How to Train Your Canadien

Jay Baruchel Likes Hockey More Than You Like Anything (Probably)

Jay Baruchel wants people to know all the different ways they can read his book: “On their way to work or on the plane or whatever they’re doing. I don’t need to describe all the ways and places people read books.”

“No, I want more,” I say.

“Café, or in the park: there’s all sorts of ways you can read books!” Even over the phone, the same improv-ready playfulness that made Baruchel a staple of Judd Apatow’s comedies comes across easily. But, he can be real, too.

“I just hope people are entertained and I gave them a good read,” he says. “What would be super-neat and gravy is if somebody reads this book and I maybe, somehow, articulated an experience that they’ve had but didn’t know exactly how to describe it themsevles.”

This is what it’s like to talk to Jay Baruchel: classic Canadian self-effacement neatly apologizing for thoughtful, measured insights into the human experience. It’s that human experience that drives his first book, the memoir Born Into It. In the book, the writer of both Goon movies dives deep into what it means to be a lifelong fan of the Montreal Canadiens.

Only “fan” doesn’t come close to describing how Baruchel feels about the Habs. “When people say to me ‘Are you a hockey fan?’ To answer in the affirmative, it feels almost like a cop-out because it’s like saying ‘Are you a food fan?’ To me ‘fan’ is not the word. It’s part of everything.”

“Everything,” in Baruchel’s case, isn’t just hometown pride. He’s known as an ambassador for the Canadiens in Hollywood, even wearing their gear in films if he’s given the option. “They probably wish there was somebody cooler who was famous and liked the team.” He jokes, “I’m usually somewhere like number two or number three behind Viggo Mortensen whenever they do montages of celebrity Habs fans.”

Baruchel has a knack for playing meek, everyman heroes, like the sensitive Viking prince Hiccup in the How To Train Your Dragon series, or the decidedly non-Hollywood version of himself in This is the End. This energy permeates his creative process. That he would worship a hockey team isn’t surprising,  but I still wondered why he wanted to write a whole book about it.

“I read Ken Dryden’s The Game, which is this incredible macro/meta experience of what it is to be a professional hockey player and I figured it might be neat to write an equivalent experience of what it is to be a fan.”

Which actually isn’t that meek. He’s probably not the first person who read Ken Dryden and thought he could measure up. “Certainly,” he answers, with that signature modesty, “and probably smarter, better people restrained themselves and were content to not try and write a companion piece to arguably one of the top three most important books in Canadian history.”

The desire to make sense of his obsession kept him going. “To be so loyal and so profoundly linked to something over which you have absolutely no control,” he says. “And how fucked that is. And how you’re sort of damned if you do and damned if you don’t. You either care too deeply about it or you don’t care enough about it.”

Being a memoir, Born Into It isn’t just about the Habs:  it’s also about Baruchel’s family history with the team. He is averse to using art as therapy. “You need to find something in it, worth telling somebody, and if you get to engage in therapy as you’re doing it, well great.” To that point, he is most proud of the passages concerning his dad, whom he frames in parallel with the Canadiens’ triumphs and difficulties.

“My dad was never more himself than he was in the ’70s and I think you can say the same thing about the ’70s Habs.” By writing about his father’s obsession with the team, he was able for the first time to see his dad from a different point of view. “I saw him and I saw myself, and I was able to put him in a context. I don’t let him off the hook or anything but … nothing is ever completely bad or completely good.”

It’s actually a little like fandom today. Baruchel agrees that we are in a simultaneous golden and dark age, where the toxic “fans” of one thing can taint the experience for everyone else. Just ask Kelly Marie Tran or Wil Wheaton, who have quit social media due to harassment. On this point, he is bluntly thoughtful: “You need to give a shit about something. I don’t mean to dismiss or minimize anything that people care about, there’s stuff I am a fanatic about, I wrote a fucking book about liking a hockey team for fuck’s sake. There is an ancient itch in all of us that needs to be scratched, and I don’t know where it comes from. We are still tribal at our core and that’s gotta be why people take ownership of it and probably take it too seriously. Your relationship to it ends up being every bit as loaded as, say, a romantic relationship.”

And if that’s the case, Baruchel is a pretty committed boyfriend, who’s only marginally creepy.