Home Alone?

by Cono Spitale

On Saturday night Dec. 18th,  Canada’s (unofficial) team Toronto Maple Leafs will visit Vancouver to play Canada’s (unofficial) western Canadian team, the Canucks.

Fans on national television will watch another installment of the latest hockey fan-at-home dilemma – who actually is the home team? From the pre-game skate, it will be obvious that there are Maple Leaf fans (in the thousands) in attendance at Rogers Arena – the historic jerseys and the cheering will give it away.

The Vancouver-Toronto dislike, that may be too weak a description, is layered far beyond the hockey platform. It is the big brother-little brother issue that in the United States would be evidenced when any city, any team from New York City, engages in a competition with any city, any other team.

In Vancouver, this ‘which is the home team today?’ question began back in the ’70s when the Canucks first entered the league, with a whimper for many years. As a result they would nearly always lose to the Maple Leafs at ‘home’ and would suffer the added humilation of feeling like the visiting team because of the Toronto fans in attendance.

There is a little game-within-a-game that starts all these contests. The Toronto contingent –  not fans that  make the 5-hour flight from central Canada  but rather full-time residents of British Columbia who can’t wait to show their loyalty to Ontario where they grew up, start cheering much louder than the Vancouver fans. It is well known around the NHL that the Vancouver game atmosphere is decidely subdued in general because of the mostly corporate reality of the ticket patrons.

That said, when Toronto scores first in these affairs the cheering takes on a higher decibel level and then the folks watching at home across the country start wondering just where the game is being played. Is it the Air Canada Centre or Vancouver’s barn? Seconds after  the heightened Leaf cheering, the Vancouver fans arise from their corporate slumber and start booing the Toronto cheering.

The atmospheric brew that is then created is admittedly confusing but nonetheless invigorating – the feeling of being at a championship neutral site contest, like in high school or college, where there is no home team or , if you will, there are two.

Now, should the Canucks score first however in these contests, you have never seen rats flee a sinking ship so fast. The Toronto fans disappear into the crowd like a 5-foot-nothing guy at a basketball camp. Then if there should be a 2-goal or more difference during the game, then it does look and sound like a Vancouver home game.

In latter seasons, like this one, Leaf fans on the west coast have to bear the added weight of having an inferior squad to support – this year’s edition at least isn’t the league’s worst (the Islanders and Devils have that distinction). However the Leafs aren’t expected to make the playoffs (yet again) unless Nazem Kadri turns into Sidney Crosby with the help of  some as yet undiscovered hockey potion.

To make matters worse for the ‘easterners’, the Canucks have consistently been ensconced near the NHL Western Conference penthouse  all season and aren’t expected to descend down the elevator.

But as with all sporting contests, the game must be played before the points are awarded so I, like the other 18,000-plus who will be in attendance next Saturday in Vancouver, look forward to seeing whose home game it will be Dec.18th on the wet coast.

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