs jersey, from yelling in their most profane patois. You’d have thought “God” would be offended by all the “Asti-de-câlisse-de-tabernac-de-trou-d’cul”s that were being hurlé’d from the stands. The best line came from the guy sitting behind us, who, after being chastised by a man for yelling his way through the game, shouted, “C’est pas’d ma faute que t’es marrié!” (It’s not my fault that you’re married!). The chastiser and his wife left shortly thereafter, presumably at the wife’s behest.
With about five minutes left in the third period, the Laval goalie jumped into the fray, and started whaling with his blocker on an unidentified Dragon. This somehow instigated the various fights in the stands. This is when Cherine and I learned why there were so many cops around. It took four or five of them to get the crazed fan away from the Dragon’s bench and out of harm’s way.
This being her first game, Cherine was quite entertained, but I was compelled to keep insisting, “Hockey’s not really like that.” The fact that the Laval Chiefs wear the uniform of the Charleston Chiefs, of Slap Shot fame, didn’t help. Still, when you see a game with someone who hasn’t had hockey culture drilled into them since birth, it provides a unique opportunity for perspective. The similarities to Roman gladiator contests (or at least, pop-culture perceptions of them—Roman historians may beg to differ) are many: the coliseum, the armour, the drunk, revved-up crowd yelling for blood (“Du sang, asti! DU SANG!!!”). Having lived in Scotland for a time, Cherine wondered at the beginning of the game why the fans weren’t separated, as at European soccer matches. I explained that hockey fans were much more civilized. Ahem.
In the absence of the NHL this winter, Canadians (and hockey fans in the United States) will have to make do with other hockey options, and so the LNAH will surely gain many fans in the coming months. In addition to fighting, new fans will see different types of regulation in practice, including no-touch icing, tag-up offsides, shootouts: it’s free-flowing hockey with very little clutching and grabbing (what little there is usually ends in a fight). When the NHL comes back—next year seems most likely—it will be up to the fans to decide if they want to see Koivu and Sundin try to beat the trap, and inevitably fail most of the time, or if they want to see James Desmarais deke out hapless defencemen with highlight-reel moves. Would fans rather see Tie Domi and Darren Langdon in a scrum in the corner or Steve Bossé squaring off at centre ice, helmet off, fists dancing?
As we walked through the Bell Centre’s parking lot, a chill in the air, trees aglow with Christmas lights, I heard a kid say to a couple of his friends, “Hockey’s not really like that.” Maybe hockey’s not really like that, but whatever that was, it sure was fun.
John Lofranco is a Montreal-based writer, teacher and distance runner. The Masochist appears every second Wednesday