An Open Letter to Bill Simmons

I recently ran into a Halifax-based colleague, and fellow Canucks fan, at a conference in Toronto. We spent a good chunk of the lunch and coffee breaks at the two-day event talking about the Canucks, and we have been emailing back and forth ever since. After Game 4 I received an email from him with the subject line" An Open Letter to Bill Simmons", in which he attached a letter he wrote to the ESPN columnist and recently reconverted Boston Bruins fan, expressing the tension, nervousness, and fear that is, I think, felt by all devoted Canucks fans during these playoffs. It is a good read and I thought it would resonate with many fans, so (with his permission) I reproducing the letter herein. Hope you enjoy!

June 9, 2011

An Open Letter to Bill Simmons

Dear Bill,

I am a native Vancouverite, and lifelong Canucks fan. I'm 35 years old. I'm writing to you as a native Bostonian, and lifelong Bruins fan (despite your hiatus from the sport in recent years). As you know, our respective hockey teams are in the Stanley Cup Finals right now. Last night, your Bruins embarrassed my Canucks in Game 4 and took a stranglehold on the series, in momentum, if not in games. It was a watershed moment for us Canucks fans, not because we haven't been here before, but because this is exactly where we've always been before. On the edge. Wanting; never having. And it means that this season, which we were just starting to think was going to be different, may be horribly familiar after all.

After the game last night, I tried to go to bed, but I couldn't. I got up, surfed the net, tried to distract myself with other sports. (Hey, the Sox beat the Yanks. Nice). But nothing worked. And today, after thinking it over, I figured out why. And I would like - no, I actually need, and somewhat desperately - to tell you, and all Bruins fans, on behalf of all Canucks fans, why we can't sleep, at least so that we all understand each other. Here goes:

If the Bruins win this series, we'll be happy for you. You are real hockey fans, in a real hockey city (I know you personally don't actually live in Boston anymore, but I haven't lived in Vancouver since 2003. We both understand what is at stake here.) You're an original six team, and you've had great players. Your team is stepping up at the right time, you have the best player in the series, and you might deserve to win. But here's the rub: You - meaning the whole history and culture of Bruins hockey - don't deserve it like we deserve it. Not even close. Not even anywhere near close. I'm not sure if this makes sense to you and other Bruins fans, but believe me, it's not just sour grapes (and I don't mean Don Cherry). I know you've talked on your podcast about your Dad really wanting to see one more Bruins cup victory. And I know that Brian Burke tried to explain to you a few weeks back how much hockey means in Vancouver (BTW, he drafted the twins so he's still alright with us). But I'm trying to tell you that Burke didn't do it justice. He should have said this: You and Bruins fans don't deserve to win like we Canucks fans deserve to win.

Let me ask you some questions to try and make my point. If you stopped the average sports fan on a street in Boston and asked them what their favourite (that's how we spell that word up here) Boston sports team was, how many would say the Bruins? 10%? 20%, tops? If you stopped a sports fan in Vancouver, how many would say the Canucks? Almost all of them. Really, what else are they gonna say? Sure, we have a CFL team, and a new/old MLS team, and vague memories of some horrible teal basketball uniform and a tall Oklahoman named Big Pantry or something like that. But really, in truth, the Canucks aren't just the only sport that matters in Vancouver, they're the only sport period. And they've never, not through 40 years, won the Cup. So, for us, this playoff run is like putting the hopes and desires and scars of the Red Sox, Celtics, AND Bruins fans all together into one massive concoction of neuroses, superstition and good old fashioned paranoia. And it's been going this way for almost two months now. It hasn't been pretty.

Here's another question. How many days a week, on average, when you were a kid, did you and your friends spend after school playing street hockey? I'm guessing not that many. (I'm guessing this in part because Corey Schneider, our backup goalie who was rock solid this year, is from Boston. Wait, you knew that right? Well, he says he had a few friends who grew up playing hockey, but they were the exception, not the norm.) Well, in East Vancouver where I'm from (which is actually where Milan Lucic grew up as well) we played street hockey 4-5 days a week. As in every day. I'm not trying to show off here - I wasn't a very good player, despite how much we played - but rather to illustrate that hockey is THE sport in Vancouver, like it is in most cities across Canada. This isn't something to do or think about once the Celtics are out of the playoffs. (Condolences, by the way. Seems you were right about the Perkins trade). And kids do play other sports - soccer is big, and I played baseball my whole life - but nothing has a grip on Vancouverites like hockey. We're like most Canadians, we've weaved hockey into our national mythology and sense of self in ways that sometimes border on sociopathic. But, as Todd Bertuzzi liked to say, "It is what it is." We're stuck with hockey meaning this much to us. It's too late to go back.

