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Confessions of an Asian-Canadian Hockey Fan

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I had never even heard of this sport when I landed in Canada 18 years ago. How did I end up falling for hockey, and how did it end up helping me more deeply appreciate my country, friends, and family?

OG Toddler, future hockey fan
OG Toddler, future hockey fan
Minnia Feng

Some of the most remarkable moments of my life have occurred while standing in front of a television set, somewhere in the world, screaming because the emotions I was feeling were overflowing completely into the auditory consciousness of anybody else in my vicinity, unable to be contained within my body -- Jordan Eberle's game-tying goal against Russia on January 3, 2009, Sidney Crosby's game-winning goal against USA on February 28, 2010, and yes, Connor McDavid's spectacular goal in his first game back from injury on February 2, 2016. This is the incredible power of sports and why we watch it-- the ability to make us gasp, shout, and cry with something as minute as a flick of the wrist.

Chills still tingle my spine when I rewatch these goals, years after they happened. Inevitably when we see these plays again, we instinctively remember the layers of personal context wrapped around them. Where were you? How were you watching the game? And most importantly, who were you cheering with?

While most people may remember embracing their family members or high-fiving their buddies while spilling their beer in excitement, the remarkable thing about most of the sporting moments in my life is I was cheering by myself, a result of the unique circumstances in which I entered the world of sports fandom, but an experience invaluable in its own ways.

Everybody consumes sports differently; for some, it's deeply woven into their family culture, a tradition they were born into and in some cases, their allegiance decided for them before they were even born. For others, it's a social occasion, hockey games being can't-miss events that friends naturally gather together to watch over wings and beer. You see how that last sentence sounded incredibly cliché? It's because that social aspect of sports we traditionally think of is foreign to me, existing only as scenes I've glimpsed on sitcoms and unimaginative beer commercials.

Watching sports comes as naturally to someone of my demographic as goal-scoring does to Anton Lander. Arriving in Toronto as a starry-eyed five-year old with Finnish still fresh on my tongue, having spent the previous three years in Finland and the two before that in Shanghai, Canada was the third country I had to acclimatize to in a pretty short period of time as a little human on earth. Kids, though, they adapt quickly, don't they? Moving constantly was something I had come to expect, stark new lands and unfamiliar faces more of a constant in my life than any sense of familiarity or tradition.

Having a sense of belonging and home is less of a problem for a toddler whose primary concerns are eating chocolate and watching Moomin cartoons, but as I settled into my new home in Canada, I was also settling into a new consciousness and awareness of who I am, where I'm from, and how I relate to the people around me. Luckily, the Regent Park neighbourhood where my family first landed was full of immigrants like us, and being different pretty much equated to being normal. That such an environment could exist is a truly remarkable and beautiful testament to the unique country Canada is, especially in today's turbulent times.

But no matter how inclusive and welcoming a culture, children of immigrants, especially those who were not born here, will at some point go through a process of reconciliation with the culture they experience at home in the evening and the environment they are steeped in during the day at school. Every day, I made a seamless and instant transition, undetectable even to myself, from eating congee and speaking Chinese to my parents at home in the morning to eating sandwiches and speaking English to my friends at school, and back again to Chinese in the evening.

Calling it a double identity is too much, but it's very true that I essentially had two selves belonging to the same person, identities I switched between daily as a necessity of where I came from and where I live now. Sometimes one culture would spill into the other, like when I would bring Chinese food to school for lunch, a juxtaposition that would strike me as odd in the moments I noticed it, a brief olfactory reminder of the bridge that still existed between my home life and school life.

This is not to say this bothered me -- I am lucky to have grown up in what I believe to be the best country for immigrants, and was hardly made to feel like I stuck out or was looked down upon. But as I entered elementary school, there still existed the inevitable tension of not feeling like I truly belonged as a Canadian, of being different from the kids whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents had all grown up here. All my relatives were still back in China, and I couldn't help but feel like a small part of me was still floating above Toronto, not truly having landed on my feet and grounded in my adopted home.

This all changed the day my classmate told me about this person named Curtis Joseph in grade four. My hobbies up until that point had largely consisted of collecting Pokémon cards (yes, the paper kind, believe it or not) and playing with my Easy Bake oven.

My friend absolutely revered this strange man wearing a rather deranged-looking mask with a drooling dog on it-- this disturbed me as much as it intrigued me. I had heard of this thing called hockey, but never watched it-- my television diet consisted of Arthur and the legendary Chinese historical drama My Fair Princess, shows from which I learned most of my life values.

I wanted to see what the fuss was with this Cujo person, so the next Saturday night, I tuned into Hockey Night in Canada for the first time and my eyes were treated to the sight of one of Don Cherry’s zany tapestries, from which my eyesight eventually recovered to take in the Leafs game that night. Admittedly, I knew no rules, had no precedent for understanding anything going on, and aside from Cujo, whom I didn't even know played the goaltender position, for all I knew I was watching a bunch of strangers skate around with sticks in hand, shoving each other for no apparent reason from time to time.

But I was hooked on a feeling. It was like watching this game took all the emotions I grazed upon lightly in my regular life, turned them up to turbo boost, and made me feel it all over the course of two and a half hours. My initial understanding consisted of "blue people- good, puck in- great, cheer," and that was enough for me to keep watching. I read voraciously about the players, the game, and went to school excited to discuss last night Sundin goal with classmates with whom I had not even been close before.

