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The Toughest Trade: More charm and passion than drinking and debauchery

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Lee Chin had his 15 minutes over tales of the Vancouver Canucks partying when they should be focusing on playing. The reality of his reality show, where he spends time with the team, is much different.

New Zealand Press Conference
Ma’a Nonu of the New Zealand All Blacks rugby team tries to figure out this hurling lark.
Photo by Ross Land/Getty Images

A few days ago, the Irish Times published an interview with Lee Chin and the hockey world took notice. The Canucks weren’t too happy with the article, . But the show turned out to be a lot different from the tone the interview struck. We might never know who said what about fighting, drinking and going out to get “ruined” but what made it to air was about other, less salacious, but still interesting themes.

Chin was promoting a television show in Ireland called The Toughest Trade. It’s a reality show, a so-called unscripted drama, where a professional athlete—usually retired—trades places with someone playing in an Irish amateur sport for a week.

The central conceit of the show is that the dedicated amateur athletes of Irelands’ GAA might be as good as professional athletes elsewhere. The GAA, or the Gaelic Athletic Association, is the governing body of a group of sports in Ireland that most of us outside of that country, or the few places they’ve exported their sporting culture along with the whiskey and the fiddle music, have never heard of. Toronto is one of those few places, by the way.

The sports are old, centuries old, and are about cultural identity and community belonging. Players play at their local parish level and are dedicated in a way that seems to disappear for most adult sports in Canada. The Senior Men’s Hurling Final is played in a huge stadium in front of tens of thousands of fans every year.

Amateur sport means something different in Ireland.

Enter Lee Chin, a Wexford boy, who grew up in the family business, but has a passion for sport. He settled on Hurling as the one sport to focus on. He was paired up with retired Canadian NHL goalie Alex Auld, who took Chin’s spot in Wexford on his hurling team for a week. Chin spent time in Vancouver trying to understand hockey.

You can watch the whole show on YouTube:

The early theme of the show is charm. Chin is young, attractive, fit and happy to show that off. He likes a laugh. You can laugh at the earnest voice over telling you Auld is an icon and a Canucks great, but that’s just the puffery this sort of show is dressed up in. They also play a bit of bait and switch with the Vacouver Canucks as the bait, and the switch coming, well, you’ll see.

First Chin has to learn to skate, and he does that on a travelling temporary ice sheet. Hockey, not the kind played on grass, is not unheard of in Ireland, and they have an Irish player teaching him the basics. They never come right out and say Chin’s never been on skates before, but they let you think it. I’m not sure I buy it, but he’s got a skating style that can best be described as choppy running on ice.

The show makes an effort to show Wexford as a working-class town. We see a lot of scenes of the harbour, the narrow streets and old buildings, and the contrast to the skyline of Vancouver with the mountains in the background is stark.

With his skating lessons behind him, Chin heads to the big, modern city. The switch is revealed. Chin is going to play with the Canucks Alumni team, not the NHL club.

His first stop in preparation for this event is a session with the Vancouver Giants of the WHL. The show doesn’t give the Irish audience a twenty-minute lecture on how that team relates to the Canucks, they allow a sort of European club system idea to be implied. Canadian pedants might squall over the inaccuracy, but perhaps they shouldn’t.

Chin is so obviously over his head with this group of players that they barely have to play that up. This is the mountain he has to climb, foreshadowed by the familiar Vancouver skyline and it’s looming backdrop. His guide for this day is Ty Ronning, another charmer.

Ronning did some television interviews at the Combine last summer that might lead you to think his future is in broadcasting not playing, but he was taken by the New York Rangers in the draft. At the end of the show when you see the Canucks Alumni play, you can catch a glimpse of Cliff Ronning on the ice. So how distinct are NHL teams and the local junior clubs?

With Chin determined to climb the mountain of Canadian hockey, we finally move to Auld in Wexford. The first thing you see is the bare cement block locker room of the Faythe Harriers. The practice is outside on the long grass pitch under lights on what looks like a fairly chill evening. Right from the start, you see the serious level of coaching and training for what is an unpaid, amateur sport.

Auld, who is 36 years old, is not exactly the picture of a professional athlete at his peak, but he is also charming and personable and fitter than most of the Canucks Alumni we’ll meet later. The hurling trainer is worried about his foot speed, however.

Back in Vancouver, Chin gets to meet his next set of guides—Kirk McLean and Dave Babych. They immediately take him on a tour of the Rogers Arena and the locker room—renovated for the Olympics to a standard well beyond much of the NHL. There are no bare cement block walls here.

Auld gets a guide of a similar sort—Larry O’Gorman, a former champion and a man of intense passion for his sport. He is Irish charm personified, but he’s not a laughing leprechaun. O’Gorman warns there are no passengers on a hurling team. Amateur, we are meant to see, does not mean lacking in that quality we usually call professionalism.

Back in Vancouver, Chin is taken to a Canucks game, the February 25th game against the Sharks. Babych is more interested in explaining the wonder that is Brent Burns than he is talking about the Canucks, who lost the game 4-1. The Sedins paired up on the only goal, and it’s one of the curiosities of the show that their name is never mentioned. Hockey is left to be perceived as a Canadian sport, part of the Canadian small-town culture. Two men from a small Swedish town obsessed with hockey don’t fit the narrative.

Erik Gudbranson makes his first appearance as an expert to explain hockey to Chin. He tries to explain the idea of the slot or the danger zone area of the ice, and he left me a little baffled. The finer points of play—the role of the F3 on the backcheck in a kickout springs instantly to mind—are not easy to put into words for everyone.

The things you might expect to see highlighted about hockey are never mentioned. Fighting, violence, the physical toll of the game. No one ever explains the crooked faces you see on the screen. The sport is left to be seen as speed and controlled chaos, much the way Auld sees hurling.

