The Night We Sushied the Sharks

(Or Why the World Needs Hockey)

By Neil Earle

Joe Pavelski and the San Jose Sharks are doing well right now in the Stanley Cup playoffs. Is this finally their year?

We all have frustrations.

For many Canadian males it is not making it to the NHL.

I have an extra. It is not making it as a hockey announcer. Anyone groomed on the superb tonsils of Foster Hewitt, Danny Gallivan, and Bob Cole will understand.

But once, oh yes, once, I came oh, so close. That's what I want to tell you about in this article. I think there are some valuable life lessons here. (At least my Editor thinks so.) Let me set the scene. In November 1990 I was halfway through a pop culture class at the University of Toronto. Vainly I had tried to use my Plain Truth press pass to get up to the press box at venerable, venerated Maple Leaf Gardens. But a letter from my history class melted the hearts of the staunch gatekeepers and off I went to the press box high above Gardens ice for a memorable look at the game. Here's a condensed version of what I wrote that night.

Dream Time at the Gardens

"Tickets heyyyyrre! Get your tickets hearrrr!" It is ten minutes to three on a cold clear November afternoon in downtown Toronto and the scalpers are at it already. The Toronto Maple Leafs are playing the brand new San Jose Sharks tonight and the electricity is in the air. Small crowds of young boys clustered around Carlton and Church are already sporting the teal and blue Shark sweaters complete with added shark fin. The police are there. A sound truck has moved in like a Speilbergian mother ship from Close Encounters. The restaurants outside the yellowish, sooty shrine are setting up tables.

At 5:45 I sit in a cafe next to a fifteen year old boy and his grandfather in from Guelph, about sixty miles to the west. The teen is teasing his elder about the money he'll lose if the Leafs win. Time to check in. I pay up and walk a block to the media entrance. Everyone is very polite. At 6:05 I am escorted to the press box high above the ice surface. The plexiglass and bright lights dispel only a little of the nether gloom in the cathedral-like cavern below. This place is biggggg. I meander down to the Obodiac Room – reception room for the local scribes. Rock music blares out from the Leaf's dressing room across the hall but the Obodiac Room is warm and relaxed, like a curling rink on the prairies.

6:15. The first Leaf players stroll out to scout the rink. Fifteen minutes later the usherettes are in position looking smart in their medium blue jackets, white stockings and blue shoes. A few minutes later the Leafs water boys bring out the jugs. Everything is calm, friendly, precision-run, yet folksy – not bad for a city of more than 3 million.

6:48. Out come the Sharks for their pre-game skate. Then the Leafs skate out. I am asked to leave the Leaf bench and as I do I catch one last look at the bright lights and the Gardens seats receding back row upon row – like looking up at an Amazon waterfall. I better get back. I run into a man with two sons from London, Ontario – one aged eight and the other eighteen. The youngest is deliriously happy in his Sharks sweater and dorsal fin head piece. Oh, to be young again!

The first period is scoreless but the fans cheer every Leaf move. These folks are true believers. Next to me Greg Daniel of the Financial Times. He banters, "The music's as bad as the team!" Another writer echoes his feelings, "What is this the futility bowl?"

End of the first period. I leave the press box and bear north across a row of private boxes for the swank set and end up on the west side. Down there, down a narrow hallway, a now-boarded door blocks the entrance to Foster Hewitt's fabled "Gondola" where his shrill nasal rasp caught the imagination of a continent. "Hello Canada, and hockey fans across the United States and Newfoundland." Nobody who ever heard him will forget.

Pastor Neil with the world's most famous cup back in the day (1989, Hockey Hall of Fame).

Back to the press box. I talk with the organist. With 11:47 left in the second period we make an incisive observation: This is a dull game. Then, the Sharks, leading by one goal get a penalty. Out comes scrappy Wendell Clark for the Leafs power play. But they blow it. The body checks start flying, the Leafs get a penalty and the second period ends. At the concession stand I see the family from London again, beaming back at me between their hot dogs. "Ya gotta believe in the team," they seem to be saying. "Ya gotta believe."

39 seconds! Thirty-nine seconds into the third period is all it took for the Leafs to score with a blinding slapshot. Now they are soaring. The Sharks dump the puck but the Leafs keep pouring it on. They have the Big Moomentum. At 6:08 of the third Wendell Clark picks up a loose puck from the corner and drives a shot seemingly through a Sharks defenseman and into the net. Leafs lead 2 to 1. The last four minutes and the Leafs are all over the Sharks. "We want another one!" The crowd starts chanting. At 16:02 Bullard pops in a rebound. 3-1 and the fans start leaving. But wait! At 17:02 Wendell Clark strikes again. 4-1. This triggers a huge cavernous outburst. None of the rumored shakeups in the Leafs management take place the next day. Just the pleasant aftertaste of victory and Greg Daniel's brilliantly titled article: "Leafs Sushi Sharks!"

The Capacity to Care

And so it went. The closest I came to a Foster Hewitt moment. As hockey widows can attest at Stanley Cup time, the games continue to endure. Perhaps they meet some kind of suppressed spiritual hunger, something that can lift us out of the humdrum of our canned 9-5 existence. It was a Catholic theologian who intuited this. In 1976 Michael Novak wrote in The Joy of Sports: "One imagines that in every human life is cocooned an ideal form – in the sacred time of sports, the time of the heroes occasionally breaks through. One experiences life in a different mode from that of the life we normally lead."

There seem to be at least two elements that make the games such a perpetually recurring "larger than life" experience for the devoted fan. One is the sheer excitement of being caught up in what is a larger-than-life spectacle. 16,000 cheering fans, images flashed on a giant screen, the buildup, the music, the anticipation, the exhilaration of a perfectly executed play, will feed this excitement. The baseball writer Roger Angell said that the games were all about caring, "really caring – which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives." He may be more accurate than he knew. If so, how sad! No wonder the world needs hockey.

A second attribute of sports spectacle is group participation, group solidarity. At the games we come out of ourselves a little. Our heroes need our idealization – our capacity to believe – to be heroes, claims Novak. "Come on, Wendell, you can do it!" This ability to come out of ourselves is rare in our boxed-in, cocooning culture. That's why therapists and counselors know it is good to get out and immerse yourself in a community experience, to rub elbows with your peers, get out of the huddle and out to connect with real people. It's refreshing. Rejuvenating.

Of course, the games are not, by themselves, substitutes for spiritual experience, not at all. At best, they parallel spiritual principles. The church is the ultimate group and preaching the Gospel to the nations is the ultimate act of significance. The parallels are there. No wonder that first century social observer and games aficionado, the apostle Paul, referred to sports on more than one occasion. He referred to athletes competing for the prize (2 Timothy 2:5). He said he pressed toward the mark in order to win the prize (Philippians 3:14). He saw spiritual principles at work in the sometimes brutal physicality of the Roman games (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). There are worse things we can be doing than coming out of ourselves at the games, than idealizing worthy achievement, Paul seems to intimate. In spite of the hype, the high salaries, the player-owner squabbles, the embarrassing rough and tumble, the games endure. Festival time in the soul, says Novak. "The time of heroes." Perhaps. And just maybe the real heroes are up there in the stands after all, ready to idealize, ready to celebrate, ready to stretch their capacity to believe just one more time.

Neil Earle is a former Toronto Pastor (1984-92) who has written on hockey and Canada in Slippery Pastimes (Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2002). He dedicates this article to the memory of hockey fan and beloved Toronto WCG member, Gordon Stockdale.