YOU COULDN’T REALLY call the message on the outside the 17 Mile House Pub an advertisement. It’s more of a gleeful taunt: MAPLE LEAFS POUTINE NOW HALF PRICE.
What, pray tell, is Maple Leafs poutine? The pub’s menu describes it thusly: “In usual Leafs fashion, a cold overpriced dish served with underperforming gravy, ice-cold fries and side of disappointment.”
Not that the pub will actually sell it to you. Server Marina McLean takes pity on those who ask for the dish.
“I always refuse them,” she says. “I tell them ‘You really don’t want it.’ ”
Likewise, when her father defiantly dons his Toronto gear and plants himself under the No Leafs Fans sign mounted on the pub’s wall, she refuses to stick him with the two-per-cent surcharge that normally gets added to the bill of anyone sporting a Leafs sweater or hat.
For real, they do that at the 17 Mile, at least if the patron looks like a good sport. Some customers show up dressed that way just to see the surcharge printed on their bill, which they wave like a medal, something to proudly photograph and text to fellow Leafs supporters.
Yes, hockey fans, it might be August, but in this strangest of years that just means another opportunity to continue the pub’s history of cheerfully bashing the Toronto Maple Leafs.
It began when Montreal-raised Whitaker bought into the business in 2005. The No Leafs sign went up soon after. Then came the surcharge and the poutine, the latter jointly created by Whitaker and chef/Canucks fan Paul Snoljanovic. At one point they even resorted to using urinal pucks bearing the Leafs crest, though some Toronto fans felt that was hitting below the belt. There are limits.
In recent years, Sooke Road commuters have been treated to an assortment of messages on that back-lit sign outside the pub.
“Free beer during all Leafs games during the playoffs,” it promised after Toronto failed to make the post-season.
“Leafs make the playoffs/Watch out for flying pigs” it advised after a more successful campaign.
But then came “Leafs miss playoffs/universe is back to normal.”
It’s all in a spirit of fun, Whitaker says. “We have lots of Leafs fans and lots of non-Leafs fans.” Most of the former take the teasing in the spirit in which it is intended, though one man scrawled an unprintable message in angry red letters on a paper napkin before flashing his middle finger as he peeled out of the parking lot.
Sports fans (OK, I) do tend to get wrapped up in their loyalties beyond reason. As a boy, I gazed in slack-jawed wonder as a man scaled the glass at a junior hockey game and hurled his spectacles at the referee, shouting, “You need these more than I do,” which made me see him in a different light when he delivered his sermon from the pulpit the next Sunday. (True story.)
Occasionally, a fight breaks out in the stands. Occasionally, Vancouver is set on fire.
The over-reactions can be on a broad scale. Every once in awhile a bout of belly-bumping bellicosity breaks out after ESPN catches a handful of drunken Canadian fans booing The Star Spangled Banner, which results in Americans chanting “U.S.A! U.S.A!” to drown out our anthem at the next game, to which we respond by singing it REALLY LOUDLY, even dragging out our sketchy knowledge of the French lyrics (“O Canada, terre de nos aieux, Sidney Crosby, deux minutes pour tripping”) to show how worldly we are.
That’s relatively harmless, but team tribalism can get seriously ugly when festering historical resentments, if not outright xenophobia, are stirred in (or up).
In 1969, cross-border grievances fuelled the fire when Honduras and El Salvador dropped the gloves (sorry, hockey analogy) in the so-called Football War within days of their World Cup qualifier. In some places, innocently wearing the wrong jersey into the wrong bar can get you killed.
Which is what makes the 17 Mile House’s Leaf-bashing a refreshing contrast. Only in a country in which differences are tolerated, even encouraged, could it be safe to celebrate a rivalry without it turning into a riot.