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  • canada sked medal results SLAM!  NAGANO

    Tuesday, February 17, 1998

    Faux fun under Big Hat

     NAGANO -- Every single game at the Big Hat rink here begins exactly the same way, the Japanese being believers in the notion that the only good surprise is the one you know is coming.
     First, the cheerful chatter that will fill every nanosecond before the puck is dropped and between periods starts from the two announcers, the woman doing the English, the man the Japanese, usually simultaneously. Often, as they talk, their faces appear on the big screen: She is always animated and eager to please and her hair is always a little crazy; he always looks bored to tears, and their interaction says more than they probably would want about the state of the sexes in this country.
     Then the Snowlets are introduced, at considerable, regrettable length.
     The Snowlets are the four little cartoon owls who are the official mascots of these Games and they allegedly speak the language of nature -- Sukki, the big-honkered "leader type" who speaks specifically the language of fire; Tsukki, the romantic who speaks the language of water; Nokki, the impatient, curious one who speaks the language of wind, and Lekki, who speaks the especially mysterious language of soil, which I imagine to be all grunts and gutteral noises and very close to the language of the Hatcher brothers, two of whom play on the U.S. men's team. The impolitic joke about the Hatcher brothers, not to be repeated when one is anywhere near them I would imagine, is that they share a brain which at any given time only one brother can use.
     Then comes the moment the hockey writers here in Nagano, who sometimes cover two or three games a day, have learned to dread, when the hated Face off! shriek comes on the loudspeaker.
     For a good 30 seconds before the puck is dropped -- after the announcers have warned, "Time for face off!" -- the sound system blares with a voice screaming at great volume, "Face off! Face off! Face off! Face off! Face off!"
     Then, blessedly, out of sheer desperation, someone drops the puck, and Face off! ends until the start of the next game. Many Olympics have theme songs that stick with you long after you wish they would, but none will overstay its welcome more than Face off!
     But all is not well yet at Big Hat, for between whistles will come the faux rock, the really bad cover songs of really bad cover songs which you hear everywhere in Japan when you are not hearing the faux elevator music which is also pumped into all the buses which transport athletes, journalists and volunteers all over Nagano town. It is my belief that the faux elevator music likely also graces all of the faux bus fleet which also travels the city, its buses always empty but immaculate and right on schedule you can bet because they never, ever stop, rather like what a motorized Hotel California in reverse would be, because you can never get on.
     The strangeness isn't over yet, for after each flood, a half dozen men disperse to either end of the rink to hand-clean the glass, like very orderly, obedient and clean squeegee adults.
     So it's not just like home by a long stretch, but all that said, if there's anything better than being in Big Hat for a Team Canada hockey game, I haven't found it.
     Big Hat is a small and intimate arena with a soaring ceiling and a network of lovely iron beams which immediately reminded me of the big old barn of a rink in my northwestern Quebec hometown that my late father used to manage; one of the tasks my brother and his friends used to be paid the grand sum of 87c an hour to perform was dust the beams of the Rec Centre. They say Big Hat seats 10,000, but it feels more like it has a capacity of 5,000; from just about anywhere in the stands, you can hear the players' skates biting into the ice, and the air is usually thick with the sound of Anglo-Saxon curses. On my way out of my seat for a between-period cold can of coffee and a pack of Black Bean gum -- I've been living on the edge over here, I can tell you -- I have several times collided with the linesmen coming off the ice.
     Whenever Team Canada plays, the place is a sea of Canadian flags, handmade signs hanging over the railing, kids with red-and-white painted faces and a crowd so knowledgeable that they don't even begin the nah-nah-nah victory song until there's less than a couple of minutes left in the game. I've seen Eric Lindros' dad, Carl, decked out in Canadian colors, doing the wave while surrounded by enemy fans. I've seen Wayne Gretzky's dad, Walter, and his wife, Janet, in their Canuck jackets. I saw Don Cherry wearing the most wonderful striped gangster coat.
     There is something wonderful about Canadians, and hockey, and waving the flag, which in my experience we do only at the rink. And while the Olympics are a world-wide television experience, while some of the events probably are better appreciated on the tube, hockey is not one of them, and there is nothing as wonderful as being here. The players on Team Canada keep talking about the honor and privilege that is theirs; mine pales by comparison, but it feels the same.
     Late the other night, at the Asahi press village where we live, one of our number got out a guitar, and about 20 of us Canucks sang, for the most part badly, into the wee hours, standing on chairs, pounding glasses. Before it was over, the Poles at the table behind us were sending over drinks, the Japanese bartenders had stopped working and were clapping along, and I thought, not for the first time, what a fine, fine thing it is to be Canadian.