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Playing Both Sides

by John Bucher / Vancouver Canucks
Jason Reitman, the Canadian film director, is on a rapid ascent into the firmament of Hollywood cinema. His seventh film, “Thank You For Smoking” (2006)—a satiric peer into the moral and professional calculations of a Big Tobacco spin-doctor—has been his biggest commercial success to date. The picture was nominated for a Golden Globe award and grossed more than $39 million worldwide.

“That’s nice,” say you, the faithful reader. “But I come here for hockey, not movies.” Oh, read on, my friend, or you’ll miss a tale of love, hate, rivalry, and broomball.

As it turns out, Reitman—whose father, Ivan, directed “Old School,” “Trailer Park Boys: The Big Dirty,” and “Ghostbusters,” among other comedy classics—is a true-blue Canucks fan. But it wasn’t always that way. recently caught up with Jason Reitman when he was in town to reshoot a scene from his upcoming film “Juno,” which stars young Canadian actors Ellen Page and Michael Cera. He was good enough to answer a few questions.

So, how did you become a Vancouver Canucks fan?

Well, I was born in Montreal, but I grew up in Los Angeles, so I didn’t know anything about hockey—I was a Lakers fan, of course.

The story goes like this: I was living in L.A., and there was a very cute girl who lived next door. One day she wandered over and saw that I had these broomball sticks—I was in a league—in my apartment. She made the charming mistake of thinking that they were children’s hockey sticks, and that, perhaps, I coached kid’s hockey. Which I didn’t.

Now, okay, I was born in Canada, and I’m still a Canadian citizen. But I’ve got a green card and I’ve lived in L.A. my whole life. This apparently, disqualified me as a Canadian in this girl’s eyes. Her name was Michele, and she came from West Van.

In order to become a real Canadian, Michele said, I had to do three things—1) learn the national anthem (which I knew only the first two words of), 2) follow hockey, and 3) play hockey.

The first thing I ever did to flirt with her was buy one of those coach’s whiteboards—you know, the kind you draw plays on—and I gave it to her as a gift. So we’d watch the games, and she began to teach me plays on the whiteboard.

She knows how to draft plays on a whiteboard?

I know—she’s hardcore. She even plays in a league. You how when you go to a game, and there’s that one crazy chick who’s really hot and screaming at the top of her lungs, and she knows about the players’ personal lives and everything? That’s her. It’s a miracle she wound up my wife.

Anyway, she taught me hockey watching the Canucks, and they became my team. This was back in ’01, ’02, ‘03—the first years of our relationship. The Canucks we watched were an inspired team, despite the fact that they didn’t go all that far. There was an air of excitement, of possibility.

You went to two of the Anaheim-Vancouver playoff games this year, and to Game One of the Stanley Cup Final, a series that had dismal TV ratings in the States. Why do you think the NHL is having a hard time reaching American fans?

People don’t know who the players are. Don’t get me wrong—no one wants to turn hockey into a celebrity game. Canadians are much too modest for that, and, besides, it’s a team sport.

But there is something to be said for caring about the players. Once you care about the people, you start to care about games you ordinarily wouldn’t pay attention to. Locally, hockey works very well. People follow their home team. The problem is the national games. When there is something akin to the old Celtics-Lakers rivalry, say, the hockey version of it is a huge story in Canada. But it doesn’t make any waves in America.

The reason is simple: We don’t know the players, and we don’t care about what they are doing. We don’t know who the heroes and villains are.

Think of it as a story: every story needs an antagonist. There’s an argument for loving the bad guys. Remember how people loved the Broad Street Bullies, and the Detroit Pistons of early nineties?

At this point, though, it’s not about loving the bad guys—it’s about getting people to care, getting them to have an emotional response to specific players or teams. How do you get people to care about a Stanley Cup Final between Ottawa and Anaheim? It’s hard, but if people were more familiar with the characters, they might care about the outcome.

Perhaps Canadians are allergic to the self-promotion that drives the “personalities” in some American sports?

Look, hockey is a great sport. It’s doesn’t have to be as ugly as the out-of-control touchdown dances and all that. You just have to let us know who you are. A lot of these players are fascinating people, but you’d never know it. All we see of them is in those boring interviews after the games.

Take, for example, the three other big sports leagues—if you asked my opinion on the ten top players in each, I could tell you about their personalities. In hockey it’s harder. We just don’t know these people.

Just look at Barry Bonds or Kobe Bryant! I’ve got very mixed feelings about Kobe. He’s the most talented guy in basketball. But he’s not a winner, and he doesn’t inspire the best in his team—he seems quite selfish.

But that’s great for basketball! Because you hate him! People hate him and they just want to see him get schooled—which only makes him play better—and then, suddenly, you care about the game.

I mean, when Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal faced off for the first time after the split, it was a huge game. And people that don’t care about Miami or Los Angeles cared about that game. We need more of that in hockey.

How would you emphasize the personalities of some of the Canucks?

I did—I wrote a commercial. Actually, it was my wife’s idea. You remember the NHL’s “Swedish twins” commercial? The one where the Sedins dance? That was us. It’s great because it shows the twins’ personalities, and you come out of it with the feeling that they have a sense of humour about themselves.

Thank you, Jason Reitman.

6- Awards won for "Thank You For Smoking"

14 - Awards won in his career

7 - Years of following the Canucks

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