We are all Canadians. As I write, thick snowflakes are falling in usually-balmy Vancouver, as if to underscore that yes, indeed, we are all winter. (sorry, Sweden…) This is one of those increasingly rare times when, despite tireless efforts to reshape the country in their own image by those cold, calculating politicians in Ottawa, we can reach back to our roots and celebrate just being Canadian. Together, as a nation, we rose yawningly early (4 a.m. on the West Coast!) to watch a game for ice supremacy taking place thousands of miles away in Russia.
Of course, there was really no doubt we would rise to the occasion, There is something about Canada and hockey that grips us, still, and today, it seems, more than ever. Perhaps this renewed embrace of our national game was nourished a few decades hence, when Canada seemed to be losing its place in the sports world. Olympic medals were few and far between. In fact, we made Olympic history as the only host country to fail to win a gold medal on its own soil. Not once, but twice!
Our hockey teams also fell short ar more often than they succeeded. We bemoaned our lack of skill, our emphasis on being tough and crashing opponents into the boards, while hockey players from other countries seemed wondrously fast and agile. Articles on “our troubled game” abounded. Fans despaired. Many fell off the bandwagon. Then, surprisingly, much against type, we began to learn from the Europeans. We found we could pass, skate and move the puck quickly, too. We didn’t have to brawl our way to the top. Our junior teams started the trend, winning a dozen world championships through the 1990’s and 2000’s. They did it with basic hockey, abandoning the fighting that yet mars junior play back home, and buying into good, positional team play.
And now, at the Olympics, our hockey guys have won three of the last four gold medals. Canadians are way back on side. Though nothing could equal the magic of Sidney Crosby’s golden goal before the home folks in 2010 (“Iggggy…!”), this was pretty wonderful, too. The thought of us all, collectively bleary-eyed, blinking back sleep or shedding hangovers, in bars and living rooms across the country, from Bonavista to Vancouver Island, is moving. A nation, once more.
The Olympics also demonstrated that, in spite of fighting, sky high salaries and Gary Bettman, hockey remains at heart a winter’s game, beautifully played by Canadians. The Sochi version of Team Canada is arguably the best national shinny squad ever assembled. From the hesitant opening match against Norway to the final seconds of their dominant gold medal showdown against Sweden, the players never abandoned their composure or commitment to team play. Egos and individualism were put on hold. The forechecking and backchecking of star forwards paid millions of dollars to play in the NHL was relentless.
At the Olympics, they were not playing for the big bucks but for national pride, corny as that sounds, and their work ethic was exemplary. Though scores were sometimes close (three one-goal games), Canada was the better team in all six of its matches. Most of all, they smothered teams with a suffocating defense, from impeccable Carey Price between the pipes, to their solid defense core, to forwards coming back to help whenever their opponents ventured across the blue line. And Canada’s goals were almost always the result of skilled plays, rather than the boring old style of putting the puck on the net and trying to cram it in during a scramble.
Vintage hockey at its best.
Afterwards, assistant team captain Jonathan Toews, still only 25, waxed rather elegant about their gold medal achievement:
“It’s a great team that we had in this tournament. You could see it developing, the chemistry, in the locker room. The guys start to understand their roles,” he told reporters. “It’s not easy for some guys. You look at Roberto Luongo or Marty St. Louis or even Sharpie tonight, guys that have made sacrifices to win the gold medal.
“But you ask them, I don’t think they care. It’s an amazing feeling to be a part of a team like that, whether your role was big or small. You watch us tonight, we’re an amazing team to watch, the way we work together. We were just all over them.”
There’s a good chance this may be the last Winter Olympics to have NHL players competing. The USA did poorly, some top players suffered serious injuries during the Games, and a large majority of NHL owners hail from south of the border. Not much national pride there. But right now, it feels pretty good. Eh, Canada?