”Les aventures loufoques de Herpen au Canada”

When I last appeared here, I croaked out almost 3,000 words for my young, budding writers on the often contradictory, shadowy nature of sports media. This time around, there will be nothing of the sort.

Have you ever embarked on a road trip, only to be held up at Canadian customs because someone in your party decided to joke that the entire group’s purpose for crossing over was to storm the country to reclaim the oldest trophy competed for by professional athletes in North America? Did you wonder why they did it, given there were actually two firearms just kinda hanging out in the trunk of your car and nobody else might find that uninteresting?

Picture it. Fort Erie, Ontario. July, 1993. Travelers from Philadelphia, headed towards Toronto, unaware that the two cities will meet at a more meaningful time later that year. Just over the Peace Bridge from Buffalo, the Herpens were apparently declaring war on the sport of hockey and its most sacred trophy, using humor not exactly designed to impress people trained on whether or not to let you into their fair country.

One hundred and eighteen miles back south and east of the border in a small section of Potter County near the New York state line, there was a hunting lodge my dad and several of his friends were involved with. We were vacationing with one other family that weekend, right after the All-Star break, and hours before, pops was enjoying a cloudless day, sitting on the porch and blasting groundhogs at the adjacent hill across from the one road which linked the property to the rest of civilization.

I can’t remember who came up with the idea to get away from the rigors of country life, but one look at a Triple-A sanctioned map and we figured out it would be worth it to take a 2 1/2 hour trip at least to Niagara Falls, and if everyone felt up to it, Toronto was another hour further up the road. Four-day weekend? What the Hell.

The problem was the guns…what to do with the guns. Despite the fact that there was nobody within 2000 yards of the place we were staying, on a single road that lead both into and out of nowhere, in the heat of the Summer, Dad didn’t feel safe leaving those guns alone locked up in the house overnight. So, in the trunk they went and off we headed.

With only one near-meltdown adverted when it appeared we missed our exit for the bridge, and might have to wander aimlessly around Buffalo until we found it, the twin caravan arrived at the gateway to Canada avoiding further incident. That’s where the fun started.

Of course, even as Canadian border patrols front an appearance of cheer, interest in what you’re going to do in their homeland and the occasional conversation on a light crossing day, you still have to declare what you’re bringing into the land of the Maple Leaf and they will scrutinize it. And while guns used for recreation are an accepted part of society, you still have to explain their presence from alpha to omega — especially with four adults and two kids who aren’t exactly the kind to be decked out in camo gear.

The actual incident was told to us second-hand once he got back to the car after what seemed to be an unnecessary eternity, with ticket in hand he could use to reclaim his thundersticks, said with a flippant “Oh, I told them we were here to reclaim the Stanley Cup, that’s all.”

You could see the blood drain from my mother’s face as she decided whether or not to ditch him right there at the side of the road and continue on with the rest of us who had better sense.

Apparently, the first part of the explanation went well, the “why are the guns in the trunk,” but the offhand joke about what their purpose served…that went over like a lead balloon. Once the admission was made at the first booth we drove up to, Bob Sr. had to be taken to a different area, guns in tow, to have them essentially impounded at Customs, under guard of a senior official. That bit of brilliance pushed the wait from 10 minutes to more than a half hour, as these unsuspecting Canadians tried to figure out what was up with this ugly American — a Flyers fan no less — with a terrible sense of humor and timing.

Never mind that the Cup which could be gotten with a plan less involved that your typical Mission: Impossible plot actually resided in Montreal, because the Canadiens won the last of their 24 Cups roughly five weeks prior.

Anyway, Toronto was nice. And clean. And the people were very helpful.

But there was a flat and eerie quality to it, like Pod Planet with no right turns downtown. Looking back, we could have taken down portions of the city, with the aid of a certain portion of disgruntled citizenry, using just those two rifles. Just kidding.

The Hockey Hall of Fame is an absolute jewel. Everyone needs to go at least once in their lives. We never got close to the room where the REAL Cup was stashed.

When I traveled alone on vacation eight years later, I successfully made it through Customs, at the same place, without incident, though I was dying to tell the officer at the end of my travel-plan spiel “and I don’t even have two guns in the trunk to help me try and reclaim the Stanley Cup like last time I was here.”

