In a strange twist, we left the self-proclaimed State of Hockey (debatable, Marth might say) and headed to the Country of Hockey on the first weekend during which NHL games were canceled in this most recent labor spat.
It did not take long for the inherent sadness and anger to materialize in this part of the world; in fact, it happened before we even officially left the United States. After flying into Buffalo (roughly two hours from Toronto, our final destination, and about half the price since it’s not an “international” flight), we overheard pieces of an airport conversation that went thusly:
“I don’t even care about the lockout any more. I will just follow my son’s team for a year.”
That was a man, 45ish, wearing a Sabres cap. The comments were directed at a man of similar age, who replied, “Give me 100 dollars to play. I would be happy.”
In Toronto, the locals are trying to conjure up even more enthusiasm than usual for the Marlies, the top-level minor league affiliate of the Leafs. Indeed, this squad draws quite well (and proves that in a market mad enough for a sport, major and minor league teams can do quite well). But you could feel it in the grey skies. With every day that passes and takes Toronto closer to winter, the absence of the NHL will cut more and more. It’s a shame in all hockey markets, but especially so there.
Toronto is undeniably one of the friendliest major cities we have ever visited. This was our third trip there, and you wouldn’t think it would be possible to cram so many people into such a limited space and keep the general populace in good spirits, but Toronto manages to pull it off.
One secret to the happiness, we would imagine: smart building. There is certainly some suburban sprawl in Toronto area, but the city itself builds up not out – which we have always thought is the smartest thing possible. Classic row-houses are three- or four-stories high but look no wider than a standard SUV. They are either attached (sharing a wall with homes next to them) or detached (meaning there is a gap barely wide enough to see through, though apparently wide enough to house a family of raccoons in the case of our friend John Sharkman.
To go with these single-family dwellings are massive glass apartment and condo structures. Brilliant. We’re not sure exactly how real estate works, but we always imagined building to the sky was far more cost-effective then elbowing outwards. It’s how you feel compact without being cramped.
The main event connected to the trip to Toronto was running a marathon there on Sunday. When Sharkman moved to Toronto, we made the commitment to run 26.2 miles with him there. Here is what we now know: Canadian marathons are strangely more difficult because all of the markers are measured in kilometers. That’s 42-plus in all, and it plays wicked mind games over the course of several hours. Once you get to a certain point during a marathon, you have no idea what the difference is between a mile and a kilometer. You just know that somehow you have passed marker 28, which you’ve never seen before, and you still have 14 left.
But we made it. This time, we ran the whole thing with Sharkman; you’ll recall, maybe, that in a similar setting in June for Grandma’s Marathon, we ditched him midway through in order to run a sub-4 hour race. This one was all about fun and amusement, or as much as someone can have while doing unspeakable things to one’s legs. The height of this was live-tweeting much of the experience, culminating with a kilometer 37 stop at a McDonald’s that was basically 100 meters off the course. We went in, bought a couple of cheeseburgers to the stunned amusement of the cashier, ate them as we walked and pounded out the final 5K. Our overall time was somewhere in the 4:55 range, but when you adjust for Canadian time that’s actually quite good. Maybe even vice presidential good.
One final thing you should know about Canadians, or at least something we feel we learned: they are sticklers for rules. One of those rules is that you cannot just walk into a World Cup qualifier soccer match without a ticket, which we suppose is kind of an international rule. But still.
We had it in our head that we could just show up at halftime of the not-sold-out Cuba vs. Canada match Friday and slip in a side gate or some such thing. When no side gate presented itself, we thought (again, for some reason), that waltzing in ticket-less when all the smokers returned from the break would be a keen idea. This, again, proved to be extremely false. (Quoth the usher: “Sir … Sir … Sir!”)
The more strategic plan emerged from Sharkman of all people. He targeted folks leaving the arena at the break and offered to buy their tickets. What happened instead was a father and son simply gave us their tickets, which were still good and re-scannable. And these tickets turned out to be in the front row of the entire stadium, quite near midfield.
And this is how we came to watch the final 40 minutes or so of Canada’s 3-0 romp over Cuba, which had exactly 11 players after several defections earlier in the day.
What a country.