That's what a brave handful of USA hockey fans discovered at Van Diemen's, a bar in the Murray Hill neighborhood, in New York, during the U.S.-Canada Olympic gold medal game Sunday night. None, wisely, came alone, as nearly 300 die-hard Canadian hockey fans (i.e., Canadians) piled in to cheer, drink, yell, drink, agonize, and, ultimately, celebrate. USA paraphernalia was viewed askance, the wearer subject to the most withering look a Canadian could muster, like a raised eyebrow, or even worse.
The Canadian Assoiciation of New York had organized the event, along with the owners of Van Diemen's. Officially, it was a neutral Olympic-watching zone—both a Canadian and American flag were draped behind the bar—but realistically, it was about as American as a dish of poutine. The pregame mood was a strange mix of cockiness and anxiety—the Canadians wanted revenge, to re-assume their rightful place on top of the hockey hierarchy.
A full hour before the game, the place was full. Or so I thought. Armies of Canucks kept marching in, somehow squeezing themselves a place. The bar across the street, Arctica, was used for spillover. The crowd was a sea of red and white, to the point where the casually clothed felt awkward and underdressed. The crowd was decked out not just in hockey sweaters (or "jerseys" to boorish Americans), but also in toques, kangols, capes, scarves, mittens. It was a bit surreal: people came inside, got settled, and donned winter apparel. One fan, for reasons unclear, had a Boba Fett helmet with a Canadian toque taped onto the top. I asked why. He looked at me as if I had asked what an offside was, put the helmet on, and yelled a muffled but hearty, "Go Canada!".
I was accosted by a heavy-set guy, beer in hand. "You know," he said. "If Canada loses, we execute the players in the town square." It wasn't clear if it was a joke, a wish, or some strange combination thereof.
By the time the puck dropped, the crowd was restless. The news that the bar had run out of Canadian beer was taken in stride; the new buckets and pitchers were filled with "foreign piss," as I was informed. No one seemed to slow their intake.
Whatever anxiety and worry there might have been—the US had won the previous game, after all—dissipated as soon as the game began. Petty conversation was pushed aside; you had to focus. The mood was long stretches of modulating anticipation, punctuated by extreme elation (Canadian goal) or extreme disappointment/anger (American goal). When the Canadians scored, the crowd went into a frenzy. Arms were raised (no easy feat, considering the density), and a flurry of high-fives and embraces ensued. Beers flew. And cowbells—just loads of cowbells—clanged furiously. When that other team answered with goals of their own, lonely squeals of "USA! USA!", emitting from corners of the bar, would be buried in an avalanche of counter-chants.
Confidence was running high throughout the game. The Canadian scored early and led, and seemed to be in control. But, with just under 25 seconds to go, the hockey gods struck with a vengeance, and the Americans tied it up. The place became, briefly, a funeral parlor. Breathing tightened. And then they needed a scapegoat. Who to blame? Names whizzed by.
"Neidermayer left him open, that bastard!" "Luongo! Argghh! Brodeur would have had it!!" But this was replaced with a fierce pragmatism, a knowledge that victory would be that much sweeter now. Overtime: the Americans deserved to lose in it, to have their hopes raised and quashed.
And then something exceedingly rare, an event most assume is myth, happened: The Canadian fans were momentarily hockey-ignorant. How did Olympic overtime work? Was it sudden death? Twenty minutes, like playoff hockey, or five like in the regular season? And then a shootout? Blackberries and iPhones were brought out en masse. This was life and death.
A four-year-old girl stood up and clanged her cowbell to the time of CA-NA-DA. The crowd went berserk.
Overtime started, and the entire country was standing on the thin precipice between national tragedy and redemption. Heads were clutched, knuckles whitened, beers forgotten, breaths held for entire shifts. Even the waiters, who had incessantly shoved their way through with sandwiches and drinks, stopped to watch.
And the Canadians scored.
And the heavens opened and beer came down in torrents and the place dissolved into a puddle of hugs and tears. All was okay in hockeyland.