Cheering for the Enemy

I took my 9-year old son to Ottawa. To cheer for Pittsburgh.

He loves hockey. Plays hockey. Collects hockey cards. The Pittsburgh Penguins are his favourite team, and Sidney Crosby is his favourite player. We don’t know what will happen if Sid gets traded to another team. We haven’t talked about that yet.

When the Penguins beat the Washington Capitals in round two of the NHL playoffs, I impulsively bought us two tickets to game four against the Ottawa Senators. On May 19th. In Ottawa.

The reality of what I did sunk in about five minutes after my online Ticketmaster purchase went through. We would be cheering for my son’s favourite team in the wrong city. I suddenly imagined the two of us, in our black and gold Penguins jerseys, sitting in section 304 of the Ottawa’s Canadian Tire Centre, being scowled at by 18,000 fanatical Senators fans. I had visions of that Seinfeld episode when Elaine wore a Baltimore Orioles hat to a NY Yankees game. She was kicked out of the stadium.

On game day, we left Toronto at one o’clock in the afternoon, and began the four-plus hour drive to Ottawa. We ate Taco Bell drive thru, talked about hockey and flipped through the FM dial. My son asked how he could become Prime Minister, so we had a one hour conversation about that.

We arrived well before the 8pm game time. We pulled up to the parking toll booth at the arena. The sign said, “PARKING $30”. I rolled down my car door window, as a young lady in the booth smiled and said, “That will be $60, please!”. “But, the sign says $30”, I replied. “It’s double for Pittsburgh fans!”, she laughed, nodding to our Penguins jerseys. “Just kidding”, she clarified, taking my $30 and waving us through. That was close.

Ottawa 2017

We parked next to an SUV with about seven Pittsburgh fans having a tailgate party. They were from Montreal. Very friendly. A young couple next to them were obviously Senators fans. They immediately asked if we wanted them to take a photo of my son and me. They did, we chatted for a bit and they offered me a beer. I declined. They didn’t seem to mind one bit we traveled from Toronto to jeer their team.

The Sens fans sure have team spirit. Thousands of red-shirted fans milled around the arena, taking selfies, drinking beer, eating poutine and chanting “Go Sens Go!”. We slipped into the arena, checked our tickets and found our seats.

Canadian Tire Centre Ottawa2

Thirty minutes before game time, the rink was a surreal scene of calm and quiet. Few fans were in their seats. What happens next is always fascinating. There’s something about watching 18,000 seats being filled by humans in a span of about ten minutes. It didn’t take long for the puck to drop and Game 4 was underway.

The Sens fans are rowdy and full of energy. It’s a different experience than watching a Leaf or Montreal Canadians game, both cities where hockey fandom reaches a delusional level. In Ottawa, you get the distinct sense that Sens fans simply feel lucky that they even have a hockey team. Sens fans cheer as if the very existence of their NHL franchise depends on it.

Up in the rafters of Ottawa’s arena, The Senators’ Stanley Cup banners hang, several of them starting in 1903. The last one was in 1927. They hang solemnly there, as if to remind fans of some ancient era of greatness that ended ninety years ago. Perhaps a reminder of all the years between 1934 and 1992 during which the people of Ottawa suffered without an NHL team of their own, while Montreal and Toronto fans reveled in the smugness of true hockey excitement. Senators fans aren’t just cheering for their team. They’re cheering for their city.

Sens banners

During the game, we weren’t kicked out of our seats. We politely cheered for Pittsburgh, clapped for the Penguins three goals, including one by Crosby, and that was enough for a 3-2 win over Ottawa. Our neighbouring Sens fans were friendly, with only a few jokes about our support for the “enemy”.

And, by the way, Sidney Crosby is particularly not well-liked in Ottawa. This is important as both our jerseys bore the notorious number 87 and “CROSBY” stitched to the back, with his big captain’s “C” on the front. We only met a few scornful looks and comments as we left, wearing our enemy jerseys in pride. My nine-year old boy was very pleased with the game’s result.

Crucial game 5 is in Pittsburgh tonight. We will watch the game at home, safely on our couch, and maybe scanning the crowd for a wayward father and son sitting in their seats, wearing red jerseys, fans of Ottawa. In Pittsburgh, cheering for the enemy.

Mike Chopowick – May 21, 2017

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