Thursday, July 13, 2017

{allcanada} NHL Centennial Fan Arena makes stop at Honda Indy race in Toronto

TORONTO -- While the similarities between hockey and auto racing are few, Indy driver James Hinchcliffe identified one right away when he toured the NHL Centennial Fan Arena.

As he explored the 53-foot museum truck, Hinchcliffe was particularly fascinated with the wall featuring the evolution of goaltending masks, from the earliest wire-only ones to more modern-day styles with custom painted designs. The creative paint jobs were something he immediately related to.

"People see helmets in a car and they see sponsors colors, they don't actually see the person, the human being that's in the car a whole lot," Hinchcliffe said. "For drivers, our helmet is our identity. The only thing teams let you control is your helmet. I don't get to pick what my suit or car looks like but my helmet's mine. It's the one piece of individuality. It really represents you."

Hinchcliffe's helmet predominantly features blue and yellow checkers, inspired by his racing hero, Greg Moore.

Growing up in Oakville, Ontario, about 20 minutes west of Toronto, Hinchcliffe said he always admired goalie mask designs. Felix Potvin's mask when he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs from 1991-99, which featured a row of large, pointed teeth underneath wire cage, was among his favorites. Potvin's nickname was 'The Cat.' And when Ed Belfour played for the Maple Leafs from 2002-06, his classic eagle mask became another beloved design.

"For goalies, I feel like it's the same way with their masks as racers," Hinchcliffe said. "Guys put a lot of thought into their masks and the designs. It's something I think we have in common."

The NHL Centennial Fan Arena, featuring a pop-up rink and virtual reality Zamboni, among other exhibits, is touring North America as part of the League's year-long centennial celebration. It will be at the Honda Indy Toronto, an annual IndyCar Series race, July 14-16.

Hinchcliffe said he wanted to see the exhibit since it debuted at the 2017 Scotiabank NHL Centennial Classic, but this weekend marked the first time it coincided with his schedule.

"This was incredible," Hinchcliffe said. "To come here and actually get to see it, it's amazing what they've managed to fit in here and how interactive it is. This is just one trailer but you could easily spend 45 minutes in here going around."

Hinchcliffe did not play hockey as a child but has come to love the game. His dad Jeremy is from England and did not have an affinity for hockey when James was growing up. It was not until James began school and all his friends were interested in the NHL and the Maple Leafs did his passion for the game begin.

"I had a really atypical Canadian upbringing because my dad didn't really know much about hockey," Hinchcliffe said. "Growing up, I didn't realize what I was missing until I was already at school when all my buddies were talking about hockey. I was one of the few kids that never gave it a try because by the time I wanted to, I was pretty deep into the racing world."

Ever since he can remember, Hinchcliffe was blown away by how revered Maple Leafs players are in Toronto. He mentioned Doug Gilmour as his favorite player growing up and proudly wore a Gilmour jersey as he toured the Fan Arena.

"Right as I started becoming a big Leafs fan, that was right during Gilmour's era and, of course, Wendel Clark," Hinchcliffe said. "I remember being taken aback by how big the players were in the city. Whenever I'd come to a game, these guys were just such superstars to me. It was overwhelming how big hockey really is in this town."

Now that he lives in Indianapolis, it has become harder for Hinchcliffe to see as many Maple Leafs games in person as he would like. He refuses to be a Columbus Blue Jackets fan despite their proximity to his home largely because Graham Rahal, one of his fellow racers, supports them. He joked that he could not possibly adopt the same team as one of his rivals. As a result, he heads north when he can to get to a Chicago Blackhawks game.

"There's not a lot of Leafs games being aired in Indianapolis," Hinchcliffe said. "I kind of fall back on Chicago as my backup team. Where I am, I've kind of got Chicago, Columbus or Nashville. I'm also a big PK Subban fan as well, so this year I kind of went the Predators way a little bit too. But I definitely don't see as many games as I'd like to. Thanks goodness for the apps to keep me plugged in."


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