Hockey Day in Vancouver, February 16, 2010

When I said I wanted to soak up the atmosphere of the Olympics in Vancouver, I did not mean it literally. But one must learn to embrace the unexpected, and so when I got back to my friend Ariana’s apartment south of the Granville Bridge on Monday night and had to wring out my soaking-wet socks, I decided that instead of complaining, I would count my blessings: I might not have a ticket to an official Olympic event, but how many people can say they literally soaked up the atmosphere? (Everyone who was outside in Vancouver on Monday night, Feb. 15, 2010, that’s who.)

Perhaps it was karma that led to the next development in my Olympic experience. Because I opted to be grateful, I was rewarded. But if you’re looking at things from a pragmatic point of view, the next development was owing entirely to my friend Lorna (I call her The First Lady of Canadian Hockey), who called me at around noon on Tuesday to say she’d gotten an extra ticket to the men’s hockey game between Norway and Canada at 4:30 and did I want to go?

Did I want to go?! Oh my goodness! It was all I could do not to jump up and down all the way back to Ariana’s apartment.

I had to meet Lorna at 2:30, but I actually bumped into her and her entourage at around 1, near the Pan Pacific Hotel and the International Media Centre, where I was going to meet Mark Starr from Newsweek, whom I’ve known for more than 20 years. Lorna was surrounded by about eight people, most of whose names I promptly forgot, but I met them all an hour and a half later when I met up with her.

I had assumed that we’d go straight into Canada Hockey Place/GM Place at 2:30 and spend the next two hours in our seats, chatting and thumb-twiddling. To be honest, I wasn’t sure how much fun it would be to be confined to seats for that long with no hockey to watch (although the promise of chatting was promising), but I did not find out.

When I called Lorna at around 2:30, she told me to meet her at Molson Canada Hockey House (which is actually the world’s largest tent). She said she’d come outside to find me. I figured she’d give me my ticket and tell me to meet her at the arena at 4:30. But no, she handed me a pass to wear around my neck and said, “We’re going into the room for the players and their families. Don’t ask for autographs.” For the second (and definitely not the last) time that day I thought to myself, “Oh my goodness.”

The family room was enormous — you could have played an NBA regulation basketball game in there, except it was filled with tables, chairs, a bar, a buffet, and all kinds of amusements for the many kids present. The walls were lined with humongous life-sized-plus photos of the Teams Canada, along with huge banners of each member of the men’s team. (Where were the women’s banners? I should have asked someone.)

Along the back wall were  TVs devoted to games like NHL 09 (or maybe they had 10 — I didn’t get close enough to see), Wii, and Guitar Hero. There were also big-screen TVs elsewhere in the room, tuned to different Olympic events. There was a table with art supplies for the kids, but most of the kids were more interested in the electronics.

On the tables were snack-sized bags of potato chips and plates with pretzels and cookies. I was sitting with Mike Babcock, Sr., whose son is the coach of Team Canada. He (that would be senior, not Coach) and I took a closer look at the cookies, which he said were Oreos but didn’t look like any Oreos I’d ever seen. Turns out they were special NHL Oreos. The black ones (but not the white ones) had the Oreo logo on one side, and an NHL team logo on the other.

Among the half dozen cookies on our plate was one with the Oilers’ logo. It was in perfect shape. Unlike the team, a metaphor I found terribly amusing (Oh Debby, you are so clever!), until I realized that for some people in the room, it was likely not so amusing. People such as team owner Daryl Katz, who was chatting with some folks a few tables away. When I shared my cookie observation with Lorna, she defended our hapless Oilers. Then, perhaps to set me straight, she introduced me to Kevin Lowe, the team president/hockey operations, who was so pleasant I felt even more guilty about comparing the organization to a cookie loaded with unhealthy trans fats. (But really, I blame it on Mr. Christie.) (Also, to be fair, I think he may have done away with those trans fats.)

At around 3:30 or so, we headed to the arena. I was with Lorna, her two daughters, her brother- and sister-in-law, a nephew, and what I was then thinking of as “the Detroit contingent” — the relatives of the Team Canada management from the Red Wings. We had to wait a few minutes at Security, which worked in my favor because the longer we waited the more stuff I remembered to remove from my person — my pockets were full of potentially alarm-setting-off paraphernalia — keys, coins and things of that ilk. I think I made three trips to the bin on the conveyor belt. On the positive side, I sailed through and so did my jacket and camera.

