Watching Hockey in Europe (on TV!)

Watching hockey in Europe – one of my favourite pastimes in one of my favourite places. But doing so is not necessarily one size fits all. Not only is it a lot more difficult than I had first anticipated, but the spotlight shines on a completely different batch of games during the springtime. It takes some getting used to and only after five years am I starting to find my footing.

Slavic Roots and Streaming Snafus

I was first introduced to the new challenges that can occur from trying to watch hockey on European TV during an exchange year in Slovenia. Obviously, I was no longer guaranteed the ludicrously-solid broadcast that is Hockey Night in Canada. No CBC on a Saturday can be a tough thing for any Canadian to adjust to at first. As a result, I had to make friends with illegal streaming sites, which I’ve habitually been using for hockey, basketball, football, golf, Texas squirrel racing, water-boxing, and dressage ever since.

Not only can “the game” be tricky to track down, but finding a Canadian broadcast is often time-consuming to boot. Because, let’s be honest, Jack Edwards should never be the only option. Ever. [1]

While I’m aware that the CBC offers free streaming on their website, it is unavailable to those outside the country, owing I’m sure to a whole assortment of copyright laws and legal licensing snafus. I’m also aware that, for a price I cannot afford, the NHL will allow online streaming. But there are some problems here as well. First, the game will cut out during commercials. Half the reason crazy assholes like myself are putting in the time to find these matches is to offset the homesickness abroad. And there’s no better remedy than a comforting cup of Bob Cole-isms and three hours of Home Hardware commercials.

The second problem is that these games come on really late. I spent years in Vancouver, where Hockey Night began at 4pm. 4 pm! You could watch a game, be done by seven, and head out for the evening, already with a couple beers in the belly and a pinch of pucks on the palate. But in Europe, these games are on a nine-hour swing (ten if you’re stupid enough to move to Finland) and begin at 1 am.[2] Late as it is, when that NHL Live feed cuts out to a black screen and silence during every commercial break and intermission, you’re as good as asleep.

Still, I dream of the day when the Canadians abroad are able to watch the CBC for free – even if most of us no longer chip in to keep it afloat. It may happen eventually (and due to the abundance of online streaming, it essentially is, with the network collecting 0% of the ad revenue) so why not sooner rather than later. In order to weed out the riff-raff, perhaps they could just offer some sort of Canadian CAPTCHA for anyone trying to connect. Maybe a couple of questions that only a Canuck could answer: How many donuts did Lester Pearson consume during his inaugural ball? What’s the square root of Sasketchewan? Finish this sentence: A place to stand, a place to grow: ___________ [3]

As I said, these games are on late out here. It’s no easy feat to willingly torpedo your Sunday morning, on the off chance you might see the Leafs beat Ottawa. Still, over time you learn to master the art of afternoon naps, well-timed pots of coffee, late late dinners, and the craft of Googling your way to a TSN or CBC feed.

By now I’m an old hand at such strategies and have my routine down more than comfortably. If necessary I’m confident I could calculate the travel time from any pub in the city to my front door, ensuring I make it home for puck drop (All that high school math finally paying off). I’d even factor in the three extra minutes it takes to pick up a couple of game beers from the convenience store across the street (God I love this country sometimes). But by no means is it a perfect alternative. It’s simply the best I’ve got.

The ‘ice’ is superfluous –or- Did you see the game last night?

A funny thing starts happening in Canada during April and May. A lot of people start talking about the hockey and following it religiously.

A funny thing starts happening in the hockey-mad European countries during April and May. People start talking about “ice hockey” and following it religiously.

It’s kind of fun and it reminds me of home. Though I have to keep reminding people that there’s no need to call it ice hockey. That’s just redundant.

Friends, colleagues, students and well-wishers who know I’m Canadian make a point to come up to me and ask me if I “watched the game last night.”  Well of course I watched the game, I wouldn’t have missed it.

So we start talking, and I get into how I can’t believe Toronto’s making it a series and that Chicago looks good this year, and they start babbling on about Switzerland for some reason. It takes a couple of beats before I realize that no one’s ever talking about the NHL playoffs. They’re always talking about the World Championships.

Yes, the IIHF World Championships. The tournament designed to showcase the best second best third-string available players from the world’s greatest hockey nations. Its popularity is something I still, after nearly five years in Europe, can’t put my finger on. Yet, in a sure sign that I might actually be developing Stockholm syndrome, I’m starting to get less annoyed by the presence of the Worlds.[4] Perhaps it’s the timing of the games that gives me easy access to hockey. Perhaps it’s the fact that I’m a Canadian, living with a Finn, in the Czech Republic – so there’s no shortage of national matchups between us and our friends. Maybe it’s simply an excuse to head to the pub. And surely part if it comes from the fact that Canada has a pretty decent record through the round-robin most years, essentially running through every team for the first week or so.

Whatever the case may be, I’ll use last week to give you a good idea of what watching hockey in Europe is like at this time of year.

Friday – The best of both worlds

My girlfriend sent me a text that afternoon and asked if I was interested in “watching the game” before we went out. I was surprised at her suggestion, since Canada was set to play Belarus and she must’ve known that the match wouldn’t be that interesting. But, never one to say no to a lady who wants to watch hockey, I agreed.

When I came home, I could hear the sounds of the game as I opened the front door. I turned the corner expecting to see the red and white of Team Canada upon the screen. How naïve of me. Finland was playing Russia that same night – “a superior game”, she said – and we watched Suomi spank their Russian rivals with a bottle of wine.

After the game, we went into town to celebrate a friend’s birthday party. We left the party with enough time to make it back to the flat for the Game 5 of the Leafs versus Boston. We stayed up late, watched the game, and celebrated the victory. I noticed the adrenaline coursing through my body on every Toronto goal and it was an exciting feeling; an emotional investment that hasn’t happened in a long time and one of the best things about being a fan. Toronto held onto a 2-1 lead during a torturous third period and I was once more reminded of how stressful playoff hockey can be.

It was pure exhilaration when the final buzzer sounded, and the images pouring in from Maple Leaf Square matched the excitement in our little Prague flat. Surely there is no way the Leafs could make themselves look bad after stealing two games in the series.

The clock struck five and we split for bed.

Saturday – Too much of a good thing

Owing the celebratory Leafs whisky, Saturday started off slow. These victories haven’t happened very often this last decade, so you’ve gotta make them count. That was our idiotic logic anyways.

Days prior I had promised to go and watch a Finland match with my girlfriend and her colleagues, but wasn’t listening when she was explaining the details. This was a mistake.

The game was going to take to place just outside of Prague, in a small village where one of her Finnish co-workers lived with his Czech wife. He had convinced his local barman to open up the tiny village pub, promising that a group of ten Finns, drinking for three hours, would likely provide the best business in ages.

I was tired from lack of sleep and even tried unsuccessfully to talk my way out of going. I reluctantly ended up on a bumpy bus ride for what seemed like a day-and-a-half, grumpy and hungover the entire way.

We arrived at the small village around 3 o’clock and sauntered over the pub. We had entered just before the anthems were played and someone brightly suggested that we have a shot of Finnish vodka to wish the team good luck. Then someone else suggested a shot to celebrate each Finnish goal. Uh Oh, I thought. I’ve been down this path before and I know it doesn’t end well. I’ve had the opportunity to drink with Finns in the past. It’s a different stratosphere, where logic, reserve and self control sound as silly as Finnish words to English ears.

I was sitting at a wooden bench, surrounded by Finns, and I knew, well in advance, that it was going to be trouble. Finland won the game 7-2. That, my friends, is a lot of vodka. The party went well into the evening and for a few hours the World Championships seemed like a really good idea. The night ended hazily: One Finn lost his wallet. One Finn went missing for a few hours. Four of us didn’t actually make it out of that little village until the following afternoon.

Drunk Finnish fans

Not that far off from the aforementioned night …

Sunday – Everything is good

On Sunday afternoon Canada played the Czech Republic in the World Championships. This is the first time these two squads have faced off since I moved to Prague so you better believe I was eager to watch it with some Czechs. We decided to meet at Hockeyka, the towns premier hockey pub and take in the game. I proudly dawned my Molson’s T-shirt and threw myself deep into a third-straight day of drinking … I mean hockey.

