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A hockey fan’s reconciliation: Baruchel asks the tough questions about fandom

Acclaimed actor Jay Baruchel explores his passion for hockey through the lens of the fan experience in his new book.
Noel Vasquez/GC Images

Noel Vasquez/GC Images

Actor Jay Baruchel weighs about 150 pounds soaking wet, and he typically plays underdogs in movies, from Million Dollar Baby to She’s Out of My League. But he has a fighter’s spirit. He was raised scrappy in a lower-class Montreal household with a drug addict for a father. That life forged Baruchel’s fiery relationship with old-time hockey, the violent, bloody style of play celebrated in the past but often derided today.

The same passion inspired Baruchel to pen a love letter to fighting in hockey, the 2011 film Goon, and his new book, Born Into It. It’s a raw, emotional and often hilarious look inside the minds and especially the hearts of Montreal Canadiens fans. Baruchel always felt that Ken Dryden’s The Game was a peerless reveal of life as an NHL player but that no one had written the equivalent all-access account of the fan experience.

Baruchel paints the picture of being a Canadian on a Saturday night, inviting friends over for greasy food before Hockey Night in Canada. In another passage, he explains why he celebrates his Canadian heritage even while working in Hollywood.

Later, he dissects in detail why Habs fans detest the Toronto Maple Leafs so deeply. “So much of being a Habs fan is a real strain of pettiness throughout all of it,” Baruchel said. “If given the option, ‘Would you rather win the Stanley Cup, but then the Leafs have a high draft pick, or would you rather the Leafs have the worst season ever, but the cost of that is you guys having the second-worst season ever?’ – I think a lot of Habs fans would rather just see the Leafs or the Bruins f---ing implode. We are defined not just by our history and differentness but also by how much we f---ing detest our rivals. And by the way, it’s the highest form of admiration and respect. If we don’t hate you, that means you’re not worth hating.”

In one of the book’s most electric chapters, Baruchel spends time exploring fans’ feelings about fighting. Contact sport fandom is complicated in 2018, isn’t it? We’ve never known more about the brain’s long-term reactions to repetitive trauma than we do right now. The widespread understanding of CTE emerged in the NFL with Dr. Bennet Omalu and has permeated hockey. We’ve seen retired players with significant brain damage lose their lives, from Steve Montador to Derek Boogaard.

Fighting is being phased out, and even our reactions to bodychecking continue to evolve. I’ve always compared fighting to smoking. Everyone loved it when we didn’t understand its long-term effects, and we can’t unlearn what we’ve learned about it.

Yet, so much of hockey fandom is founded on, let’s face it, aggression and adrenaline. We cheer thunderous hits for our teams, at least in the moment before reviewing the GIFs on Twitter to dissect whether they were clean. We pop out of our seats when a fight occurs. We understand the violence differently today, but it still spikes many spectators’ heart rates. “It would be incredibly disingenuous and hypocritical of me to be against it when I found it as exhilarating as I have my entire life,” Baruchel said. “I was a season-ticket holder at the Bell Centre for two seasons, and I can tell you that when there’s a real tilt happening, it’s f---ing electric in the stadium. It’s matched only by a goal scored in the post-season, in terms of 21,000 basically all rooting for the same f---ing end.

“However, I can’t argue in its favor. I can argue that I’ve enjoyed it. Long-term damage to a brain is long-term damage to a brain, period. If it’s better for the players for there to be no fighting, then that’s the end of the debate, right? I can’t sit here and be pro-concussion, right? That’s insane.”

Baruchel deserves credit for his pure honesty. Maybe he speaks for the majority of fans. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe the next generation of hockey fans won’t be born into any affinity for the rougher side of hockey. Whatever you think, give Born Into It a read. It’ll make you ask difficult questions about yourself as a fan.

This story appears in the January 7, 2019 of The Hockey News magazine.

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