We paid for blood and we want it

The guy behind me has had enough. "Come on boys, hit someone!"

There's general agreement with this statement. "Yeah, come on, smash 'em!" someone else yells in the stand below.

"You're boring me to sleep!" the guy behind me pleads again. "I didn't pay to watch soccer!"

This cracks everyone up. These fans - men, mostly, but with a few families sitting in the stands as well - definitely did not pay to watch a game of soccer.

They paid to watch giant men beat the daylights out of each other under the loose pretence of a game of ice hockey. They paid for blood.

It had all seemed pretty innocent going into the stadium. Vancouver's streets were awash with the blue and white of the local heroes, the Canucks, but it was all friendly. A few jeers at the people brave enough to wear San Jose Sharks jerseys but nothing too threatening.

Even inside there was a family atmosphere. The Canucks mascot, an orca named Fin, was walking around posing for photos with children, there was an orderly queue for hot dogs and beer, and everyone was making gentle chit-chat.

This is Canada, after all. Unfriendly Canadians are like Sasquatch and leprechauns - they don't exist. Everyone's chipper and polite no matter where you are, no matter what you're doing.

You start to think there might be something wrong with them, something a bit strange, so impregnable is their jocularity.

And yet they like ice hockey, surely the most brutal team sport on the planet. "Like" isn't even strong enough. Canadians love hockey, they're obsessed with hockey, they measure their gross national happiness on hockey. It's the same way New Zealanders obsess over the All Blacks, or Australians obsess over real estate.

If you've been to Canada but haven't been to a hockey game, then you haven't been to Canada. These maple-syrup-slurping, Mountie-bothering, lumberjacking northern folk are all about brutality on ice. (Tell them you don't know who Wayne Gretzky is, I dare you. It's like telling Buddhists you've never heard of the Dalai Lama.)

But back to the game. Canucks versus Sharks, Rogers Arena, Vancouver. That's right, Vancouver. Remember seeing television footage of a riot in good old peaceful Canada about a year ago? Of people taking to the streets, looting and setting fire to cars? That wasn't over some petty political or financial gripe. That was over hockey.

The Canucks were beaten by the Boston Bruins in the final of the Stanley Cup and the mildly disappointed local fans decided to display their frustration on the Vancouver streets.

That's something you have to bear in mind when the seemingly friendly people in the stands today start calling for their players to "hit someone". They don't mean that figuratively.

See, there's been no fight in this game yet. Canadians might tell you they love hockey for any number of reasons - the speed, the skill, the drama, the incredible sight of six-foot-tall, 100-kilogram men dancing across the ice with the grace of figure skaters before slamming each other's faces into glass walls - but what they really pay their $100 entry for is to see a fight. Toe to toe, blow for blow. Drop your gloves, grab a handful of jersey to steady yourself, then punch on.

It's part of the game. Maybe not in other countries, such as the Scandinavian nations or Russia, but in North America hockey is all about schoolyard-style fist fights.

The game I'm watching has been a good one, aside from the lack of violence, with the teams trading goals one for one.

There's a dad in front of me pointing out the intricacies of the game to his son. A mum a few rows away cheers when one of the Sharks falls onto the ice. But still no fight.

There are regular pauses in the game so the TV networks can throw to commercial breaks. People stretch their legs, grab another beer. Play resumes, goals are traded.

But still no fight.

The crowd's getting antsy, willing the players to get fired up. They didn't pay to watch soccer, you know.

Finally, inevitably, it happens. Deep in the third period, with Vancouver ahead by one, there's another in a series of scuffles but for some reason this one goes further. Gloves hit the ice as the two guys grab hold of each other and start throwing wild haymakers.

The crowd goes nuts. It's the biggest cheer of the night - much bigger than for any of the goals.

That dad in front of me is up clapping and so is his son. The mum a few rows away can't get enough.

Then one of the combatants slips over and the fight is finished. They skate off and the game continues. Everyone in the crowd takes their seats and gets back to the business of being friendly, chipper Canadians.

There's not even a riot. Or an ad break. Canada, eh?


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