OUR RELATIONSHIP with the teams we cheer for, like all affairs of the heart, runs deeper than words. It consists in equal parts of pride, loyalty, and unrequited yearning. Above all, it is involuntary - we don't have a choice, any more than we control who we fall in love with.
As I write this column, Canada and Slovakia are playing at the World Hockey Championships in Moscow. I grew up watching the former, back in the days of Ken Dryden, Darryl Sittler and Guy Lafleur; but more recently, like for tonight's match, I find that my loyalties have defected to Slovakia.
It begins with the hockey-watching experience. There have been times when cheering for Canadian hockey was about as suspenseful as cheering for the US men's basketball team (Canada beat Denmark 47-0 in 1949, for example). The verdict was too seldom in doubt to be truly interesting.
Slovak hockey fans, on the other hand, cannot be accused of riding the bandwagon. At times (Nagano 1998, Salt Lake City 2002), watching Team Slovakia play has been as nerve-wracking as following women's figure skating - you know they're going to fall, and it breaks your heart to watch. Because with Slovakia, it's never about the talent, but the confidence. Part of the agony in seeing them go down to the Kazakhs, the Germans or the Czechs has been knowing that they were better.
Perhaps that is why they are so riveting to watch when they win. Canadians achieve most of their victories by "taking the body" or "dumping and chasing", but the Slovaks, when they believe in themselves, are capable of playing at a higher level. It's a graceful, inspired brand of hockey that is sustainable for as long as they don't fly too close to the sun.
Team loyalties are also about the people you share the hockey with. Canadian fans by now exhibit a sense of weary entitlement, but Slovaks still live and breathe every period of the annual tournament. It's not that they are inhospitable to people who cheer for other teams; it's that in not cheering for Slovakia, you miss out on something that remains larger than hockey.
I don't know whether something similar happens to other foreigners who live in Slovakia for a longer time, but I suspect it does. Sports allegiances may be the last to be transferred, but eventually they too bow to the new home you have chosen. Because as Colonel Potter once said, "if you ain't where you is, you ain't no place".
As the years pass, and Slovakia wins its share of medals, these encounters will inevitably lose their charm. For now, if Slovakia-Canada matches yield some of the most inspiring hockey available, it's because Slovaks remind Canadians of what it means to play hockey - and watch it - with passion.
By Tom Nicholson
7. May 2007 at 0:00