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Q&A: Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield

12/26/2013
Courtesy of Canadian Space Agency

Earlier this year, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield delighted the world with his innovative behind-the-scenes take on life in space using social media.

Thanks to his Twitter pictures and videos, he made space cool again.

For Maple Leafs fans, though, one picture stood out -- Hadfield holding the team logo with Earth as his backdrop.

Yes, Leafs Nation went galactic.

Recently, while promoting his new book, "An Astronaut's Guide To Life On Earth," Hadfield took time to discuss his passion for the Blue and White, his hectic final day in orbit and whether Boston Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara is astronaut material.

Q: When did your love affair with the Leafs begin?

Hadfield: Oh, I’ve always been a Leafs fan. My very first memories of hockey were sitting with my dad and watching the Leafs play in the '60s, so yeah, you don’t change teams that were your boyhood idols, so yeah, I’ve always been a Leafs fan.

Q: Who was your favorite Leafs player growing up?

Hadfield: Of course, the main one was Davey Keon. I was young, at that time, I was six or seven, but he was superhuman. Just the skills and they were the world’s best team at the time. There was something magic even about his name at the time. So, of course, to me, he was just the hero of the Leafs and embodied everything that I liked about sport at the time.

Q: What’s the key to being a devoted Leafs fan?

Hadfield: Well, it takes consistency of emotion. I’m not just favoring a team because of how they did 10 minutes ago or whatever. They are from where I’m from. They’re from Southern Ontario. I grew up right close to Toronto in Milton and was born in Sarnia. This is the team that was my team as a kid and why would I possibly change my stripes? That’s who I like and who I’ve always honored.

Q: What is it about hockey and this team that resonates with you on a deeper level?

Hadfield: It’s the feeling that sport is supposed to give that of pride of human accomplishment and wonder at seeing the incredible ability of some other people do things and delight in when your team is winning of course. So, I got all of those things from the Leafs as a kid and it wasn’t so much one game or definitely not even one person, but just the wonderful feeling of being part of something bigger than myself.

Q: If you were the Leafs’ general manager, what would changes would you make?

Hadfield: (Laughs) Oh, I’m not in the position to be the general manager of the Leafs and, if I was, I would want to do a lot more research before I started making changes. That’s not my area of expertise. I wouldn’t want the GM of the Leafs to be the commander of the space station and start making changes.

Q: May 13, 2013, was a busy day for you. Not only were you heading home from space, but the Leafs were also playing Game 7 of their first-round playoff series against the Boston Bruins. What was going through your mind at that time?

Hadfield: Well, it was a heck of a day. I had been on the space station for 5 months. It was the day that I was the pilot. I have an extremely important role to play in flying a spaceship safely back to Earth. But, in the back of my mind, it's also the day and, in fact, the time that the Leafs are going to be playing Game 7, so I was aware of it. I had to focus on what was critical and important in my world, but the best I could do was I had a Leafs T-shirt on board the space station with me that I wore many, many times, but I figured it could serve me one more time. I put my Leafs T-shirt on underneath my space suit, underneath my Russian pressure suit in order to fly my Soyuz home. Once we get into what we were doing with the Soyuz, of course, that was front of mind. Paying attention to how the spaceship was flying. Being very careful. Making sure we had everything ready to go because if things happened in a hurry, a lot of them are life or death. As soon as we landed and the safety crew dragged each of us out of the cockpit and plunked us down in chairs and they handed me a satellite phone, so I could phone my wife, Helene. I asked her how she was and she asked me how I was and then I asked how the Leafs did. So, it was definitely front of my mind that she had to say, ‘Oh, I'm sorry. They lost.’ The Leafs played really well. They didn't win the whole thing, but they played better than a lot of other teams in the league and they played better than a lot of people thought they would. I really enjoyed watching their games while I've been on the space station just as I am enjoying watching them play this year.

Q: It’s funny. You land on Earth. You briefly find out how your wife is doing then you ask about the Leafs? There’s no talk about your kids or world politics?

Hadfield: (Laughs) Well, I knew when I asked her how she was doing, if there had been a problem with anything else, she would have mentioned it right then. So, I figured, let's cut to the chase and talk current events and see how the Leafs did. So, it was sad to hear. She was very apologetic on behalf of the Leafs and the fact that they didn’t hold on to their lead, but it’s just the way it happened and it’s the facts.

Q: Have your astronaut friends heard about the NHL? Are they fans?

Hadfield: Sure, guys know about the NHL. I think I was more of a hockey fan than anybody else on board. Luckily the three networks that broadcast the Leafs games all were kind enough to make video versions of it shortly after the games were completed and then give them to the Canadian Space Agency and NASA to send up, so that I could watch them on orbit. That was a real delight to be able to, within a day or two, to be able to watch the Leafs play and see how they were actually doing and I really appreciated it.

Q: In your opinion, could NHL players make good astronauts?

Hadfield: Well, you’d have to fit into your space suit, so I think Chara and people would be ruled out. I mean a lot of the defensemen these days would have trouble fitting into a space suit because the Soyuz is pretty small. Becoming an astronaut typically requires at least a Master’s degree if not a PhD, then a lot of real operational experience in complex systems in a technical field. So, it’s not that hockey players wouldn’t make good astronauts, but I think most of them probably haven’t specialized in the area that I specialized in. They spend all those years becoming the world’s best hockey players and succeeded at it whereas I spent a lot of years training and working to become an astronaut. It’s partially nature, partially nurture. I think it’s really good that people follow their own heart and get really good at the things that matter to them. That’s the important part for everybody. Not everybody can do everything. I’m not very much of a skater even. I enjoy playing, but I’m not a very good hockey player. I imagine a lot of the hockey players would feel the same about being an astronaut.

Q: I just had a vision of 6-foot-9 Zdeno Chara squeezing into that Russian spacecraft you were in.

Hadfield: Yeah, that’s not a vision I’d want to be there for.

Q: While in space, you displayed your musical talents, specifically with your guitar. Have you or would you ever consider writing a Leafs song?

Hadfield: I’ve thought about it actually. I’ve written many, many songs in my life. I’ve fronted bands for the last 20 years. I’ve written a lot of party songs, entertainment songs, songs for specific events, but living down in Texas and living over in Russia, you’re physically removed from a lot of the excitement that goes on when you’re actually back living in Toronto again. So maybe now that I’m living back in Toronto, I’ll get a chance to go to a few games and really start to get into the effect that the Leafs have on the local community here and how they’re doing. I think the odds are improving. Lots of people have written hockey songs, but if something clever occurs to me or if something funny happens and I grab my guitar, who knows? Never say never.

Q: Finally, what will come next -- humans stepping foot on Mars or the Leafs winning their first Stanley Cup since 1967?

Hadfield: The Leafs, absolutely. It’ll be the Leafs before we step foot on Mars. No doubt. Oh, yeah. Guaranteed. I’d be willing to bet on that.

Q: Spoken like a true Leafs fan.

Hadfield: (Laughs) And a true astronaut.

Q: Commander, thank you for your time and all the best.

Hadfield: Thanks. It was very pleasant to talk with you and GO LEAFS!