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(STEVEN HUGHES FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
(STEVEN HUGHES FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

An innocent hockey fan abroad Add to ...

Most preadolescent Canadian boys of the mid-20th century championed one of only two NHL hockey teams based in Canada. My dad favoured les Canadiens. I was for the Maple Leafs.

In the glory days of global puck supremacy, my buddies and I erroneously supposed that Canada was the only country where hockey was revered, much less played to such magnificent heights.

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Later in life, my wife and I moved temporarily to northern Finland. Until then, I thought I’d never encounter more hockey passion than in Canada. But Finland is one hockey-crazed country. Prior to our adventure abroad, we had researched the subtleties of Finnish language and culture. Naturally, I wondered how the Finns might articulate the near-hysteria of my childhood hockey broadcasters’ roar: “He shoots!! He Scores!!”

Although Foster Hewitt might perform pirouettes under the roots of his eternal heavenly fairway, the Web translates “He shoots!! He Scores!!” to “Hän ampuu! HänTulokset!!”

Turning this epithet back into English, again by Web translation, we produced: “Man expostulates! Man Results!!

This caused me to wonder: Why didn’t we first think of that in Canada?

After we’d been there a few months, we helped our hosts put on a mammoth Thanksgiving feast at which we served a wide range of traditional Thanksgiving “fixin’s.”

At first, our Finnish guests declined to eat anything at all. This seemed odd until we figured out why. We were using inappropriate dining linen. To wit, our square dish towels too-closely resembled Finnish sauna linen. Actually, they were sauna linen.

When we’d purchased these items at a local discount store, we couldn’t read the package and the items looked good enough. If sauna towels were used simply for drying off, that would have been bad enough. But they are typically spread over wooden benches at temperatures close to the boiling point of blood. People sit on these suckers – hot, naked and steaming. In their kitchens, Finns do not dry dishes, cutlery or hands with them.

Making the best of a bad situation, we quickly relocated our little square towels to the house sauna, replacing them with paper “nenäliinoja,” which, we later discovered, means “nose linen.”

Notwithstanding this minor misjudgement, tentative nibbles soon became a voracious group gobble.

Shortly after that, my wife and I were invited to a professional hockey game in our Baltic Sea town of Oulu. This was a “friendly game” between the local team, called the Stoats (Oulun Kärpat) and a travelling Kanadian team (in Finland, Canada is spelled with a K).

You may already know that stoats are wily, slithery beasts closely related to weasels, which dart a thousand ways to Sunday, eating everything in their path.

The Oulu jersey emblem featured a fierce-looking stoat. Under the logo were the words “Se Puree!” According to a Finnish friend, this meant: “It will bite you!”

This caused no small measure of pre-game panic among the Kanadian laddies, doubtless diverting them from their carefully laid-out game plan.

You may be wondering how the Stoats trash-talked about Team Kanada before the game. One Stoat was quoted thus: “Et osaa edes luistella!” (“You can't even skate!”) At first this confused the boys in red, but shortly they became really, really angry.

Another Stoat declared, “Olet kuin siima!!” (“You look like a limp string!”) Now, the Kanadians’ feelings were hurt, too.

Kanadian coach Mike Johnstonin (as he was called in the Oulun press) posted those trashy tidbits on the locker room bulletin board for the Kanadian players’ reflection as they took the ice.

I was very proud of Team Kanada. Our boys executed a mesmerizing trick, making their elbows do fantastic imitations of automobile windshield wiper blades. What fun! The apex of each blade sweep placed a Kanadian elbow smartly on an opposing player’s nose, ear, temple, tooth, eye socket, cheekbone or Adam’s apple. Often, the successful execution of this trick produced a crunching sound and a flow of sticky, crimson-coloured liquid.

It quickly became clear that, on this chilly afternoon, our hockey skills weren’t equal to the genius of our nifty elbow tricks. While Kanada’s players were dancing a kabuki-like, elbow-bending ballet on skates, the Stoats averted contact entirely by seeming to fly, hovercraft-like, just above the ice surface; around, over, under and through the few flapping wiper-blades that had managed to avoid the penalty box.

By game time, the Stoats had stopped talking and started scoring, a feat they repeated with endless monotony. The final score was immaterial, so I won’t discuss it here. Such experiences cause a person to reflect on life’s deeper meaning. As our world contracts into one perpetually squabbling family with sporadically shared language and culture, I consider the outlook for televised hockey in Kanada.

I imagine a gaudy, retro-Kanadian future man clad in outlandishly colourful chintz like the upholstery of a cheap TV studio couch. The future telecaster will bellow: “Man expostulates! Man results!!” He probably won’t be bellowing about goals.

 

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