Canada's game
Brendan Connor discovers a national passion.
Last Modified: 02 Feb 2007 09:02 GMT

No love lost: The physical aspect of hockey is a key aspect for fans [GALLO/GETTY]

A lone figure darts back and forth on a frozen ice rink in a park on a sunny afternoon.

You can hear the sound of his skates slicing across the ice, carving and slashing as he builds up speed and executes tight turns.
That sound is accompanied by the echo of a frozen disk being jiggled at the end of a long stick, and occasionally fired against the wooden boards that surround the ice rink.

It's a sound that resonates throughout Canadian cities every winter.

The sport is hockey.

Here, it's never referred to as "ice hockey".  It’s just "hockey" and it's Canada's favourite game.  

Hockey's heartland 

The city of Edmonton, in the western province of Alberta, was once key to the fur trading industry in this part of northern Canada in the 19th century. 

It's now become a large and bustling place, and the people who call it home are a hardy lot. The winters are long and cold and the nights come early, but here, they actually welcome the arrival of winter, because it also marks a renewal of their annual love affair with the sport of hockey, and the NHL's Edmonton Oilers.

And there are few places where the game is more popular than here.

This team has been one of the most successful in the professional game in the last 25 years. Five times over that period the Edmonton Oilers have won the coveted Stanley Cup, emblematic of the championship of the North America-wide National Hockey League.

Rod Phillips is the play-by-play voice of the Edmonton Oilers, having broadcast their games since they joined the NHL in 1979. 

He's seen it all, and has described hundred of goals by legends like Wayne Gretzky, Jarri Kurri, Mark Messier and other Oilers stars whose jerseys have been retired in the rafters of this arena and who are fondly remembered.
Asked to describe Edmonton's love affair with hockey and what it is about the sport that is so attractive, Phillips says he sees several reasons.

Matt Greene of the Oilers [GALLO/GETTY]
"I think part of it is because we live in a city that is a winter wonderland for 6 months a year, and hockey is a winter sport.  We've all played it, and we all love to watch it at the top level.

"I would venture to say that nearly everyone at this game tonight has played hockey on some level, kids hockey, recreational, or more serious and competitive, at one point in their lives. It's something you grow up with here and it stays with you as a way of life in the winter.”  he says.

"It's also a fast, exciting game. It's played on slippery ice, by players wearing steel blades. They skate up to 35 miles an hour, the players are big, and there are huge collisions, and hard shooting. 

"Everyone in the league now can shoot the puck a hundred miles an hour. There a lot of scoring chances in a game. As spectator sport goes, it's fabulously exciting."                                         

From his perch in the broadcast booth high above the ice surface, Phillips sees the plays develop. He sees the precision and crisp passing that leads to a goal, and will go as far as to call it “artistry.”

"The great players play it at a level where their creativity is beautiful.  The game seems to slow down for them because they see everything.  No-one was ever better at that than Wayne Gretzky.  When you can be skating at breakneck speed, and fire a pass to a teammate who's also skating at full speed,  and he can shoot it on a net which is a pretty small target,  I think those skills are just fabulous," says Phillips.

A team for the people

Out in the arena's concourse before the game, Oiler fans treat this night out like a celebration of their team. 

They stream through the souvenir shops snapping up the expensive team paraphernalia, they file up to the bar and concession stands to load up on drinks and food, and they'll happily tell you what they like about the game.

"It's our game. Everyone in Canada plays hockey!"  says a fan named Duane.

"Yep,  hockey since we were born. We love it" says a teenaged girl wearing an Oilers jersey, heading to her seat, loaded down with popcorn and drinks. 

"It’s about the blood and sweat that goes into every play.  It's an art form.”  she says.

"I love hockey."  says Aaron, while leafing through the jerseys for sale in the souvenir shop. 

"It's fast, it's exciting, there's hitting, fighting, scoring. It's a game that has it all. Never a dull moment"  he says.

"I think the athletes are impressive.  In terms of physicality and emotion, when compared to other sports, they’re a 9 on a scale of ten."  says a 60- year old fan.

"I'm new to it myself, but I like it"  says Angus, a visitor from Scotland. 

"The sport is fast, the players are huge. It’s great !"

Game on

Time for the game to begin and the gladiators emerge from their locker room and take to the ice, cheered by their adoring fans.

The TV broadcast people cover every nuance of the game for fans at home who haven't got a ticket to be here.

Eventually, the Oilers win over the Minnesota Wild with two late goals, and they leave the ice to cheers and congratulations all around.

And the people of Edmonton go home happy.

The radio talk shows that evening are full of analysis and the re-living of every subtlety of the game. People talk over  their favourite plays and players as they leave the arena.

The next day, it's back to dealing with the winter in this northern city. Trying to embrace it, trying to enjoy it, and counting the days until the next Oilers home game.

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