Even though this meant I had to grow up a Leafs fan, it was well worth the price of the painful memories and self-deprecating personality that came with it (I eventually found the light and became an Oilers fan. Yes, I think I may be a little bit sadistic). I brought hockey back home with me, as well, each Saturday night becoming a sacred event as the "Hockey Night in Canada" theme song became synonymous with happiness to me. My parents would watch with me sometimes, mostly marveling at how exuberant I could become about this strange game, practically unheard of in their home country.

One particular match stands out-- it was the first game of the season after the 2004-05 lockout, Leafs versus Senators, and any glimpse of the game was like a precious drop of water after wandering around for a year in the desert for desperately deprived hockey fans. I was inconsolably excited, not realizing just how much I missed the HNIC theme song, the flurry of motion after the first puck drop, trying to guess what players were saying to each other as they aggressively shoved gloves in each other's faces after the goalie froze the puck (to my young, innocent self, I imagined these conversations to consist of "You're stupid!" followed by "No, you're stupid!"). I remember jumping around, moving my limbs awkwardly, and maybe even having a spaz attack as I tried to deal with the physical outpouring of the excitement that was oozing out of my pores. It was absolutely incredible.

Revisiting my Tomas Kaberle bunny from childhood. You can laugh at it, but only a little because this bunny is special to me! Minnia Feng

Revisiting my Tomas Kaberle bunny from childhood. You can laugh at it, but only a little.

As my hockey fan journey intensified, the time and channel for each game were dutifully inscribed into my school agenda. I still have the pages that contain an angry outburst after a late Cam Janssen hit sent my favourite player at the time, Tomas Kaberle, flying into the air and then lying motionless on the ice. Furious scribbles disrupted the usually meticulous setup of my planner, the lines produced by my pencil livid with blatant disregard for the margins and lines I usually adhered to strictly.

And while it was just me in front of the television set, eyes so closely glued to the puck I could fall into the TV at any moment, I would explain bits and pieces of the game to my parents, who always kindly yielded control of the remote whenever there was game on, in a rather interesting Chinese-English fusion, realizing quickly that translating terms like "power play" and "offside" was quite difficult. They may not have understood the game and why I liked it so much, but it was clear that hockey was special to me, and that’s all it took for them to listen as I talked endlessly about it.

It was hockey that helped me construct a bridge between those two lives, a way for me to immerse completely, mentally and emotionally, into a passion felt throughout the deepest part of me. It was simultaneously true to me and something I was able to share intimately with my classmates during the day, and with my family in the evening. I grew up like this, hockey becoming a bridge into both cultures I now skated between effortlessly as the two worlds came closer together.

One day, I realized that I was no longer living in two worlds at all-- I was most comfortable skating around on what I had considered a bridge, and in this special space I had created for myself, a constructed intermediary between two distinct cultures and identities, I had forged a new sense of belonging that was completely my own-- the bridge itself became my home and who I am.

On this surface I glided as I grew up, and for the most part, I skated alone. While my parents appreciated my appreciation for the game, that didn't mean they would be cheering with me, and nor did I expect this. My closest friends were never hockey fans, either, and after I moved to New York City to attend university, it was even harder to find fans of the same team, or even sport, which only worsened upon moving to the NHL-less city of Seattle. It has gotten to the point where if I see any person wearing anything resembling Oilers gear, I will go up to them with a depraved, frenetic look in my eyes as I subtly open the conversation with "HI, ARE YOU AN OILERS FAN?!"

Most of the games I watch consist of me clapping and doing fanchants alone in front of a TV, or frantically stifling screams and cursing on public transportation, 17% of the time attributable to the unique phenomenon called Jultzing, as I stream matches on my phone. The amount of silent fist pumps I've done on the bus, alarming fellow riders (and for which I apologize), must be in the thousands by now.

But was I really alone?

I think of my roommate Nicole, who accompanies me on my trips to the Angry Beaver, the only Canadian hockey bar in Seattle, and helps recreate my "wings and beer hockey-watching fantasy" while attempting to learn the names of a few players (she remembers mostly the handsome Swedish ones, understandably). I think of my mom, who came to Canada not speaking a word of English and brought me to my first Jays game in middle school (because buying tickets to a Leafs game is the equivalent of self-robbery for many immigrant families), the sweetest of treats on a hot summer day. I now bring her along to Jays games when I'm home in Toronto, listening patiently as I enthusiastically describe to her how filthy Aaron Sanchez's curveball is (though she still refers to 'umpires' as 'vampires,' and perhaps rightfully so, considering how many of them suck).

Though it may not be always, there they were in the background, friends and family not immediately noticeable but listening to me cheer and nodding along to my excessive commentary.

I also think of the people I've struck up a conversation with on the bus over my lock screen wallpaper, the clever Redditors, the other writers and commenters on Copper & Blue. The sports community now goes way beyond our immediate surroundings, giving us a common reference point as our passion intersects with millions of others across the world, geographically distant but emotionally close.

It is in these moments that I realize the best gift my loved ones have given me is allowing me to indulge in my fervent love of sports, watching and listening with me despite the lack of knowledge or passion they may have for it. I realize the best gift that sports has given me is the ability to connect instantly with complete strangers from around the world, knowing nothing about where they came from but finding an immediate connection over our shared love for Jordan Eberle’s slick toe drag. It is in these moments that I realize I may not have grown up in a traditional sports-watching atmosphere, and there may not be a sports legacy in my family, but there's no such thing as a traditional sports-watching atmosphere-- everyone has their own unique story. That I was able to cultivate one for myself, despite the lack of precedent, is my very own grand sports tradition and one I'll be happy to pass on and share with others.

At the end of the day, my relationship with sports is a distinct product of who I am and an important part of myself that I'm thankful for. I've already gained more than a few heaping doses of love by watching sports in my own unapologetically solo, unconventionally connected way.