The bar itself is something special. A shrine devoted to the Czech contributions to the game. Photo colleagues of Czech players throughout the 20th century line the walls, with signed jerseys and Dominik Hašek clocks hanging from the ceiling. The unavoidable centerpiece is a life-size statue of Jaromír Jágr in a Czech national team jersey, complete with realistic horse-hair mullet.

Jagr statue

The game began and I found myself cheering with my hands raised whenever Canada scored a goal (they won 2-1), though I wasn’t conscious of the fact until I caught my concerned girlfriend’s eyes and felt the heavy stares of an entire pub, silently scowling in my direction. It was quite a trip – the first time in a long time that I’ve been so outnumbered while watching a Canadian hockey game.

After the match, we returned home. My tank was on empty, so I opted to actually go to sleep for once and forego Game 6 of the Leafs and Bruins. I said a prayer to the hockey gods, asking that they help Toronto not to embarrass themselves.

Monday – 24 hours of the best feeling in the world, followed by the absolute worst

I woke up to the news that, against all odds, Toronto had actually forced a Game 7. I felt the hockey gods were just. It was a moment of monumental pride and a feeling that, even if they were blown out in the final game of their series, there was no way the Leafs could sour this first-round series in the eyes of their fans. Like many others, I spent that day with an elated spring in my step, going so far as to toy with the fantasy that maybe they could actually pull it off. Stranger things have happened.

Since I had to work the next day, I couldn’t stay up to see the game. But, like a kid on Christmas morning who could sleep no longer, I found myself shot awake at 3:30 am. Naturally, I went and checked the scores. It was 2-1 Toronto at the second intermission. Work be damned, I’m watching this game. When the Leafs went up 4-1 and I grabbed a blanket from my room, waking my girlfriend up in the process. She asked me the score and sprang out of bed when I told her. We sat in the silence of the morning and anticipated that we were about to watch something special.

And, you know the rest

I felt as though the hockey gods weren’t so much just, as they were sadistic.

There was something so sobering about watching Boston’s third period comeback at that time of morning. There were no cars on the street, no noise whatsoever, just our stunned silence at what was happening. We weren’t really tired, we weren’t really angry, we were just sort of confused. Since it was so early, I even tried to pinch myself on the off chance that it might happen to be a very realistic dream.

I did make it to work on Tuesday morning, but spent most of the day in a haze thinking, “How the fuck…” I’d walk around the city and try to keep my mind occupied, but it always sort of wandered back to the game and every time it did, it felt like this:

Which brings me back to the Worlds.

Following a game like that, living in Europe has some advantages. First, there is no chirping. That is to say, you can go about the next day without fear of your idiot co-workers or cruel relatives twisting the knife. Your friends may know what happened, but they don’t really care. They may have caught the boxscore, but few were up watching. The national team was still being given front-page treatment. I had more people congratulate me for Canada’s win over the Czech Republic than taunt me for the Leaf meltdown. It was a welcome distraction while I sorted myself out and tried to compartmentalize one of the worst third-period collapses I’d ever seen on ice.

At the very least, the Worlds offered a welcome distraction. And it helped.[5]

These are some of the benefits of being a hockey fan in Europe during the spring. There are games on all around you – so much so that you might need to take a few days to relax and gather yourself from the highs and the lows. Better still, there is a lot less partisan bickering when it comes to who won and who lost. As soon as the game’s over, it tends to matter less and everyone’s just sort of mates again. There isn’t that constant stream of hating on each other and rubbing salt into fresh wounds. As a Leafs fan, it should be easy to see why I can get behind that.

I don’t know how many more springs I’ll remain on this continent. But what I do know is that the longer I’m here, the greater my anticipation is for this time of year.

Footnotes:

Back to post.1. I know it’s a bit tired to pick on old Simple Jack, but he still remains the only man on this planet that’s ever made me feel sympathy for the Vancouver Canucks.

Back to post.2. Helsinki is so far away that Hockey Night In Canada starts at 2 in the morning and the west coast games begin on Monday afternoon.

Back to post. 3. The correct answers are, in order: trick question – that ball was Timbits only, Moosejaw, and Ontari-ari-ari-o.

Back to post. 4. For example, I can tell you that the last two tournaments have featured games in Stockholm.

Back to post. 5. So too did both these wonderful essays.

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