Apparently millions of people do. Montreal has always been hockey mad, and the Canadiens are the league’s most storied franchise, an obsession throughout the province of Quebec. The Senators don’t have the same history, but within minutes of them squeaking into the playoffs it seemed every second vehicle in Ottawa was flying a Senators flag. Where does this love come from?
Almost invariably it seems, sports teams are identified with the cities in which they are based. There really is no logic to it, but it is effective marketing. If not for civic pride, who would care about millionaire athletes toiling for billionaire owners? Why would anyone pay to see that? There really isn’t much logic to it.
I know the economic argument and have seen the statistics showing what a successful sports franchise can mean to a regional economy. I’m not belittling that. That money though would get spent in other things if there was no sports team. People prefer spending over saving, and there is only so much money to go around.
The passion people show for their sports teams is perhaps a hangover from another, more violent, era. It seems to me that sports, in a very real sense, have become a substitute for war. Now, I know there are a lot of wars still raging in this world, but bear with me. We think of wars as being between countries (and that concept is changing too), but before there were countries there were city-states. Sometimes those city states would have disputes, trade or politics or religion and would fight each other. As time progressed, and wars became more expensive, a new “sport” was introduced as kind of a substitute for war: jousting. What is ice hockey but a bunch of armoured men bashing away at each other to decide who wins the contest? Replace the skates with horses and you would have a mediaeval jousting match. This is war, one city-sate against another. Sometimes it does play out at a national level though.
Canadians born before about 1962 certainly can relate to that. In 1972, for the first time, the best Canadian hockey players took on the best from the Soviet Union in an eight game series. That one, as anyone who watched can attest, did feel like a clash of civilizations, communism versus capitalism, democracy versus dictatorship, with the side of truth and justice winning out by one goal in the end.
I suppose the sports obsession has its uses. Roman Caesars used to give their people bread and circuses, on the theory that a populace well fed and provided with entertainment is less likely to desire a change of government, no matter how corrupt that government may be. Two thousand years later that principle is still adhered to by many political leaders. That may be why politicians always are seen at the Stanley Cup final, the World Series or the Super Bowl – and why the mayors of Montreal and Ottawa will have a bet with each other on the outcome of the current series.
Maybe our elite athletes really are preventing some sort of inter-urban warfare. Maybe the people of Montreal and Ottawa really were about to march down the highway between the two cities, armed perhaps with hockey sticks (most Canadians don’t own a gun) to start taking swings at each other. I guess we’ll never know for sure. As Aslan says, “no-one is ever told what might have been.”
Somewhere in the basement I have a couple of old Ottawa Senators car flags, left over from a long-ago playoff run. Maybe it is time to bring them out.