The New York Islanders needed little motivation for last Thursday’s game against the Montreal Canadiens, the biggest of their season. They had just lost to and tied their two biggest rivals – the New York Rangers and Toronto Maple Leafs – and the Rangers and Canadiens were chasing them for the final playoff spot. A win in Montreal would, in effect, eliminate the Habs. But a loss would put them right in the middle of the hunt and seriously jeopardize the Isles’ playoff position. And in Montreal, where 24 seasons have ended in Stanley Cup wins, anything less is unacceptable. Even before the Islanders arrived in Montreal, it was expected by all accounts to be a playoff atmosphere. Leading up to the game, tensions were fueled even further by the 21,000 Canadian fans who booed the singing of “The Star Spangled Banner.”
With the war in Iraq starting a night earlier, the P.A. announcer requested that all fans “show support and respect for two great nations.” Montreal fans opted otherwise, as they booed throughout the U.S. National Anthem. If 200,000 people in Montreal choose to peacefully protest the war, they are, as they should be, free to do just that – after all, isn’t our fight for the freedom of an oppressed people? But as Islander goalie Rick DiPietro said, “a hockey game is no time to boo the United States.” Motivated by the magnitude of the game in the standings, in addition to being further pumped up by the disrespect shown to their country, the Islanders came out flying. Islander forward and Minnesota native Mark Parrish summarized the evening’s events by saying, “I came to the game pretty pumped up, but once I heard that, it really got me going.” As an avid supporter of the Islanders and a proud American, I was thrilled to see my team end the playoff hopes of a team and a city where the people were so disrespectful to their closest ally.
Two nights earlier, the Isles played in Toronto, where their 2002 season ended in a dirty playoff series between the players, management and even the fans. In Game Five, cheap shots by the Leafs caused serious injuries to Islander captain and Toronto native Mike Peca and Kenny Jonsson. Before Game Six, several Islander fans expressed their hatred of the Leafs when they disgustingly burned a Canadian flag, apparently unconcerned that many Isles, including their injured captain were Canadian. Sadly enough, hundreds more jeered the singing of “O, Canada.” Toronto fans responded by booing the U.S. National Anthem before Game Seven. While it is completely pathetic and disgraceful that ignorant hockey fans use symbols – i.e. flags and anthems – to express hatred for an opposing team, when the jeering comes because of a nation’s political actions, as in Montreal, it clearly goes beyond the game of hockey and becomes a real world matter. Despite the bad blood that still exists between the Isles and Leafs from the heated spring series, Toronto fans admirably showed their ability to put the game – and any opposition to the war – aside for a moment when they respectfully cheered the National Anthem last Tuesday.
Other recent games have had mixed conditions regarding the situation, stemming from the situation in Montreal that gave many Americans an incorrectly negative perspective of Canada as a whole. In Atlanta, some fans responded by booing “O, Canada” before Friday’s game versus the Ottawa Senators. But many Atlanta fans understood that the situation in Montreal was an isolated incident, and the anthem ended in cheers.
Toronto once again showed that although their team may be without class, their fans certainly aren’t, as they cheered the U.S. anthem when they hosted Buffalo last Saturday. Also on Saturday, Calgary fans cheered the U.S. anthem, while Florida Panthers fans embarrassed South Florida when they booed the Canadian anthem. In Vancouver on Sunday, several fans booed the “Star Spangled Banner,” but the remaining 18,000 fans stepped up and drowned out the boos with jubilant cheers.
The Canadien organization proved on Saturday that it won’t allow its image to be tarnished by its fans. In addition to an apology from the team president, the fans were addressed before the game by Hall of Famer Jean Beliveau. And when one of the most beloved players in team history speaks, people listen and the sold out crowd cheered upon completion of the U.S. national anthem. Unfortunately, it took a request from a local hero for Montreal fans to show respect, and it may have been too little, too late.
While the Habs will miss the postseason, the Isles and Leafs could meet again in the playoffs. And while Toronto is better than last season, I certainly welcome the opportunity for retribution on the ice, as well as a chance for Islander fans to show Canada the same class and respect that Maple Leaf fans have given the United States.
Swidler can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.