Here we go again. At the end of the first round, almost on cue, bandwagons across the league begin to gather steam. It's akin to a train-boarding scene from a movie: cries of "all aboard" as the next round begins, the gradual building of speed, wistful and teary waves goodbye from those who jumped on and those who decided to sit one out. Some last regrets, second guessing no longer an option as the train was barreling out of the station. On board the train, the newcomers squeeze in next to those who had been riding for longer, the boring everyday commuters who know the route all too well. They share an awkward smile with their new neighbor and the ride is underway. Such is the forced experience of the bandwagon fan. Some of the new riders decided to come along because their team is out of the running. Others join because they don't otherwise watch much hockey and, let's face it: the playoffs are a blast.
In Canada, the bandwagon experience takes on a strange distortion. Instead of picking a team because of a certain player, coach or back-story, Canadians on social media and throughout the mainstream media are encouraged to jump on the trolley and cheer for the only Canadian team left. All of a sudden, Canadian hockey fans are expected to support the 2011 Canucks, 2010 Canadiens, 2007 Senators and so forth. It's a curious reflex, a forced and awkward call-to-arms in favour of a sense of national pride and a need to stamp the Canadian flag (hopefully not just the Maple Leaf) on the Stanley Cup and, in turn, the sport of hockey. It's also something I could do without.
Don't misinterpret me: if your team is out and you find yourself wanting as the playoffs draw on, you're welcome to cheer for Ottawa. Thing is, I'd much rather you did so because you think Daniel Alfredsson is one of the league's premiere captains, because Craig Anderson deserves more credit for carrying this team at the times he has, because Erik Karlsson standing on a leg and a half is better than most defenders in the league, because you think Paul MacLean post-game media appearances are must-watch TV, or because you like Chris Neil (seriously, people do like him), not because you're Canadian and the Senators are also in Canada.
A point that needs to be addressed: the NHL playoffs and their outcome have little or nothing to do with hockey being Canada's sport, which is far more tied to the World Championships, the Olympics or the World Cup of yesteryear, and the fact that over fifty percent of NHLers are of Canadian origin. Ottawa may be a team located in Canada, but it is hardly Canada's team. After all, take a look at the roster--based on the team's leaders, it's far more Team Sweden.
Earlier this week, the cover of the Globe and Mail's sports section was a full-page picture of Craig Anderson, stealing a puck into the netting of his gloved hand, a picture that might have been from his robbery of Rene Bourque to start game five or any other of a myriad of such moments in this series and season. Emblazoned over Anderson's glove save was large type font, "OUR ONE SURE HOPE". Silly me, I flipped to the page, curious to see what the Globe had to say about Anderson's goaltending and how it often served as the crutch upon which the rest of Ottawa's successes stood. Instead, the title of the article was very collective--it did not speak to the Senators or their fans, but to Canadians broadly. The playoff hopes for the Great White North rest on the shoulders of a native of Park Ridge, Illinois. Call me a kill-joy, but I'm not buying it.
Every time a Canadian team makes it to the finals or close, some keen fan takes to hockeydb and comes to the completely unsurprising conclusion that Team X has more Canadian players than Team Y, even though Team Y is in Canada! Frankly, it doesn't matter if Team Y is made up entirely of Canadians (Don Cherry may be the GM) because none of the players in the NHL fight for the Stanley Cup with patriotism in mind, with perhaps the odd exception (think Anze Kopitar. Not a lot of Slovenian cup winners). Hockey players are on their team because they were drafted there, traded there or went there because they were offered more money: patriotism!
There's something special about the single-anthem games. There's a certain heightened intensity, a higher level of ribbing between fans. This, I have always assumed, is not a part of feeling camaraderie with one of the other seven Canadian teams, but a more urgent desire to be the best therein. Nowhere in my experience have I felt that peculiar underlying contract that we must all unite behind the last team standing. If anything, I have felt quite the opposite. Because there are only seven teams in a hockey-mad country, the rivalries are intensified.
So, if a Canadian team is going to be the first to win a Stanley Cup since the '93 Habs, I want it to be Ottawa. Otherwise, I would prefer a Canadian team not win the Cup and I don't consider that opinion to be high treason. If you're a fan of another Canadian team who is cheering for Ottawa because it's in Canada, then golly, it sure will be awkward when I don't return the favour. After all, the nation is not expressed through a corporation. And hockey teams, ultimately and obviously, are a marketed product. When it comes to support of a hockey team, protectionist "cheer Canada" refrains from social media or national newspapers ring false and counter-intuitive to the rivalry-inducing environment this country's hockey community otherwise fosters.
If you're someone who will chide and chirp throughout 82 games of the regular season and then again through the off-season, frequently expressing distaste for the players who wear the Senators' red, then pardon my discomfort and disdain when you tell me you're rooting for Ottawa. It just seems more than a little disingenuous. Sports fans should never be "told" for whom to cheer, but I will tell you this: just don't cheer for this team because you feel you should and don't cheer for this team for the sole fact they're in Ottawa and Ottawa, in turn, is in Canada. We can do without it. Instead, cheer for the Senators because they're a plucky bunch of youngsters having far more success than was expected--and they look like they're having the time of their lives in the process.