When Sporting Cultures Collide

The Stanley Cup final series that concluded with Game 7 on Wednesday night was not simply a highly charged, vituperative and sometimes violent clash of two excellent hockey teams.

It was also a clash of cultures between cities on opposite coasts of the continent, and it produced surprising results — including a level of passion so high in both Boston and Vancouver that it occasionally seemed threatening.

“Sometimes when you look at it from the inside and you see how fans react and so on, you say, Is that acceptable?” Bruins Coach Claude Julien said Wednesday morning. “But at the same time, that’s what excitement creates.” Julien had been asked only to compare the sports cultures during the finals in both cities. The question did not mention fan misbehavior, but that is where Julien went with his answer.

“As long as it doesn’t cross the line, I certainly think it’s a great thing for both cities,” he said.

There were, in fact, no truly ugly fan incidents in either place heading into the final game. (There were also no guarantees about what might happen in Vancouver, or in Boston.)

But the level of rhetoric in both cities was superheated all series long after the Alexandre Burrows-Patrice Bergeron biting incident in Game 1; the Aaron Rome late hit that gave Nathan Horton a concussion in Game 3; Johnny Boychuk’s can-opener tangle-up, which left Mason Raymond with a fractured vertebra; and other incidents involving taunting, fighting and perceived news conference insults.

“It’s been an ideal situation for you guys to have plenty to write about,” Canucks defenseman Kevin Bieksa said Wednesday. “I’m surprised there have been different questions floating around instead of the same ones, which is nice and refreshing. There have been plenty of story lines, plenty of motivation for everybody to win this thing.”

In Boston, the motivation revolved around Horton, whom the team and fans embraced as a kind of fallen hero whose sacrifice served as a rallying point. Fans wearing Horton’s Bruins sweater were a constant feature on the TD Garden video screen.

Across Canada and the United States, his injury reinforced a notion that the Canucks were a dirty team.

But when the Canucks’ Raymond was injured, Boychuk escaped penalty and suspension, and Vancouver General Manager Mike Gillis complained loudly about it. The team’s fans were incensed. Why did the N.H.L. suspend Rome for giving Horton a concussion, they said, and not suspend Boychuk for causing an injury that was at least as serious?

“I’ll be wearing Raymond’s jersey loud and proud tomorrow,” JulieLarson89 wrote on a CBC Web site.

The level of passion for the Bruins surprised many of the hundreds of Vancouver fans who made the trip to Boston. They learned about how self-contained and even parochial Boston sports culture can be, from tales of Red Sox fans going to cemeteries after World Series victories to spread the word to long-dead relatives, to the identification of hockey players as Beanpot legends or products of Boston College, Boston University, Merrimack, Lowell, New Hampshire and other institutions foreign to the Canadian conversation.

Meanwhile, many notions about Canada were changed during this series, including the idea that all Canadians would unite behind the Vancouver team.

One large contingent of Bruins fans was found in Nova Scotia. Their support was perhaps tied to the strong links between Halifax and Boston forged in 1917, when Boston sent aid after a collision of munitions ships touched off an explosion in Halifax Harbor that killed an estimated 2,000 people. Each year the Nova Scotia government thanks Boston by sending the city a large Christmas tree, which is displayed on Boston Common.

But there were plenty of Boston fans elsewhere in Canada as well. Much of Welland, a small Ontario industrial city between Toronto and Buffalo, was rooting for the Bruins because Horton and Daniel Paille grew up there.

Yet 30 miles away in Grimsby, Ontario, the town seemed to be pulling for Vancouver, because that is where the Canucks’ Bieksa comes from — proving that hockey fandom in Canada can be far more community-based and personal than in the United States.

On the eve of Game 7, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that the players were calm in the face of all the rhetoric and the continent-spanning passions of the divergent fan bases.

“It’s all about enjoying the day,” Canucks center Ryan Kesler said. “Every day, you don’t wake up playing for the Cup, Game 7. You know, it’s awesome.”

Yes, the eloquent Bruins fourth-liner Shawn Thornton was asked, but how do you deal with the pressure?

“Pressure? Pressure is having five kids and no job,” he said, smiling. “This is fun.”

Please follow and like us: