On Feb 29, 1988, in the middle of a snowstorm, the Villegas family arrived in Canada. This was the first time we saw snow. The next day, without any say in the matter, I went to school and it was terrifying. I didn’t understand a word anyone was saying. I knew Chile, and I didn’t know the world that was to be my new home. Less did I know or care that 7 months later, Wayne Gretzky was leaving Edmonton.
As a Chilean, it should go without saying that hockey was not a natural “thing” for us. Wayne Gretzky was not a common name as a household sports hero. Hockey was this thing that gringos did. I hear stories all the time of families sitting down to watch Hockey Night in Canada. That was not my life. In time, and in the environment that I lived, it became one of the fruits that I enjoyed.
In the beginning, it was out of necessity. I had to learn everything myself, there was no one telling me the rules, it was on TV but I didn’t understand what they were saying. I asked my friends a lot of dumb questions that I routinely got made fun of for (it’s pronounced Whuuaaa not Rooooy). I grew to start loving that game. It was close to soccer, but most importantly it was fun to talk about what everyone was talking about. Being an immigrant can be an isolating experience, especially as a kid, so to understand and be accepted for anything I was saying felt like a warm blanket.
I wasn’t alone though. Living in Millwoods, I found not only the Caucasian kids that loved hockey, there were a lot of kids from immigrant families that shared my story. Asian and East-Asian kids who adopted hockey like I did. We would play ball hockey together, hidden from the gaze reserved for young Caucasian boys playing in club teams. I can tell you some of those kids were just as good as those club hockey players we would play, but their families could never afford the price to get them into organized hockey. This is not me hyperbolizing, some of the best ball hockey players in Canada are of East-Asian descent. Why do you think we have an amazing Hockey Night in Canada broadcast in Punjabi?
Edmonton’s new population includes many immigrants and first-generation families who adopted this team. It doesn’t mean we don’t admire the things that the dynasty created for Edmonton, but the feelings that those players gave the city I don’t think we can share. Because those feelings are reserved for players like Doug Weight, Ryan Smyth, and Curtis Joseph. Where the Oilers were perennial underdogs. Outsiders looking in. A feeling a lot of immigrants understand. Maybe that’s what makes seeing these new Oilers a special kind of buzz.
For better or worse, immigrants have had different lives and different ideologies. Edmonton is a different city, Canada is a different country. These Oilers deserve not to be compared to the old dynasty but to flourish on their own. They don’t live in the Coliseum, known as the Library, wearing white. They live in the ruckus Rogers Center with bright orange jerseys. The Edmonton we live in is full of families of differing creeds.
This new incarnation of the Oilers should belong to this city, and this colorful generation. It belongs not only to the young caucasian boys from small-town Alberta but the ones with turbans, that speak a different language at home, and the ones who have two countries to love. And it belongs to the girls who play alongside them.
Not only to the ones who could play hockey all their life. But to the ones who did not have parents who bought them skates, or show them the foreign game they know nothing about. McDavid’s goals, Edmonton’s new arena, and those bright orange jerseys all belong to them. To the kids who were not only born with hockey, but adopted it as well.
I started writing this piece two weeks ago and it was meant to a celebration. But then, an immigrant decided to create havoc on Edmonton streets. We’re living in an age where being a refugee, or a newcomer, is a political statement. Saying words of our experience sounds like a form of activism, a challenge to the narrative. But living in these shoes, the narrative for us is the one staring at us in the mirror, that’s our normalcy. That’s the life of an immigrant.
The NHL as a body claims that hockey is for everyone, but that is not true. Not yet. Not until the price of hockey goes down, until a young star comes from humble beginnings like the stars of the world’s game, soccer. Not until there is not only gay players in the NHL, but that having gay players is no longer news worthy. Not until players of colors are accurately represented. Not until hockey teams understand the value of their status to the community, that they are not afraid to stand up for the marginalized.
My nephew, 5 years old, was born on Canada Day of all days, of a Chilean mom and a dad from Nova Scotia. In my mind, the Canadian ideal. He asked to have hockey helmet cake pops for his birthday. He demanded to have an orange 97 on it. His hockey love is just beginning and his generation will be different than mine. I saw some great hockey in my young life and I’m glad to pass on this incarnation of the Oilers to the next generation of Edmontonians so they can have a dynasty I never had.