‘This must be about the 200th one!”
Barry Rogers is famous in Ufa. The 60-year-old packaging salesman from Burlington, Ont., has only to step into the lobby of the Ufa Arena and they line up to have their photographs taken with him. There are parents with small children, parents with grown children, pretty young things with their clinging boyfriends – all keen to have a photograph taken with the man in the Team Canada regalia and the coonskin cap.
He has lost count of the picture requests. But Mr. Rogers is far from the only Canadian hockey fan to attract attention in Russia. They number about 400 and they are instantly identifiable through their red maple leaf gear and often goofy hats – giant leprechaun hats, Dr. Seuss top hats and, of course, Barry Rogers’ famous coonskin cap.
“I got it in North Dakota,” he confides. “Not very Canadian of me.”
The Canadians, by dint of so few fans here from other countries, find themselves in the majority for most games not featuring Russia. The virtually empty stands have made them stand out all the more. There are Canadian red maple leaf jerseys in the streets and throughout the one large modern mall next door to the arena. The Canadians seem as intrigued with what they are seeing as the Ufa Russians are with the brightly dressed Canadians.
This is Mr. Rogers’ fourth World Junior Hockey Championship: Grand Forks in 2005, Leksand, Sweden, 2007, Buffalo, 2011 and Ufa, 2013. “I’ve never been to a Canadian one,” he says, laughing.
He came, unlike most others who are part of a tour group, on a whim. His family has held Toronto Maple Leafs season tickets for generations, but this year, there being no National Hockey League games, he’d found himself increasingly interested in the juniors. He went to games around Toronto, in Kitchener and London, and decided to spend a good portion of what would normally have gone to the Leafs tickets on a $2,400 flight and a hostel bed, where he is one of only two guests.
“I’ve loved it,” he says. “I’d never been to Russia. I’d heard the food was no good, that the people weren’t friendly, but the food has been great and the people are very friendly.”
Anne-Marie Gillis is a city councillor in Sarnia, Ont., and with her husband Blair came with a large contingent with Destiny Tours. She carries a glossy poster of Canadian astronaut and Sarnia native Chris Hadfield around the rinks so he’ll have a good New Year’s party “even if he’s up in the space station.”
“We have found the people in Russia to be wonderful,” Ms. Gillis says. “The food is great. Getting around is easy. We don’t take cabs, we take the public bus. Initially we thought that Russia would be a real challenge in every aspect, but we have found the exact opposite. We don’t care where Canada ends up, we just want to be here to show our support for the team.”
The Canadians line up themselves to take photographs of the “Sniper” kiosk in the mall that features an assortment of hand pistols, an assault rifle and a crossbow. They window-shop the lingerie stores and the chic fashion outlets and stare in wonder at the myriad of choices in the vodka section of the alcohol vendor.
They eat at McDonald’s, Subway, KFC and the various English-style pubs around the city – the more adventurous among them trying Russian and Ukrainian restaurants. They come to Lenin Street at night, as the locals also do, and take photographs of themselves in front of the fabulous blue and green Christmas lights that line the long central boulevard.
And they follow “The Wizard” on Twitter. The real Wizard is rink organist Aleksandr Petrov, who has become a Canadian fan favourite for his played-by-ear renditions of the old Hockey Night in Canada theme song, his salutes to Canada and his delight in pulling on a Team Canada jersey for one game this week.
The Twitter wizard – @UfaWizard – is something quite different again. Some Canadian wit – or twit, if you prefer – has taken a phony Twitter account in the Wizard’s name, complete with a photograph of the rotund organist, and has entertained the Canadians throughout the holiday with his or her various witticisms:
– “Waking up from hibernation ouch head hurt like Sputnik wrench” (posted New Year’s Day).
– “My organ sick. Does good twitternet peoples have spare button for 1981 Casio organ?”
– “I mak spesial treat for Canucks: conjur flaming ball in sky for warming friends.”
Beyond the intrigue of the UfaWizard’s true identity, there is the added mystery of private box No. 30 high over the platform where the cheerleaders perform. It is said to be rented for the entire tournament by Canadian international oil workers “with money to burn.” A Canadian flag hangs from it, as do banners for the Edmonton Oilers and Winnipeg Jets. Over one window, a Team Canada jersey hangs backwards, but instead of a player’s name it reads: “Dirty in Box 30.”
Wild is the speculation among the Canadian fans as to what goes on there between periods.
Such are the subplots for a storied two weeks in Ufa. And, of course, some Canadians have been helping push drivers out of snow banks – just like home. They are also, by the way, watching hockey.
“I love it here,” says Barry Rogers. “I like hockey, sure, but there’s something about the juniors – they leave it all on the ice.”