Jay Baruchel is an actor (This is the End, Tropic Thunder) and co-writer of the two Goon movies, the second of which he also directed. He’s also an unabashed Montreal Canadiens fan, a part of his life that is the subject of his new book, Born Into It. He talks to Scott Stinson about the horror of the P.K. Subban trade, how he isn’t afraid of the Maple Leafs, and St. Hubert versus Swiss Chalet.
Q You call this a hockey book, but it reads like more of a life story, with hockey as the through line. Was that the plan?
A When it was time to write a hockey book, it was like, what can I bring to the table? Having never played a single shift in the NHL, I can’t do anything like that, and Lord knows the world doesn’t need another Habs historian. But one kind of experience I felt hadn’t been articulated all that much was what it feels like to be a fan so much that you are born into it. Plug unintended. But, (what it feels like) to be so profoundly connected to and driven by something over which you have no control. And I noticed something in hanging out with my friends and hockey fans elsewhere: Watching hockey wasn’t so much a pastime as it was a function of living, the same as breathing and eating and having to go to bed every night. To say I’m a fan almost felt like damning it with faint praise. Because it’s beyond that. It’s how we remember other events, and you watch a game and it reminds you of a memory of some other game and what you were doing then. Hockey is the board that all these things bounce off. As I got down the road on it, I tried to keep my eyes open for ideas I didn’t necessarily set out to explore but on the journey kind of made themselves apparent. I tried to encapsulate the Canadian fan experience in a book and, to me, it’s kind of hard to do that, to separate that from my life. Because I don’t remember a time where that was not part of me.
Q How are you feeling about the current edition of the Montreal Canadiens?
A Oh, fantastic. It’s terrific. I think I say in the book, in order for us to be good and competitive again, we sort of have to be ignorant of our history. That sounds anathema to all of Habs culture but the weight of expectations has not yielded great results for us. Look what happens when you take that away. Look what happens when you skate out and everyone expects you to tank the entire season and nobody’s expecting you to do anything. Without that weight, their kids are able to play hockey.
Q It would surprise me if you were to say ‘I wish we were tanking’. That doesn’t seem to come out.
A Oh, god no. I (bleep)ing hate that (bleep), man. Now, maybe this is why I’m not a hockey commentator. I would rather bust our asses to get into eighth and at least (bleep)ing die on our feet than to just (bleep)ing give up for an entire season. You know, I understand the thinking behind that, but it seems extremely antithetical. The experience of being a hockey fan is incredibly simple and binary: I want my team to win. And when you start to get into “Fail for Nail” or whatever, I don’t understand why a fan is meant to suffer that. The entire thing is a symbiotic relationship and to requires us to give a (bleep) and buy in and believe. And when the actual team itself is telling you not to do those things, I think that’s profoundly wrong.
Q So you are not looking forward at all to the possibility of a Carey Price trade.
A Oh, Jesus Christ. No, no, I am not at all. Because I know that if he puts on any other sweater, he wins a (bleep)ing Vezina.
Q In your writing about the P.K. Subban trade, you noted the emotional attachment part, but you also mentioned the contract reasons to be against the trade. You knew the roster construction part.
A.Yes, yes, it’s hard not to be. I think maybe that’s a byproduct of NHL video game culture, but I feel like the ins and outs of hockey contracts and hockey budgets and salary cap (bleep) — all serious fans know that it has relevance now. In the salary cap era, it has made us all bankers to some degree. We all have to think of this nonsense. I’d rather not, because to me it has nothing to do with hockey, it’s not pure hockey at all, but we have no choice.
Q You live in Toronto now. Has the team becoming good made living here worse?
A Yes and no. It has vulcanized my Habs fandom. It has only forced me to double down. But I also like having front row seats for the inevitable collapse of almost every Toronto sports franchise. So, yeah, I’m psyched about it, my fiancée is from here and she has a whole family of Leafs fans, so I get no manner of chirping. But I’m not afraid of the new Maple Leafs. They are fun and exciting and entertaining and I’m glad, and it’s exactly what the city and the league needs. But as a Habs fan, I’m not really that threatened by them. There offence was tight last year, and what did they do over the offseason? They added more offence without addressing any of their weaknesses. I think the back end needs a lot of work.
