"In a diverse nation, the Pakistani cab driver might have honed his English by watching 'Hockey Night in Canada,' and though you can barely understand him, he is telling you Pat Quinn is using the wrong guys on the point."
Frei pretty much nails the extent to which hockey in embedded in Canada's national identity:
"I'm not even sure this is explainable, but when if you attend the pee wee tournament in Quebec City or a major junior game in Kamloops, you somehow feel a bit of the same aura that you sense in the Air Canada Centre on a Maple Leafs night."
I'm first generation Canadian, can't skate backwards, and never played ice hockey in my life, yet I love the game enough to schlep five hours to Jersey and back to watch two good teams play a meaningless game--something I'm dreading doing tomorrow night to watch my home-team Raptors.
Part of it is the ritual, I suppose, like NFL Sundays in America: gathering on a Saturday night to watch the Leafs on Hockey Night in Canada over beers, and then hitting a bar to catch the late game. It's obviously more than the ritual that makes the game special to Canucks. As Frei wrote, there is no simple way to describe what the game meanst to Canadians, as there is no analagous relationship between sport and national identity in the US. This Toronto Star article captures the spirit of the relationship rather well, I think.
The best way to experience it, of course, is to actually attend a game with national significance in Canada--the World Cup of Hockey in Toronto or Montreal later this year will do nicely.