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Brian McGrory

Our rivals, our soul mates

By Brian McGrory
Globe Columnist / June 1, 2011

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VANCOUVER — They haven’t even dropped the first puck, and you already have to feel bad for these perfectly nice people.

Their stomachs must burn from the 20 cups of latte they drink every day, all so they can look upbeat when they talk about another arduous hike up the god-forsaken mountains that ring their city. Their legs probably cramp from driving all those economy hybrids. They won’t ever know the thrill of jaywalking or double-parking, so intent are they at obediently living their lives between the narrow lines.

But the real reason to pity the Vancouverites is one all too familiar to all Boston sports fans, especially Red Sox fans of a certain age. These people have invested more than they should in a team that has never done anything other than let them down.

And how’s it going to feel after yet another collapse? If you think this series is big in Boston, you should see it here. Vancouver is like no other city in North America, a world away from the cookie cutter metropolises of Dallas and Atlanta, Phoenix and Tampa Bay, places where professional hockey is played only because some local businessman thought it might be a fun way to make some extra cash.

It’s not even like their lumber-cutting brethren in Calgary, Ottawa, or Edmonton. These people are sharp enough to know what they don’t have, smart enough to do the math on how many years have passed since 1915, which was the last time the city won a hockey championship, though with a different team in a different league. Their beloved Canucks are O for 40.

So they earnestly think this is finally their year, which would be kind of cute if the script wasn’t so familiar. Keep in mind, this is the same city where the out-of-service buses announce, “Sorry,’’ on their electronic boards, where the mayor came to politics after cofounding an organic juice company known as “Happy Planet,’’ and where the people were green before the term even existed.

There’s no litter. There were all of nine murders last year in this astonishingly beautiful city. All the fit, happy residents look like they just stepped off a ski trail or out of a kayak, a veritable REI catalog come to life.

You can already see them shouting this summer from one canoe to another, “Next year is going to be the year, eh?’’

The problem is, there’s something awkward about it all. These aren’t the dilettantes of Los Angeles who show up halfway through the second quarter to watch the storied Lakers-Celtics rivalry, and then leave five minutes before the end. They’re not the entitled Yankee fans who don’t know a cutter from a curveball but can tell you exactly how many championships the team has bought — I mean, won. They’re not even the clove-smoking denizens of Montreal.

Take Darryl Dube. He’s a local land surveyor, a good, well-spoken guy who has hosted an open house through this year’s playoff run for a multicultured collection of friends and co-workers. The other day, he bought his wife, Julie, an unsightly blue Canucks jersey for her birthday — lucky woman.

“Bigger than the Olympics,’’ Darryl declared standing outside the team store. “If we win, it will be the single biggest event in the history of this city.’’

I don’t know whether to hug him or warn him. Either way, it’s too late.

“Huge,’’ said Jenny Demmery, a server in a downtown restaurant. “Huge! I was born and raised here, and I think my father is going to lose his mind.’’

Her father might lose more than his mind in the next week, but I wasn’t going to be the one to tell her that. Looking at Vancouver in the late spring of 2011 is a lot like looking at ourselves in the autumn of 2004, their hockey being our baseball, the overriding sense being that this really, truly is the year.

The good news is that they know what we used to know, which is that there is a certain unity in futility, and they are feeling it in spades.

They are living in the age of innocence that Boston left behind. Look at the flags that fly from people’s Priuses, the Canucks jerseys that hang in just about every bar, the signs in store windows, the plans for the city to block off traffic in entire districts during every game.

There’s a rally scheduled for this weekend in Stanley Park, which basically calls attention to the fact that the city has a sprawling jewel of a waterfront complex complete with a statue of the trophy’s namesake, but there’s never been a modern Stanley Cup to celebrate in it.

Making it worse is the fact there are no other major professional sports teams here, unless you count a Canadian Football League franchise, and why would you?

Canadians as a people don’t get excited about much; Vancouverites themselves tend to go their own way. But all that goes out the window over their Canucks. The mayor, Gregor Robertson, was on the phone trying to explain it.

He is a straightforward gentleman, like his native country, a politician who takes long pauses before delivering thoughtful sentences, though he hesitated not a flicker when he said, “We are very serious about our hockey.’’

“The Canucks were our team through thick and thin.’’ he added. “And there’s been plenty of thin.’’

When asked whether the thin part brings fans together, Robertson replied, “You would know.’’

In Vancouver, that passes as cutting humor. This, my salmon-loving friends, is war.

Brian McGrory is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at mcgrory@globe.com.

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