One more question. If your Bruins won the cup, what would it mean for hockey fans in Philadelphia? What would Rangers fans think about it? How would old Whalers fans react? (Apparently, they're still kicking around). Strange question? Well, hear me out. I'm guessing they would be mildly amused, but wouldn't think too much of it. Here, in contrast, we actually have a national bank (not TD Bank, a different Canadian bank) that is running ads counting down the number of wins until the Cup is brought back. Not back to Vancouver, but back to Canada. You see, Bill, as silly as it sounds, this playoff is now being played by the Canucks on behalf of Canadian hockey fans across the country, because it's been 18 years since a Canadian team went all the way. I don't think that the average Bostonian can understand what that is like. Have you ever, even once, thought to yourself "Wow, I really wish the Pats would win another Super Bowl so we could bring the Lombardi Trophy back to America?" It's a foreign concept to you, in the most literal sense. But we live with it everyday.

Still not convinced? Well, I would say that right now the prospect of losing this series to the Bruins is particularly bad for the Canucks for three other reasons.

One, every time we watch a game in this series, we have to see Cam Neely sitting in the Bruins team box. You remember Cam Neely, don't you, Bill? He's the Vancouver kid (well, he's from Maple Ridge, but close enough) who came up with the Canucks, was traded away for Barry Pederson's corpse (I borrowed that from you. Hope that's OK) and went on to be a Hall of Famer. In other words, apply salt liberally to wounds before each game and rub vigorously until final whistle.

Two, while some people across Canada can talk themselves into cheering for American-based teams right now, we can't get away from all the Canadians trying to take the Cup away from us and deliver it to New England. I live in Halifax right now (Not far from Boston. Really, you and I are doing some kind of Yin and Yang thing) and there are lots of people here pulling for the Bruins, if only because Brad Marchand - who very kindly has given us someone to REALLY hate in this series - is from around here. A few years ago, we were cheering him on for Canada's World Junior team. (The World Junior hockey tournament is a holiday pastime here, broadcast nationally. What's it like down there?) Now, we have to watch night in and night out as Marchand goads and struts and scores up, down and all around us. It's really, truly infuriating. When he was dusting off his hands on the way back to the bench last night, after clothes-lining and slew-footing our best players, I would have stood in line to drop the gloves with him. And, believe me, I'm not a tough guy.  

And three, and this is key, no other Canadian team has any excuse to be as miserable or as desperate as we are. Think about it. The Oilers had the greatest teams in league history less than 30 years ago (teams, by the way, that were so sublime they used to beat up the Canucks like LeBron going one on one against Klosterman). The Flames won in 1986. The Habs are arguably still the greatest franchise in league history and they won in 1993. The Senators haven't won, but they just came in the league in ‘92 so it's not a tragedy that they've never won a cup. Even Winnipeg hockey fans have reason to celebrate right now. The wild card, of course, is the Leafs, who haven't won since 1967, but I put it to you that the Jays Series wins in 92 and 93 have significantly softened the blow. Not that Leafs fans aren't desperate, but rather that the city of Toronto doesn't have the same searing, white hot desire to celebrate a championship that Vancouver has. (If you want to count Grey Cup wins by the B.C. Lions or the Whitecaps' Soccer Bowl win in ‘79, give your head a shake. Sorry, didn't mean to get testy. Like I said, this is pretty personal).

So what I'm trying to say to you is that this is really important to us in ways that you may never understand. And after last night, we, as Canucks fans, have come to the realization that this season - which was to be our perfect season - is in serious danger of turning out very far from perfect. The sense of impending doom, not to mention the pain (which I know that you know is all too real) is starting to intensify. Ironically, it's that pain that tells us that while you and the Bruins might very well hoist the Cup next week (though who knows? Maybe this is our 04 Yankees/Red Sox moment!) we, as Canucks fans, know that it will never mean as much to you as it does to us.

Thanks for listening.

Simon Darnell

Halifax, Nova Scotia

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