Q On fighting, you acknowledge that there are sound reasons for eliminating it, but you also say that you miss it. To be honest, not many people are willing to say that publicly.
A Yeah. It would be incredibly disingenuous and hypocritical of me to pretend like I didn’t love it all my life. And I’m not going to shirk responsibility and say ‘this is how I was raised.’ My experience, growing up watching hockey with my parents, and watching it myself, I cannot deny the excitement and adrenaline and elation you would feel when your guy would lay out one of the other guys. Going back to the binary thing of you want your team to win. You want your sweater to beat the other sweater. Sometimes it’s like, an entire rink of men, and sometimes it’s just two guys. To me, it was just the pure distillation of the game that I was watching. And I can say, as a former season-ticket holder at the Bell Centre, it got the crowd on its feet like nothing else. Now, are all these reasons to keep it in the game? No. Who am I to say? I’m not a hockey player and I’m not a neurosurgeon. So if people that do the thing and know the thing say it’s bad, then who am I to say, ‘You guys don’t know what you are talking about. Stats nerds are taking over the game!’ My own feelings, and I’m glad I get to share them, are almost irrelevant because history has already decided where fighting is in hockey. It’s already in the rear view.
Q You are commissioner of the NHL, and you are all powerful. What’s the first thing you do?
A I would get rid of the salary cap. I would get one, if not two or three, more teams in Canada.
Q Would you relocate those?
A (Bleep) yeah, man. I think so. I don’t know how much longer fans of teams with a (bleep)load of fans have to suffer the teams that don’t have many fans. In this league, how many teams are profitable? It’s like a third, right? If you are a fan of one of those teams, it’s frustrating to see your entire operation hindered by the existence of teams that just don’t have it. The Arizona Coyotes, their very existence hinders the Montreal Canadiens. And the Toronto Maple Leafs, and the New York Rangers and the Detroit Red Wings. So, I definitely think that the league and the game itself would be better served by taking a team out of a city that doesn’t really give a (bleep) about it and putting it in Quebec City, or the 905 or the Maritimes. You know, there are places were I think it can legitimately sustain itself. Winnipeg is not, the streets are not paved with gold, and yet look at the attendance in that building. It’s amazing. And anybody that knew that city knew it would be. History has proven that correct.
Q You touch on the idea of the fatalism of being a fan. In the end, is it worth it?
A Oh, definitely. There are times when I catch myself and say, why do I care about this the way I do? How is this able to piss me off the way very few things do? And, you know the P.K. trade left an incredibly sour taste in my mouth. It made the entire thing seem kind of, um, horse(bleep) to me. It goes back to that thing: I put my trust in this team. My part of the deal is, I believe in you guys, I believe that you know what you are doing and that you want the same thing that I want, which is for the team to win. And you tell me that these are the guys, put my faith and trust in these guys, and this is who is going to do it. Their names will be next to Cournoyer and Beliveau and Lafleur and Gainey and Roy. And then for it to play out and feel like that, like it was working toward that, and then to just destroy it in really kind of an inane bit of business… it’s just, like, well what the (bleep) is the point of watching any of it, then? If a guy like P.K. Subban can get traded from this team, then it means that anybody can. And if anybody can, and there are no pure hockey trades anymore, then what the (bleep) is the point of watching it anymore? Like, it is an incredibly tenuous relationship, no matter if you grew up with it and it’s been there your whole life, it is constantly one bad trade away from being completely ruined. I go back and forth at times where I think it’s incredibly silly and preposterous, and there are times where I thank God every day to be part of a sincere tradition and history and culture. I could have been born in Anaheim.
Q Last thing. The book includes a pretty blistering take on Swiss Chalet, which it says has a sauce “that tastes like soap and throw up”.
A (Laughs) That part is not going to do me any favours. I still eat it. I know the delivery guys in my neighbourhood really well. There’s just no version of things where Swiss Chalet wins that taste test (against St. Hubert). Put the two plates next to each other in a blindfold Pepsi Challenge, and everybody is taking St. Hubert’s. I would bet everything I have on that fact. I have called Swiss Chalet ‘methadone’ since I’ve been here. It fulfills the need I have to have chicken, fries and gravy in my stomach, but that’s about it.
Born Into It: A Fan’s Life, by Jay Baruchel, will be published by HarperCollins on Oct. 30.