As Travis Hamonic walked the halls of the MTS Centre in Winnipeg last Friday night, he felt something powerful and strange: an entire arena that had the backs of a few men.
Hamonic, though, was not lacing up his skates on Friday night. The New York Islanders defenceman was instead seeing his favourite band, the Tragically Hip, live in concert. After the news of singer Gord Downie’s brain cancer diagnosis was revealed in May, many have speculated that their current Man Machine Poem tour could be their final bow.
“When you walk through the building before the show, you just feel a sense of support for Gord and the band. I think that’s a pretty rare occurrence,” he says.
Under the shadow of our neighbours to the South, Canadians often beam with pride and cling to anything homegrown. Few things stir up national debate like hockey and likewise, the Tragically Hip’s current tour has brought forth an outpouring of emotion from coast-to-coast.
It’s fitting then that the band would spend what could be their last tour in hockey arenas across the country. Because for many NHL players, it was at the rink that their love of the band first came to fruition.
“When you start playing junior hockey it seems like (The Tragically Hip) is always on in the dressing room,” says Hamonic. “I realized how much I liked them at a young age.”
After attending the band’s recent show in Winnipeg, Hamonic is making the trek from his cabin in Kenora, Ontario to Kingston for the final show of the band’s tour on August 20th. Hamonic describes himself as a “massive” fan of the Tragically Hip. “When you see me before games in the hallway, I’ll have my earphones in. They’re all I listen to before a game.”
His first Tragically Hip show was in Winnipeg in 2011. And he was, to put it mildly, hooked.
“I remember watching the band, how well they worked together, how Gord changed his voice during the show and then leaving the show completely mesmerized. From that point they were my favourite band. If you’re coming to my cabin, if you’re coming fishing with me, if you’re coming on my truck, it means you’re going to be listening to the Tragically Hip. And if you don’t like it, get out.”
And he’s not alone. You wouldn’t have to throw a wad of hockey tape very far in an NHL dressing room to hit a fan of the band.
“I love Gord’s voice,” says San Jose Sharks forward Logan Couture. He wore a Tragically Hip hat after the news of Downie’s diagnosis broke and tweeted words of sympathy as well. Couture was turned onto the band after countless drives to minor hockey with his father and the Tragically Hip on the stereo. That love of the band, and the unifying feeling it brings in increasingly diverse NHL locker rooms, has stuck with Couture.
Couture says that while many Europeans in dressing rooms will usually be into different types of music, “the Canadian guys will bond over” the Tragically Hip.
“When it’s on in the room, most of the guys singing along are the Canadian guys who grew up listening to them. Their parents probably grew up listening to them as well,” he says.
Couture took in his first Tragically Hip gig, with his father, on Monday night at Budweiser Gardens in London. After the show, Couture said via text that the strength Downie showed during the show was “crazy” and that “Scared,” from 1994’s Day for Night left him with “goosebumps.” Couture said his father had been pulling for “Blow at High Dough,” his favourite song while Couture’s is “Wheat Kings.” On that night, the band only obliged the senior Couture.
Long associated with hockey, one commonly held belief is that The Tragically Hip have written many songs about the sport. Besides “50 Mission Cap,” which unpacks the strange disappearance and legacy of Toronto Maple Leafs legend Bill Barilko, the band’s odes to hockey are much subtler: “700 Ft. Ceiling” references the flooding of natural ice rinks. “Fireworks” discusses Paul Henderson’s famed Summit Series-winning goal and “The Lonely End of the Rink” sees Downie baring his childhood hopes and fears as a minor league goalie.
“For most Canadian kids, you think of music and you think of hockey, you think of the Tragically Hip,” says Couture. “Their lyrics about Canadian history, a lot of them are about hockey. It means something to you when they’re singing about your country and your sport as well.”
Hamonic believes there is more to the band than their handful of songs about hockey.
“When you think about the Tragically Hip you might think that there are tons and tons of songs about hockey. But they really don’t have that many when you break it down.”
It would appear then, that the roads of hockey and art in this case meet in a place much deeper inside players, one that stretches beyond hockey.
“There’s such a connection. Maybe it’s because Canada itself is tied to hockey and the Tragically Hip are entrenched in Canadian history,” says Hamonic. “They’re as Canadian as anything else is.”
Now, after countless nights being supported by fans in arenas, NHL players such as Couture and Hamonic are cherishing the opportunity to support a band that has been the soundtrack to their careers.
From the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, to Budweiser Gardens and finally to the Rogers K-Rock Centre in Kingston, and everywhere in between, these players will show their love of a band that doesn’t just sing about the sport they play: they inspire pride in a place they feel lucky to call home.
“I’m not surprised by the support they’ve gotten,” says Hamonic. “In my experience, at the world juniors, the outpouring of support you get as Canadians is because we feel so fortunate to be Canadian. Canadians take care of their own. It’s not surprising to see people rally around the band.”