EDMONTON â€” Playoff hockey is back in Canada after going dark from coast to coast to coast in 2016.
In five cities, fans will renew rituals and react in their own idiosyncratic ways.
Here’s a snapshot of each market:
Edmonton fans are just now emerging, eyes blinking, into the sunlight of post-season shinny after more than a decade trapped in the black hole of endless Oiler rebuilds.
This spring, it’s all hail King Connor, the phenom scoring sensation who skates like the cartoon Road Runner. Even before the regular season ended, Connor McDavid’s serious visage has been staring down at morning commuters from billboards, reminding everyone that hockey that matters is back.
It’s payback for a fanbase that has loved wisely but not too well, complaining for years about those crappy Oilers while selling out the building.
In Canada’s oil capital, the hit and miss Calgary Flames are returning to the post-season at a propitious time.
The city is in desperate need of a pick-me-up after plunging oil prices sucked away thousands of jobs and left vacant entire floors of downtown oil skyscrapers.
Playoff hockey in Cowtown means a return of the Red Mile, a stretch of downtown where Flame fans gather pre- and post-game to indulge in puck-themed bacchanalia that, in a 2004 playoff run, included topless nudity.
Police have already warned this year they will keep the Red Mile family friendly.
The bold but bruised faithful of Leafs Nation are Canada’s most battle-tested and thick-skinned fans, enduring years of jokes about the Buds sucking every spring since the decade of Free Love.
But the Leafs are back after years in the wilderness with playmakers like Auston Matthews. Toronto, of course, is also Canada’s media hothouse where everything â€” including media-player snipefests and the absence of stick salutes to fans â€” is amplified.
The Leafs have taken steps to reduce the glare of the media spotlight on the rookies, but the bottom line: the Leafs may win, they may lose. Either way it will likely be blown out of proportion.
While Toronto Maple Leaf fans understand and embrace the tragi-comedy that is life, Montreal fans remind us that hockey is not life, it’s much more than that, with fans who even deck out their wedding day in bleu, blanc et rouge.
In the home of 24 Stanley Cups, playoffs are expected as much as they are embraced â€” and then examined as a metaphor for larger discussions of language, culture and political estrangement.
And they are no laughing matter, witness the trail of smashed windows, and overturned police cruisers from a series of Montreal playoff hockey street melees dating back to the Richard Riot of 1955.
A team with so much history in a city where history is made all the time is home to hockey’s proudest niche fans who grapple with sense of being overlooked when Canada talks the national pastime.
It doesn’t help when hordes of Leaf and Habs fans invade their home and try to out-cheer them.
The Senators are recent on again-off again playoff participants and Ottawa has struggled to build a buzz with a suburban rink. Still the Sens can brag about having some high profile celeb fans, such as Matthew Perry, Rihanna and Snoop Dogg.
Dean Bennett, The Canadian Press