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Friday Night in Whitefish

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Glacier plays Elk Valley in a high school hockey game in Whitefish, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

The Canadians are coming.

They’ve invaded America and are taking over our towns and cities one by one. The tiny town of Whitefish, Montana is simply crawling with Canucks. They zip across the 49th parallel to buy up our cheap(er) gas and groceries, and to subvert our peaceful American way of life through seemingly-innocuous cross-border youth hockey leagues. And that oversized pickup truck whose skiwampus parking job kept me from taking the last decent spot at the ice rink? Alberta license plates.

They are everywhere.

From the steel rafters of the ice rink hangs a bold red maple leaf—as if in this refrigerated indoor universe, it’s somehow equal to the adjacent stars and stripes. And out on the ice, those barbaric Canadian high school kids are beating up my poor fellow Americans without a lick of mercy.

The sport of hockey is basically cage fighting on ice, and this Friday night youth league game looks particularly treacherous. “I can’t believe they let minors do this,” I think, fogging up the plexiglass with my breath, listening to the sound of teenage bodies banging into one another like elk and cars meeting on a dark highway.

Collisions and roadkill rule the night. BAM! The guard wall shudders and a body crumples to the frozen white surface—another one bites the ice. I never see any blood, but shoving, checking, throwing, lifting and good old-fashioned punching are featured moves in tonight’s tournament.

The refs are not happy. They whistle and wave and the kids all react with protests, shouts and shoves. It’s the Canadian’s fault—the kid skates into the penalty box, rips off his helmet and sulks with fury.

“I barely touched him!” he yells at his couch. “Dude just fell over!” The disgruntled player slams his stick to the ground, and proclaims himself innocence of the charge: Interference. And yet, his time in hockey prison does little to reform his ways. During the night’s game, the blond athlete exhibits a discouraging rate of recidivism, visiting the box three more times, always for interference.

I may be biased, but it seems to me that the Canadians are playing a bit rough—it’s working for them, too. Already, the score is 5 to 2, and the home team from Glacier High School is getting the blunt edge of the stick. A pack of sweet, gum-chewing teenage girls cheer at the maroon uniforms as they zoom round and round the ice. The padded bodies work up into a frenzy before smashing up into the corner, sending up a spray of ice as the back-and-forth shoving continues.

The bad boys in white are the Canadians of Elk Valley. That’s near Fernie, British Columbia—another sweet little ski town that I visited exactly one year ago. Somehow, my travels have taken me full circle and landed me on the southern side of the border. I have met Fernie’s nemesis and her name is Whitefish.

Despite my fond memories of friendly Fernie, my chips are on the Montana team. As an American, I feel obligated to back the Americans—and as a sucker for underdogs, my heart’s with Glacier.

As the digital minutes tick overhead, I grow more concerned for their overall chance at winning. I consult with the young ladies at the concession stand, but Miracle and Savannah do not show my concern for the battle’s outcome. Indeed, Savannah’s true talents are lost on concessions—she is a makeup artist in hiding, with such lavish eyeshadow, I believe she could stop all this violence just by batting her lashes.

My own eyes fail at ever seeing the puck—the action’s all too quick. I hear only the grunts of hockey players, the slice of blades on ice, the clack of sticks and the random cheers of invested parents from the cold metal bleachers.

An answer to prayers—Glacier scores one goal, then another. The crowd goes wild—all fifteen of us that is. It’s 5 to 4, Montana trailing by just one point. For a few whole minutes, this parochial ice rink in Whitefish becomes the coliseum, filled with hope. Perhaps this night, a crisis will be averted—the local high school will win, parents, coaches and teachers will be glad. There will be accolades on Monday morning and a lifetime of memories about this one Friday night when they won that game.

But no—Glacier Avalanche loses the game.  The buzzer sounds with a mix of Canadian cheers and some exasperated awwwwws from the American side of the rink. I am as disappointed as the other fans. As the players skate through the ritual line of “Good Game” one of the high school spectators yells out to the rink, “Next time, spend a bit more time on your skates, and less on you butt!” Harsh.

The indignity of it all—even as a tourist passing through this small town, I can’t help but feel a sense of revenge against our evil neighbor Canada. Is it not enough for them to humiliate us at every Olympics? Must they also torture our poor children right here on our own turf?

The lost hockey game leaves me feeling blue—oh how I wanted Whitefish to win! Winning always makes a better story. Bothered by the injustice of sports, high school and the wider universe, I wander into the town’s center to check out the music scene. On this Friday night, said scene consists of a single blues guitarist strumming out his pain upon a spotlighted stage.

Matt Andersen sings the blues so well, I swear he’s from New Orleans. I’ve been there, too—I’ve heard real blues. Alas, between sets, the singer opens his mouth and reveals himself to be . . . a Canadian. Had I paid for a ticket, I would have demanded a refund—I did not come all the way to Montana to hear a singer from New Brunswick play the delta blues.

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Singer/songwriter Matt Anderson plays the blues in Whitefish, Montana (Photo by Andrew Evans, National Geographic Traveler)

That’s American music! I insist to myself, and challenging the Canadian on stage (in my mind). The high school hockey loss has turned me into a rabid nationalist, but I soften after a few of his golden songs. For a Canadian, he sure sings well, and his lyrics prod at me.

“Do you ever go walking, just to see how far you can go?” Matt Andersen sings out the question to the crowd, but I know he’s talking to me. I want to stand up and answer him (how did he know?): “Yes, yes! I go walking like that all the time!” I am a traveler—we walk aimlessly for a living.

“Do you turn around when you get there, just to start walking right on back home?” he keeps singing. This man is singing my own personal lullaby and I forgive him his Canadian-ness. I even applaud when he’s finished—gosh, he’s good.

After the music, I head over to Casey’s, which I know to be American because it’s an Irish bar with shamrocks and football on the TV. I am here to soak up lots of local Montana flavor, with hopes of catching a quotable quote in my notebook—some cute quip that captures the essence of Whitefish, Montana, preferably spoken by someone wearing flannel and a cowboy hat. Alas, every witty line I overhear in this happening bar includes the F word—and my blog is a family-friendly publication.

“Probably all Canadians,” I think—and some of them are. They give themselves away by relaying distances in kilometers and pronouncing turquoise turkwaz. The jarring sounds work their way into my writer’s notes, for which I have so little to show—only two scribbled words: Alien Invasion.

I have always remarked upon the vast wilderness and unpopulated expanse of Canada, but on this Friday night in Whitefish, I discovered why it is so. Canada is empty because all the Canadians have been hiding out right here—in Montana.

I don’t blame them. The skiing is good and Montana has no sales tax. Gas is under $3/gallon and the bars are filled with some of Canada’s best singers.

Best of all, there is a steady supply of American hockey players just waiting to be pummeled by their northern neighbors. Next time Glacier—next time you’ll get ’em.

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