Thursday, 12 June 2014

Hockey at the Garden. Action in the streets.

Game 4 of the Stanley Cup Finals was played today -- actually yesterday, but broadcast in Australia this morning -- and as in Games 1 through 3 that meant schlepping into the CBD to a sports bar called the Imperial Hotel for a 10:00 am start. Unlike the first 3 Finals games, however, the Rangers won, if only because finely shaved ice in Henrik Lundqvist's goal crease prevented a puck from sliding into the net with less than 2 minutes remaining and the Rangers up a goal. The Blueshirts were outshot 41-19 but caught a few breaks for the first time in this series, took the body more frequently, and looked like a team playing for its life for the first time in the best-of-7 series. Their efforts today meant they live another day. Game 5 returns to LA on Friday night in the States, Saturday morning here. Which means more beer for breakfast. 'Cause I can't sit in a bar watching hockey and drink coffee or soft drinks. It's not natural.

Athletes are famously superstitious and fans are, too. Hell, as a kid watching the Yankees of the late '70s I'd sit in the same chair, in the same position, for hours at a time if it meant Guidry went the distance, or Reggie knocked in a run, or the Goose got a save. I'm a 48-year-old man and now at least outwardly eschew such nonsense -- but watching games in a public place eliminates even the smallest echoes of these once essential rituals. You're at the mercy of a world that doesn't give a rat's ass about the NHL, or the 20 years since the Rangers last won a Cup, or Martin St Louis' heartache, or your need to be left in peace to digest all that's happening on a big screen TV.

This sports-fan-centric strain of chaos theory played out throughout this morning's do-or-die game. Even after watching the Giants win two Monday morning Super Bowls it remains a surreal experience to watch nightime, Northern Hemisphere sporting events in rooms bright with Aussie daylight, and this morning came an added whiff of Aussie anarchy. Early on it was clear something was up, as across Spring Street from the Impy police lined the steps of Parliament house like elves and humans awaiting the battle of Helm's Deep (right). Media positioned cameras in far corners like snipers and suits gathered high up the steps, far behind the wall of police. Large megaphones were positioned just outside an Impy door and barriers appeared along Bourke Street. A demonstration was coming -- but what would necessitate such a police presence?

We, meanwhile, got down to the serious business of watching a televised hockey game. As seen here (left), our vantage point took in Madison Square Garden ice and the gathering storm upon the steps of Parliament House. There were probably 20 people watching when the puck dropped near 10:30, mostly Rangers fans. Shortly after that a familiar face appeared -- Alex, from Quebec, who's come to the Impy every morning to watch the finals. Exceptionally knowledgeable about the national game of his homeland, Alex speaks in a French-Canadian accent that's straight out of central casting. His heart was broken as a kid when his beloved Quebec Nordiques moved to the States in 1995 and became the Colorado Avalanche, but his blood still runs baby Nordiques blue and his territorial hatred of all-things-Montreal remains strong. The Rangers scored a goal minutes after Alex's arrival -- a good omen. With 5 minutes remaining in the first period a trio of American women who'd been at the Impy for game 1 arrived: Kellyanne, an exchange student from Rockland County, NY who's attending Monash University in Clayton; her sister Jen, who works for the Ice Hockey in Harlem organisation back in the States and who's in Australia for a few weeks to visit her younger sibling; and their friend Tara. Jen and Kellyanne are diehard Rangers fans, as their wardrobes attested (below). From the moment I met them a flood of memories came rushing back of the women I've known over the years who could discuss the Rangers with the acumen of a 'Hockey Night in Canada' commentator -- an unknown in Australia, where men watch footy and rugby and cricket while their flee to other rooms to watch oft-repeated rom-coms like tubs of frozen yoghurt.

Or at least that's what Aussie advertisers and network executives would have you believe.

The five of us settled in to watch the rest of the first period before the girls headed out for coffee. They returned to the Impy as demonstrators were walking down Bourke Street towards Parliament House. The Rangers scored another goal in the second period before LA struck right back, making the game another nail-biter. In the midst of such tension, however, a hurricane of humanity flooded the streetscape around the Impy. Protesters carried signs mocking Prime Minister Tony Abbott and his reward-the-rich 2014 budget, megaphones blasted slogans shouted in heavy Australian accents, and the intersection of Bourke and Spring Streets was transformed into a tradesmen's union rally (hence the bulked-up police presence). Most of the demonstrators passed by the hotel to gather on Spring Street in front of Parliament House but many took the opportunity to saddle up to a bar at lunchtime. This resulted in a constant stream of people -- nearly all men -- passing by and around us while we focused on the big screen above like zombie teens playing video games. Doc Emrick's play-by-play was quickly drowned out by the hubbub and Impy's staff, expecting a couple dozen hockey fans, now faced a throng 3-deep at the bar. It was instant madness.

Things remained raucous as the 3rd period began but play was so one-sided in the Kings favour that remembering to breathe dominated our thoughts and little else mattered. At some point, as the Rangers desperately protected their one-goal lead, I noticed the streets outside were empty of demonstrators. But then the Kings would start a man-advantage rush into the Rangers' zone and thoughts of Australian economic justice melted faster than Madison Square Garden ice on a near summer's night back in NYC.

Let's go Rangers.

Victory grins: Tara, Jen, Alex and Kellyanne.

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