Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Chanting Out The Pantheon

Paul Henderson.

There. I just divided my readership into two groups. Those who know what that name means and those who don't. It's like a talisman, a divining rod for determining who is Canadian.

There's something about Canada and hockey that cannot fail to stir the spirit, to inspire, to unleash all manner of poetic clichés. It's hard to express unless you've been at a Junior A game in a small town somewhere in the back of beyond, unless you've seen children barely old enough to walk being urged across the ice in skates, unless you've been in a crowd when the home team wins a big game. Yes, sport is the opiate of the masses, fuelling disagreeable tribal urges and distracting money and attention from more important issues. But still: Canada. Hockey. Beer. Life. Inextricably bound, one to another.

Maybe once or twice a year I wish I had a television set. And last night's Olympic Men's Hockey Final was one of those times*. I managed to find some crappy net streams and caught most of the game in grainy pixelated glory. It made me wonder why, in the 21st century, one can't dial in and pay on demand for anything you want. Those capitalists are failing me just when I need them!

Last night both teams played fantastically, with occasional dispirited lags (USA) and defensive lacunae (Canada). And the result was as it had to be for an Olympics held in Canada. A home team win; their third gold in a row.

The attention paid to Sidney Crosby, star of the game after scoring in overtime, was to be expected. He's hero to millions. If you don't live in Canada you will not understand why my sister's family named their dog Crosby. No, not a joke, but the highest compliment they could pay. Every time they call "Crosby" they reference their icon.

Like Catholics naming children "Mary".

But where was the post-game praise for goalie Roberto Luongo? He stopped 34 attempts on net but was not mentioned once.

Elsewhere in the sport, I was glad to see Finland come back from being down 3-1 to score four times in a row and seize a silver. But the Slovakians too put in a fine effort, sneaking past round after round to make the bronze-medal game.

There's a trivia question (or is it a joke?) about the Canadian national sport. Lacrosse is the correct answer to a question no-one even bothers asking. Because everyone knows what the real national game is. Canada won six of the first seven Olympic golds in hockey, starting in 1920, and is still out there dominating. In a very real sense, Canada taught the world how to play.

The women's team is further evidence of that legacy, defeating the Americans last Thursday to earn their own third straight Olympic gold medal. Goal-tender Shannon Szabados shut out the USA for an incredible tournament record: 50 saves and only 1 goal allowed. Marie-Philip Poulin made both goals in the final game and will now be inspiration to young women from sea to shining sea. Imagine doing that at 18 years of age? But not to forget Meghan Agosta, Olympic Most Valuable Player, who set a new record of nine tournament goals.

Once again silver was attained by Finland, resulting in identical results across the men and women's events.

But now the entire event is in jeopardy. The North American teams so dominate the event that the Olympics Committee is thinking of cutting women's hockey from the roster. There simply isn't enough world-wide competition.

Those Finns love hockey. Those Slovakians and Swedes too. But most countries field only a men's team, or do a rather poor job of getting women up to standard.

But not Canada. In that land of ice, women and men both live and breathe the sport. It's about that lake that freezes late in December. It's about races down the Rideau Canal with a Beavertail as prize. It's about Don Cherry's ties and the Hockey Night In Canada theme and riffs on an old organ high above the stands. It's about The Rheostatics.

It's about that time in '72 when work stopped, school stopped, life stopped. The moment when everyone watched the real cold war, the one fought on the steaming ice. The moment when millions of people held their breath in unison.

Paul Henderson.

And let me chant a few more.

Phil Esposito. Tony Esposito. Bobby Clarke. Peter Mahovlich. Ken Dryden.

So, yeah. Canada. Hockey. It's inside us, like it or not.

* Longer ago than last night by the time this article is published.



Anonymous said...

On the Rideau Canal, they're called Beavertails, not Bear Claws. ;)

Nice post, Robin -- I think this is the first time I've heard hockey commentary from you!

Hope you're doing well.

-- p

robin said...

Doh! Of course. I will change that, as this article must be rigorously accurate. ;-)

Crash The Driver said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Crash The Driver said...

On February 28, the day of the showdown between the US and Canada, the day on which Canada would finally get a chance to win a gold medal in men's hockey on Canadian soil, and cement forever our claim to ruling the ice, I was on a plane from Anchorage, Alasaka, back to Toronto.

The plane ride took nine and a half hours, and there was a connection in Minneapolis, but there were no tvs in the concourses nor free wifi hotpsots and so I made the connection still knowing nothing of the drama being played out on the west coast.

It was only once I made it to Toronto, cleared customs and was making my way toward the baggage claim that there, on a tv suspended above the chute that dispenses Samsonites, American Touristers, and Hays, great white loops of luggage identification wrapped around the handles, that I saw the goal being played and replayed in slow motion.

And by Baggage Carousel D in The Pearson International Airport, I sat down and wept.

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