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Anthem singer Lyndon Slewidge holds up the microphone as the crowd sings 'O Canada' before the NHL hockey game between the Ottawa Senators and New Jersey Devils Oct. 25 in Ottawa.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

It was a sensation with which I was distinctly unfamiliar.

As a lifelong Toronto Maple Leafs fan, I've cheered against the Ottawa Senators for as long as they've existed – hard feelings cemented during a playoff game in the nation's capital, when a roughly 300-pound Sens' fan tried to shove me into the next row. When the Leafs have been out of the playoffs, I've rooted for teams to which I otherwise have no allegiance when they've been up against Ottawa.

And yet there I was on Saturday evening, flipping away from the Leafs falling meekly to the Boston Bruins, and all but jumping out of my seat as the Sens pulled even with the New Jersey Devils in the third period, and genuinely disappointed when they lost in overtime.

If the Senators had more fans than usual on this night, chalk it up not only to what the nation's capital went through three days earlier, but also to the way that a pre-game ceremony allowed the entire country to rally around Ottawa's rink – and in the process, served reminder why many of us watch sports at all.

For all the reasons that professional sports give us to be cynical – the ever-escalating ticket prices, the crass commercialism, the frequent disregard for player safety – we turn toward them more than ever partly because of the sense of community they offer.

In a world in which almost anything can be customized, there are fewer and fewer chances for en masse experiences. But in most countries, there is at least one sport (soccer in many, football in the United States, and hockey here) that allows us to stand literally or figuratively alongside fellow citizens with whom we'd normally have little reason to interact at all.

Canada needed its national game to make the most of that role on Saturday, and hockey rose to the occasion.

A note-perfect Hockey Night in Canada montage, which opened with national party leaders embracing in Parliament and closed with the National War Memorial where Corporal Nathan Cirillo was slain while standing guard, set the stage in a way that showed its producers perfectly understood the game's place.

"Sports often uses words like bravery and valour, but we don't look to this game for those," George Stroumboulopoulos narrated. "Our real heroes have already shown us that. Instead it brings comfort, like a warm embrace."

If there was any fear of that message signalling a quick return to business as usual, it was quickly erased. Instead, fans in three arenas were brought together, with Ottawa's pre-game ceremony broadcast into Toronto's Air Canada Centre and Montreal's Bell Centre, in what the Senators' PA announcer called "an opportunity to stand united as one."

The ceremony that they saw was intensely moving, with Cpl. Cirillo's fellow Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders fighting back tears through the moment of silence for him and Patrice Vincent, the other Forces member who died this past week in an attack on Canadian soil. But it was the fans' own participation that gave the event much of its power.

Holding the microphone out after the first verse and allowing the crowd to carry the rest of the national anthem, as Ottawa's Lyndon Slewidge did on Saturday night, has become a bit of a trope at hockey games. But it has never before been greeted by thunderous sing-alongs in three arenas in two official languages, melded together by Hockey Night in Canada into a single rendition.

Through it all, the Senators and the visiting Devils stood shoulder to shoulder, in a circle around the Highlanders.

That sort of camaraderie, exhibited by athletes moments away from squaring off against each other, made it awfully difficult even for a Leafs' fan to hold on to old grudges. But it also meant that the result, when the Senators lost, seemed inconsequential.

As evidenced by reactions to the (entirely correct) cancellation of the Leafs-Senators game that had been scheduled for the night of the attack on the capital, there is a tendency among those in the hockey world – players and journalists among them – to piously proclaim that the sport isn't important next to matters of life and death.

They're right, in that the games don't much matter in and of themselves. But the ways they can bring us together, at moments we most need shared experiences, matter a great deal indeed.