A sports fan’s worst nightmare

Colby Cosh on Ben Massey’s long walk at the Voyageurs Cup

It can be bitter to drink from the same cup

Darryl Dyck/CP

It can be bitter to drink from the same cup
Darryl Dyck/CP

Maybe you’ve had a nightmare like it. You’re at Game 7 of the Stanley Cup, cheering on your team. Your lads are on the verge of a famous home victory—of securing the first championship in team history, in fact. You can almost feel the glorious warm tide that will scour away years of frustration, years that have become notorious throughout the sport.

But, suddenly, as the minutes wane, you feel a hand on your shoulder. And someone politely reminds you of something: It’s actually your job this year to present the Cup to the winner. Why, it was all prearranged: Surely you remember?

You shuffle down to the tunnel and stand next to the uncouth mass of metal, trying your best to ignore its sinister gleam, to ignore the increasingly venomous butterflies in your stomach. Out on the playing surface, precisely because you are having a nightmare, the inevitable happens: A late surge by the visiting side brings success. There is only humiliation and agony for the home squad as a desperate counter-flurry barely fails. The horn sounds. “It’s time,” you hear someone, maybe yourself, mutter. No backing out now. You lift the Cup and march. And as your friends see you on television, the phone in your pocket begins to buzz dementedly, unceasingly, the vibrations rattling your back teeth as you step into the light to relinquish glory . . .

Such a horror could never really happen in hockey, since a cartel of rich men has enclosed the Canadian property that goes by the name of the Stanley Cup. But in soccer, they do things the European way—the old, chaotic, populist way. When someone wins our national club championship, they receive the Voyageurs Cup, a piece of silverware bought and paid for in 2002 by an informal group of donors and owned by no one in particular. The Canadian Soccer Association has been given the privilege of organizing competitions for the Voyageurs Cup, but the principle that it belongs to the fans is upheld strictly—primarily by letting a fan hand it over to the winners.

Which is why Ben Massey’s phone was going off like a rocket as he stepped into the TV spotlight at the end of the May 29 deciding game. Massey agreed to present the Cup about 10 days before the game, mostly because the donors, known as the Voyageurs, needed a representative on the coast and Massey, a witty, industrious Canadian soccer blogger and co-star of the Vancouver-based Two Fat Bastards podcast, was in the right place. “I was intellectually prepared for the possibility of having to give the trophy to the ‘wrong’ team,” says Massey, 26. “What I didn’t anticipate was how wrenching the game was going to be.”

The big game between Major League Soccer’s Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps FC was the second part of a “two-legged tie”: two games, with the team scoring the most goals overall declared the winner. Vancouver had managed only a nil-nil draw in the first game in Montreal, and the championship tournament uses the traditional away-goals tiebreaker if the teams end up even. That meant Massey’s Caps had to win outright in Vancouver. They took a 2-1 lead into the 84th minute before Impact back Hassoun Camara headed home a corner kick.

Camara’s strike made 2013 Vancouver’s fifth consecutive year as Canadian championship runners-up. Massey, who got hooked on the game 10 years ago as a fan of the short-lived Edmonton Aviators, displayed heroic composure as he brought the Impact their prize. But his dismay was comically impossible to conceal. “This is what I’m told, anyway,” he adds. “I’m sure the loss was much harder for some of the Vancouver people who originally donated to buy the Cup, or to Vancouver fans who had travelled to the Montreal game . . . I can hardly claim priority. And it’s gonna be a great story down the line.”

Why are the Whitecaps so snakebit in the championship? In analogous European competitions, the strongest clubs will sometimes sacrifice Cup games, resting their best and brightest for the league play that is often considered more important (and is certainly more lucrative). But if anything, says Massey, the opposite is true of the Voyageurs Cup, which didn’t have its own separate tournament until 2008. “You can’t say the MLS teams, and particularly Vancouver, don’t give their best in the championship,” he reports. “I think it’s just the way the cookie has crumbled.”

It’s too bad somebody had to eat the damn thing. But the imported fan-centric folkways that led to Ben Massey’s long walk should be celebrated. As he points out, there’s no fee for being a member of the Voyageurs; you don’t even get a card. He was summoned to duty because he likes soccer and has spent a lot of time and energy preaching its gospel. Meanwhile, the NHL championship will end soon as it ends every year: with Gary Bettman. You tell me which system makes sense.

On the web: For more Colby Cosh, visit his blog at macleans.ca/colbycosh