Chin gets in a scrimmage with the alumni team, and he’s finally got a chance to try things at a much slower speed. He’s flailing around, but Babych is impressed he can even do that much.

There is a post-training scene with Chin and some Irish Vancouverites that brings up the secondary theme of the show—the very Irish longing to travel and see the bigger world. Hurling is such a parochial sport, such a relic of the past, and the modern world with its migrating populations on a scale not seen since the first Irish diaspora might not be a hospitable place for it. Chin feels the call of the old hometown values though. He assures the viewer of that.

Chin is an Irish working-class stereotype. His da owns the chipper on an old narrow street in the old part of the harbour town. But his da is also Chinese, so the chipper is actually a Chinese restaurant that still serves a specialty that is fried chicken balls and chips dumped in a bag. It’s fusion cuisine of a different kind than they show you on the cooking channel.

Auld takes a turn in the restaurant, and they make a joke of his cooking skills, but it is possible they exceed his hurling ability.

Both Auld and Chin get down to business. They have sessions with skills coaches, and Auld makes a telling comment. “It’s been a long time since I’ve had this much constructive criticism.” Chin eats that up like he loves it. He is shown as always serious and cheerfully intent in his training sessions, while Auld seems to simmer with a bit of frustration at how tough this hurling thing really is to learn.

You have to get away from the sport though, and Chin has his night on the town with Gudbranson. It looks pretty tame compared to how the Irish Times piece made it sound. Chin, who has body honed as an athletic machine, talks about the all-or-nothing aspect of single game elimination, while Gudbranson, who seems like the Canadian stereotype of a hockey bro, is goggled that Chin is doing this all for no pay.

The show is returning to its main theme again, driving home the values of the dedicated local sportsmen—it’s sponsored by an Irish bank—and contrasting them to the professionals who seem to be all about the showbiz and the money.

Watching this scene, I was reminded of the story of Julie Chu putting on her equipment in a car as she was driven from her coaching job to a CWHL game that she’d be late for if she didn’t show up already in her gear. There are hockey players in North America who understand down to their bones the drive and passion to hone your body to a sporting machine like Chin has, and who play hard every game, even if they have to gear up in a cement block room or the back of a car.

The show wants you to see the flash of professional hockey as a bit crass and superficial next to that. And they do succeed at that with some help from the feckless-seeming Gudbranson. But Auld is such a pleasant fellow who gives it a go even when it’s all a bit much, that they don’t quite follow through on the shot after all the windup. This show could have been as crass as the story in the Irish Times led all of Twitter to think it was. They chose to play it more straight than that.

Chin gets to climb the mountain in a literal sense when he goes to the top of Grouse Mountain, with ex-Toronto Maple Leaf Kyle Wellwood, for a turn on an outdoor rink. Auld gets to go work for a day on a building site. That doesn’t seem fair, but the Irish viewer needed to be reminded of the realities of Irish working-class life, I guess.

Chin is sent on another skills training session with Manny Malhotra, who now works with the Canucks as a development coach. Malhotra is tough. If you want your players to get off their butts and play the game, Malhotra is your man. If they need positive and firm reinforcement along with the toughness, they’ll blossom under his cheerfully barked orders. Chin eats that up with a spoon and then goes for a jog along the Vancouver waterfront with nice sailboats moored behind him. It’s a Vancouver Tourism ad in all but name.

Auld gets a skills session in a concrete spillway with a few inches of water in the bottom on a fine Irish day (that means it’s raining). It is a good spot to practice hitting the hurling ball, but it might be overkill on reminding the viewer that home is a gritty and tough place, and the Irish are gritty and tough people. Who need mortgages. I’m not really sure how that all fits, but I bet it resonates with the Irish more than me.

The rest of the show is the two games: Chin with the Vancouver Alumni playing a split squad game and Auld in a hurling match against another local team. It’s meant to be two intercut dramatic stories of sporting passion, but it fizzles for me because I have no context for the hurling scenes, while I can tell how much the hockey is just going through the motions.

They fake the hockey game up to look a little more real, dubbing in some commentary and showing a few people in the stands, but it looks like less than beer league on the ice. NHL Alumni games are showbiz. And they are as much about the players getting a chance to relive their locker room culture as it is for the fans to get their nostalgia on. No one on that ice trains like Chin trains. He had fun, tough, and Babych is there to be charming, while back in Wexford, Auld seems as lost as I am.

It’s an odd let down of an ending to what is an interesting show. If the point had really been to test the practitioners of different sports, you can easily see that Chin should have been given a shot at Canada’s actual national sport of Lacrosse, and vice versa. But the point really was to cast a warm glow over the dedication and passion of the amateur athletes of the GAA.

That individual drive is real. No one exemplifies that more than Daniel and Henrik Sedin, in fact. And it is not hard to find examples of it in unpaid athletes here, even if it is less mainstream than it seems to be in Ireland.

But it is also hard, from my perspective, to feel the intended comforting warm glow at seeing all that drive and passion getting rewarded with accolades but not money.

Chin, who is a young man, will soon have to make a choice between his sport and his yearning for a life of wider vistas than Wexford. To keep playing up to Auld’s age would mean staying home and staying tied to the local parish in a way that professional men’s hockey players in Canada never have to do. They might start on the backyard rink, but they don’t stay there. They get the glitz and glam of big NHL arenas in big cities.

For Lee Chin, the ending was an admission that he would go back home and happily fall back into his Irish life, the hockey adventure merely something to reminisce over. Presumably, his next step is to get a mortgage on some old house in a narrow Wexford street and live happily and contentedly every after.

I’m left wondering a little at the fate of Erik Gudbranson, pending RFA. He might not be set for life in the big city. We’ll get to see his next chapter, however, while Chin will fade back into his Irish life.