While we were waiting to get into the arena (which took about 15 minutes, given the long lines), I looked at my ticket and promptly had my next Oh My Goodness moment: we were sitting in the seventh row! Our seats were terrific — off to the side of the net that Norway would occupy for the first and third periods. I was so excited! I was sure that Team Canada would score within the first two minutes. I was so excited I stopped dwelling on the sad fact that while I was surrounded by Team Canada families dressed patriotically in red, I was wearing blue-and-white stripes, the colors of Team Norway. I blame it on Lorna (blame: it is a theme with me). She didn’t tell me until noon Tuesday I was going to be attending a game. I had no chance to prepare. And the line to get into the Olympic store at the Bay was about a kilometre long. I was actually going to go in there and buy something red, but the line scared me away.

As the first period progressed, however, I realized there were more scary things to worry about. Such as the fact that Team Canada seemed unable to score. I kept thinking, “By this time in the women’s game on Sunday, Team Canada had scored six goals” and “If this keeps up, dinner at Molson house is not going to be a very jolly affair.” And it wasn’t as if I could avoid going back there: Lorna had stored my overly huge backpack in an office, so I had to go back to get it. I realize it could be construed as selfish and petty to pray for a win just to make dinner a more pleasant affair, but hockey in Canada can have that effect on a person. It certainly did on me.

I found myself looking for ways to distract myself. I became obsessed with Team Norway’s #29, a player whose last name is Vikingstad. Talk about the perfect name for a member of Team Norway. I think the country should change its name to Vikingstad. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if that once was the name of the country, but they changed it to Norway because it’s easier to pronounce and fits better on a hockey jersey. But I think it’s time to revert to Vikingstad. It’s much more entertaining. It sums up the history. Also, that way #29 could have his name on the front of his jersey AND on the back. What could be better?

Team Canada winning, that’s what. And they did, 8-0. Thank goodness. Because dinner at Molson Canada Hockey House was terrific, and I don’t mean the food (which, actually, was quite tasty). It was the company I liked. I now have a new best friend: Lee Holland, mother of Ken, Diane, and Dennis Holland. Dennis wasn’t there, but Ken was (he’s the Red Wings GM and an associate director of Team Canada) and Diane was (she’s his sister, and was there with her husband and two daughters, one of whom, Carly, turned 16 yesterday and also gave me what may prove to be the most useful info I gleaned during my 48 hours in Vancouver: sporting goods stores sell “butt pads,” designed to cushion your blow should you fall on your posterior while skating. I think I’ll ask for a pair for my 50th birthday. I have decided I need to take skating lessons. But that is another story). I also really enjoyed meeting Lee’s daughter-in-law, Cindi, Ken’s wife.

Lee reminded me a lot of my mother, except that unlike my mother she gave birth to coordinated children. I could have talked to her all night — and I did talk to her for much of it. In fact, I spent so much time talking to her that I didn’t walk around the room when the players showed up, so that I could gawk at Sidney Crosby and Chris Pronger and Jarome Iginla, who are the only hockey players I can recognize when they’re not wearing their jerseys. The only players I can attest to having seen were Martin Brodeur and Scott Niedermayer, and only because Lee pointed them out to me (she calls Martin Brodeur “Marty”).

At one point someone came to greet the Hollands and I turned to see who it was and found myself staring at Mike Babcock, the Team Canada coach, who had magically appeared behind me. My first thought was, “he’s not just a one-dimensional TV figure!” My next thought was, “this is a thoroughly surreal experience.” And it got more surreal. At around 8:30 or so Lorna came up to me and said, “Don’t make a fuss, but Wayne just walked  in.”

The Great One. Wayne Gretzky. The reason that my children don’t know that we ever had a Capilano Freeway in Edmonton. Lorna had to point him out to me because I didn’t recognize him, either– but that’s because his back was to me, and he was dressed in a what appeared to be a black-and-red flannel lumberjack shirt. When I looked up again he was gone. I had been too busy with Lee, plotting a next career move for Ken Hitchcock, the recently-deposed Columbus Blue Jackets coach, who was sitting at the table next to us. (We did not come up with any useful ideas, and besides, he’s busy for the next couple of weeks anyway.)

At around 9, people started heading out for the night. There was an announcement that the bus would be departing for the athletes’ village, and after that the crowd began to thin. It was hard to tear myself away — I felt a little like Cinderella having to leave the ball, although I wasn’t as rushed, nor did I lose any footwear. It was really a magical experience, one I’ll never forget. Thank you, Lorna!

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