|Hart Shouldice and friends at the 2014 Panda Game.|
I board the empty bus on Rideau street, along with two girls with painted faces. We pick up a few of their schoolmates at the next stop, and more still at the next one. By the time we take Bank Street through Centretown they are waiting fifteen deep on every corner. Come the Glebe, we are so packed in so tight that the driver isn’t even stopping to let people off, much to the chagrin of the wrong-place-wrong-time septuagenarian standing at the rear doors.
The game has started by the time we get to Lansdowne but the partisan revellers don’t seem to mind. I meet up with some friends from my own undergrad years (out-of-province, so I don’t have a horse in this particular race) and we find seats in neutral territory, flanking the Ottawa U students on the French-heavy North Side. We feel like the only un-affiliated spectators among twelve thousand.
And, of course, affiliations are worn on one’s sleeve at the Panda Game. The painted faces, the chanting (some of which would make a sailor blush) and the general merriment all speak to an uninhibited loyalty which Ottawa itself doesn’t always engender in its locals. It’s a refreshing passion, even if Alexander Keith and his contemporaries are fuelling the fire for a certain percentage.
(On that note, while there were certainly some over-indulgers, the event was a far cry from the booze-soaked gong shows I witnessed as an oblivious child football fan throughout the 80s and early-90s.)
We settle in and, lo and behold, find ourselves watching an objectively decent game. Football’s more closed-minded fans like to scoff at the Canadian game for any number of reasons, with low budgets and shallow talent pools chief among them. Some of the criticisms are valid, but none of them matter to us as we find ourselves – all highly football-literate – drawn deeper into the game as the afternoon wears on, picking favourite players and questioning coaching decisions. Tuscaloosa be damned, for three glorious hours the Glebe feels like the centre of the college football universe.
That we are sitting in a shiny new stadium doesn’t hurt, of course. The setting has given the game a professional sheen. It feels like even more of an event than last year’s successful Panda reboot at Gee-Gees Field, even if 2013’s national coverage has been replaced by the minor-league Rogers community television.
They stop serving beer at the start of the third quarter. A safety precaution. We make a vow to write our members of parliament to ask for an over-30 beer tent for those who wish to enjoy a literal one or two during the second half. The lead changes hands a few times and we are so fully on the bandwagon that I feel legitimate nerves. The clock ticks down…
By now, the game-ending heroics have been well-documented. Carleton pulled off the upset win on a last second Hail Mary. Hollywood wouldn’t dare. But whether one left bleeding black and red or crying garnet and grey, it would be hard to call that Saturday afternoon anything but a raging success. It was a shot of life from start-to-finish; simultaneously rowdy, quaint and cumbersomely bilingual. It was, in short, Ottawa.
See also: Ottawa Sports Guide
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