We just had the ice hockey 'All Star Weekend' in North America. That's the week in the middle of the season where the players voted the best by sports writers and fans gather to indulge in skills competitions, shoot-outs (like penalty kicks in football) and a series of mini-games somewhat like five-a-side football or seven-a-side rugby.
It's a big deal and it was held this year in St Louis, Missouri, because they won the Stanley Cup last year – ice hockey's equivalent of the FA Cup. The skill levels are extraordinary, with the top players able to skate during a game at upwards of 40 kilometres an hour while faultlessly controlling and shooting the puck. Played at this level, ice hockey makes a game like rugby, or even the fast-paced EPL football, look pedantic and slow. The All Star Weekend is a lot of faff, but it's entertaining. What is interesting for the fans, among other things, is how friendly the players are with one another – regardless of the intense rivalries and occasional violence that happens on the ice during games.
Even the mascots of the 31 (soon to be 32) teams in the National Hockey League are invited. The appearance of the mascots brought back a visceral memory of a terrible upset that occurred in Calgary 17 years ago. NHL mascots nearly all depict an animal of some kind; a creature supposedly relevant to the team it represents. The Boston Bruins, needless to say, have a person dressed up in a bear suit. The San Jose Sharks... you guessed it. Our team out here, the Vancouver Canucks, have a rather glaikit-looking Orca, or Killer Whale.
Some of the mascots have a less obvious association with the team they represent. The Calgary Flames' mascot, for example, is a rather awkward dog (a person in a dog suit, to be clear) called Harvey. These mascots are not allowed in any way to become involved in the game, but several years ago Harvey the Hound featured in a classic confrontation between mascot and coach.
One of the biggest rivalries in North American ice hockey occurs whenever the Edmonton Oilers play the Calgary Flames. Edmonton, 175 miles north of Calgary, is the seat of Alberta's provincial government. Despite the fact that only once since 1935 have Albertans elected anything other than a staunchly conservative government, the City of Edmonton has almost always elected more progressive, socialist politicians to their provincial legislature.
In 2003, the coach of the Edmonton team was a former National Hockey League player by the name of Craig MacTavish. On 20 January that year, the Flames and the Oilers faced off at the Saddledome arena in Calgary. As it is with local derby football matches in the UK, things became heated between the players, and then among the fans. Halfway through the game Calgary were leading 4-0, and Harvey the Hound was leaping about, egging on fans and players alike.
Soon Harvey's passions were aroused to such an extent that he jumped up on the retaining barrier in front of the crowd and pulled himself along until he was leaning over the protective glass behind the Edmonton players. He began to hector MacTavish, his foot-long tongue dangling over the Oilers' coach, who was trying to rally his players. MacTavish snapped. In a flash, he reached up and tore the tongue from the dog mascot's mouth and threw it into the crowd. The Edmonton fans roared. The Calgary fans were appalled. The Calgary players were clearly unnerved by the scene and Edmonton scored three quick goals before Calgary managed to recover their wits and hold on to win 4-3.
There were calls for the Canadian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to get involved, and on the other side, for the National Hockey League to sanction the Flames for Harvey's over-the-top behaviour. None of these came to anything. Not long afterwards, the Edmonton Oilers unveiled a new mascot called 'Hunter' – a cross between a dog, a big wildcat, and a toothy monster which looked as if it could comfortably eat the gormless-looking, but usually affable, Harvey for breakfast.
Harvey the Hound carried on without any more untoward incidents for several more years, until the disastrous Calgary floods of 2013. A headline in the Canadian Press, reporting on the damage caused by the massive overflow of the Bow River, read 'Disembodied head of Flames mascot Harvey the Hound found floating in Saddledome'. The next day, a less graphic and probably unsympathetic headline in the Edmonton Journal
, read 'Harvey: MacTavish wanted for questioning'.