How A Canadian Betrayed His Country And Learned To Love Detroit Teams

Written By Dave Briggs on January 27, 2022
Detroit Hockeytown Cafe

My next-door neighbours taught me the sports fan rules when I was in kindergarten.

They were not negotiable.

First and foremost, as cemented in that 1908 song about the joys of peanuts, crackerjacks and taking in a ballgame, one roots for the home team.

This rule was made abundantly clear when my best friend gave me a Detroit Tigers hat as a birthday present. I had my team, and that was that.

Except, it wasn’t as easy as it sounds where I grew up in Southwestern Ontario. We lived a few minutes from Detroit but on the Canadian side of an international border.

Proximity or nationality? Tigers or Blue Jays? Cue the identity crisis.

Leafs vs Wings: Ontario’s sports identity crisis

I wasn’t alone in the struggle. Southern Ontario is still a mess of conflicting allegiances. Those divisions are much more palpable whenever the Red Wings play the Maple Leafs, as they will Saturday night in Motown.

Canada’s game? You support the Canadian team, right?

Not if you wanted to root, root, root for the home team and see a game in person, you didn’t.

Toronto was a four-hour drive down the 401 and a much tougher ticket. For decades, clueless corporate types have snapped up all the ducats. Those expense-account jockeys practically beg to pay whatever ransom demanded by the people responsible for putting that appalling product on the ice.

Detroit was five minutes away, and I could easily see the skyline — and the Joe Louis Arena — walking the Canadian shore of the Detroit River.

Besides, those were the blissful days before 9/11 when being waved through the border required only a birth certificate, a smile and a brief statement that the destination was Tiger Stadium or the Pontiac Silverdome or the Palace of Auburn Hills. Sure, it was the Cold War Era, and my grade school put us through drills to prepare us for imminent nuclear attack, but the border was a breeze.

Border issues

Today, on a good day, crossing the Ambassador Bridge or going through Detroit-Windsor Tunnel is a massive pain in the gluteus — and I’m not talking about COVID-19 restrictions. Ever since 2001, this is what has awaited the curious traveller:

  • Long lines.
  • Gestapo-like border agents with the personalities of wounded wolverines demanding passports.
  • Endless questions as if you are being investigated for murder.

It’s not exactly a warm embrace.

Still, hammered into me were those sports fan rules:

Support the home team… support the home team… support the home team.

Home meant local. Even if I did feel a twinge of guilt from time to time about betraying my country — Oh, how’s she goin’, eh? — switching one’s allegiances was a no-go according to rule number two.

Thou shall not jump on bandwagons

Bandwagon jumping, my friend’s family explained, is a sin that falls somewhere between envy and gluttony on that seven-item PowerPoint list of theological horrors.

And, as I would discover as a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, I would be brimming with envy — still am.

One stuck with a team like the Lions, although doing so was worse for one’s health than juggling cobras. Shaving years off your life and dying with unwavering devotion is what made you a real fan.

This rule was made crystal clear more than once at the Silverdome by my friend’s fearless older brother. He would stride right up to someone wearing Cowboys gear and say, “Grew up in Texas, did ya?”

Translation: you better have a damn good reason for supporting a team other than one from Detroit around him. Otherwise, burn that ugly star jacket, turn in your sports fan card and leave — stat.

I don’t think it was Stockholm Syndrome

I don’t think I was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. I don’t think my neighbours captured me and dragged me to sporting events at gunpoint.

I remember that time as the halcyon days of my sports fandom. Perhaps it was the shared suffering of a city of hardworking underdogs that I liked.

But I think it was much more than that.

Walking into my neighbour’s home or his Lake Erie cottage on a summer day, I was instantly wrapped in the dulcet Georgia embrace of Ernie Harwell on the radio.

In autumn, the soundtrack changed to the infectiousness of Bob Ufer calling his beloved Michigan Wolverines — God bless his cotton pickin’ maize and blue heart.

Through the winter, it was the Bad Boys of Laimbeer, Dumars, Thomas and Mahorn.

On The Corner, there was a temple

But one of my fondest childhood memories dazzled all the senses.

Only at the intersection of Michigan and Trumbull could I find the intoxicating fusion of Ball Park Franks, roasted peanuts and melted plastic cheese ladled generously from huge vats onto nachos. Only at The Corner could I feel the ghosts of Cobb and Ruth and Greenberg. Only at Tiger Stadium could the buzz and roar sound like a symphony as I walked from the concourse toward the light and the perfectly-manicured gold and emerald diamond stretched out before me.

It was and always will be my temple.

Only a savage could embrace that concrete eyesore in downtown Toronto with the fair-weather fans more jazzed about belting out Ok Blue Jays during the seventh inning stretch than cheering for anything happening down on the plastic grass.

Sure, the Pontiac Silverdome was no soul-stirring structure either, but at least I was blessed to have had season tickets during the entire Barry Sanders era. No one can ever take that away from me.

Besides, there was always The Big House, a scowling Bo and those winged helmets for authenticity.

In the end, that’s the point, isn’t it? I am deeply proud to be Canadian. But being there to experience the magic and the shared sense of community always transcended nationality for me.

I now live equidistant between Toronto and The Motor City, but nothing has changed.

After all, rules are rules.

Photo by Shutterstock
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Dave Briggs

Before joining PlayOntario, Dave spent more than 25 years as a writer and editor, mainly covering horse racing in Canada. He holds a master's degree in journalism from Western University and was a 2018 inductee into the Communicators' Corner of the U.S. Harness Racing Hall of Fame. Beyond a deep passion for family and music, Dave has a mostly-tragic, life-long love of Detroit sports teams. He lives in Port Stanley, Ontario with his wife and their beloved Vizsla named California.

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