One of the toughest lessons I’ve had to learn in life, being raised by two independent-minded parents who worked hard and relied on few people for everything they have, is knowing how to go along to get along.

That’s especially difficult to keep in mind when you’re a Philadelphia hockey fan in enemy territory, and even more so when there’s a cultural difference and language barrier which exists to cause further tension.

On that second, and last trip to Canada just 2 1/2 weeks shy of 9-11, I worked my way from Buffalo, to Niagara Falls, to Windsor, then Toronto and eventually wound up in Montreal while passing through countless small towns on Highway 401 that are the cradle of hockey, before heading back to the USA through Vermont and Boston.

The last stop was an Econo Lodge on the edge of Autoroute 40 in St-Leonard, and since I was out of Loonies and the rest of the funny-colored money by Day 5 of my journey, I had to find a bank, and quick, to exchange money for gas and motel payments. There was one problem: it was a Francophone establishment in a predominantly Francophone area.

Flash back to 1991 and ’92, when a certain behemoth of English-Canadian extraction, who played his junior hockey in Oshawa was drafted first overall by the Quebec Nordiques, staunchly refused to play there. He wound up in Philadelphia, played eight drama-filled seasons before repeated concussions and conflict with team management found him sitting out an entire year from the NHL, awaiting healing and a potential trade to more hospitable grounds.

Three days before I made it to La Belle Province, at the start of my Canadian adventure, Eric Lindros was finally shipped to the New York Rangers for three players, in Bob Clarke’s biggest F-U to the player and his meddlesome family. I didn’t hear of the trade as it happened, because I was en route from the Hamptons all the way to the New York-Ontario border, crossing through country which couldn’t have given less of a damn who was traded in the NHL and when in the dog days of August.

Once I arrived in Niagara Falls, it was all over the papers, all over the TVs and the subject of conversation wherever I went. All I had to do was flash my ID to have alcohol served and once “Philadelphia” was seen, everyone talked a mile a minute about it. After two days, I had enough Lindros blather and simply wanted to lose myself on the road listening to whatever Canadian rock radio could provide.

(Sidebar: I became well acquainted with Nelly Furtado’s debut CD, too well acquainted, as I spun the dial repeatedly on the long stretch of uneventful road from Oshawa to Cornwall)

Now in the outskirts of northern Montreal, and in need of funds, I proceeded inside the building,” Caisse Desjardins” and found a single, well-dressed representative behind the long bank of teller windows. Siesta time at mid-day in the Summer. After my request that I have my remaining American dollars transformed into bills featured in every color of the rainbow, I passed along my ID, which he eyed with more scrutiny than your typical bartender.

He raised an eyebrow, lifted his head to address me and said,” Ahhh. Philadelphia. What do you think of Monsieur Lindros??”

Let’s stop the tape here.

Now, Flyers fans who are not-so-innocent abroad and who find themselves in this situation basically have three choices in front of them when dealing with a potentially snooty Frenchman with whom you’re forced to do business, who carries a collective cultural chip on his shoulder, and controls vast amounts of money you need to get by.

You can A) ignore the comment, cast a menacing glance back at him in a stare-off and see what happens, 2) Launch into a tirade defending your favorite player and your favorite hockey team, because the heathens in any other city to which you travel need to know that Philadelphians and the Flyers faithful won’t back down from a challenge, or D) just roll with it.

The answer, of course, is C. Just roll with it. I straightened up, looked right back into his eyes and said “Good riddance. I’ve had enough.” He looked back down at his stack of bills, both corners of his mouth upturned for what passed as a smile, and he delivered a hearty guffaw. I’m damn sure I received a better exchange rate because of my answer.

It was a great two days in Montreal, some of which I can’t really recall because of inhaling the fumes from spray-paint graffiti artists lining the sidewalk outside Hudson Bay on Ste-Catherine Street as I walked up and down that lively thoroughfare from the Forum to the Latin Quarter.

Regrettably, I haven’t been back North of the Border since 2004, when I joined my parents on their trip to Western Canada. That time, when faced with a virtually deserted downtown Vancouver on July 1, I had to tell them they booked the start of the trip to coincide with Canada Day and that everyone was doing what Americans do on the 4th of July. I managed to snag what was called the ugliest jersey in NHL history out of the deal, so it was totally worth the effort.