Canucks and Beyond

Hockey in Purgatory

02/23/2009 at 3:43pm EST

It turns out that there are, in fact, people who actually don’t care about hockey in this country. For the past week, I joined their ranks.

I spent some time in Vancouver to take care of some family issues, which turned into a medical emergency for a close family member, resulting in a parade of tests, doctors and clinics. (On that note, can I just say that St. Paul’s hospital in Vancouver provided easily the best emergency room experience I’ve ever had. My gratitude to everyone there. I can’t say enough about how impressed I was.)

Aside from that, I spent my days in Vancouver staying in the East end, living and walking around an area widely thought to be populated with the most impoverished, criminal and desperate people of any neighbourhood in Canada. It’s an area I’ve spent a modest amount of time in, though it’s been a few years, and it was a sharp reminder about what’s important.

And hockey certainly isn’t it.

When Canucks fans from outside Canada ask me what the hockey atmosphere in BC is like, I usually tell them it’s as pervasive as advertised. Signs of the Vancouver Canucks are everywhere. There are Canucks baseball caps, shirts, jerseys, car flags, mugs, posters on Vancouver transit, and more, everywhere you turn. If you can walk down a single block in the downtown without seeing at least one of these, you probably have your eyes closed. And the same is true for Vancouver Island, and (I assume) many other areas of the province as well. Hockey is everywhere.

But that all disappears when you spend some time on the wrong parts of East Hastings.

From one block to the next, the change is abrupt, and there’s no sign that hockey even exists, much less that it matters at all. The mixture of the working classes trying to keep on the right side of survival, and the homelessness (and hopelessness) of people in even far worse shape, provides stark contrast to the vivid brightness and colors of life you experience at a hockey game.

The only sign I saw of the Canucks in all my days down there was an old Jeep, parked in the alley behind my friend’s apartment, with a defunct Canucks logo sticker on the back of the vehicle. It made a strong impression on me.

Each day, that truck stayed put as life on the street happened around it—quick deals as drugs and cash exchanged hands; and far-too-young (and far-too-old) girls hanging nearby, gossiping while applying their makeup and straightening their skirts as they prepared for a day working the streets; or as weary old people simply stopped to lean against a nearby wall, taking a breather in a relatively quiet area, feeling a bit safe from the madness a block away.

It wasn’t till the day I left Vancouver to return home that I realized the truth that was hidden in that Jeep with the Canucks sticker.

Hiding in plain sight—yet unconsciously dismissed by me every day—lived a family of three and a dog. Living in their old truck, their insurance sticker up to date on the back, they were surviving tough times the best way they knew how. But that old sticker on the back of the truck hinted at better times in the past.

Hockey matters to us because it’s entertainment, and people need entertainment, perhaps in hard times more than in any other. But thinking about that family just getting by, working to afford that car insurance to keep them from slipping any further, to feed themselves and simply stay afloat in the chaos of inhumanity that street life breeds in such a world, I was reminded that that thinking of hockey as a ‘working class sport’ as I do is entirely naive.

My own tight budget makes it hard to justify the cable bills and the PPV costs, yet I still pay for them even while I complain. But for many people, my choice is simply for the wealthy.

How long has it been since the child living in that Jeep has seen a hockey game? Living in that purgatory between the streets and a simple home with a TV and comfortable sofa, I bet it seems like another lifetime ago.

It’s a thought that’s going to stay with me for a long time.

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