That hockey is “our game" is incontestable. We invented it. We dominated it for so long and to such a degree that we could cobble together teams of amateurs, servicemen and semi-pros and beat the best the rest of the world had to offer.
Our reputation was set when the Winnipeg Falcons won Olympic gold at Antwerp in 1920 and similar Canadian teams won 5 of the next 6 Olympic tournaments up to 1952. No-one dreamed that when the Edmonton Mercurys picked up their gold medals at Oslo in 1952 they would be the last Canadian world champions for 50 years. The Mercurys were basically amateurs who survived on $25 a week for expenses, plus a small share of the gate receipts. Yet they were considered strong enough to represent Canada. The tournament was considered so insignificant that Edmonton’s own newspaper did not send a reporter. Canada’s best 150 hockey players played in the NHL.
The “World Championships" were invented by the Europeans to take place in non-Olympic years. Canadians managed to ignore the misnomer as long as teams such as the National Sea Fleas (from Toronto), the University of Manitoba Grads, the Saskatoon Quakers and the Kimberly Dynamiters could mow down the opposition. It made us feel superior.
Then, in 1954, the Soviets appeared. Led by the coaching genius of Anatoli Tarasov, the Soviets spent 6 years assembling and training a fast-skating, freewheeling, pattern-passing team that could challenge the Canadians. It was the Toronto Lyndhursts, a semi-pro team whose top playmaker was the assistant manager of a grocery store, who ran into the Soviet hornet’s nest, losing 7-2.
Typically, Canadian hockey fans took the loss as a personal affront and blamed the hapless Lyndhursts. Some federal bureaucrat called the loss “a national crisis." In 1955 we sent the gritty Penticton Vs to Germany with the sole purpose of revenge – “a sacred mission to restore our national pride," wrote sportswriter Jim Coleman. Even the voice of hockey, Foster Hewitt, felt compelled to abandon his gondola at Maple Leaf Gardens to follow the battling Vs to Europe. The final, won by the Canadians 5-0, attracted the largest radio audience in the history of Canadian radio. The Vs were national heroes.
By 1969, now represented by a devoted amateur “national team," guided by a Catholic priest, it was clear that sending anything but our best was not going to be good enough. In 1969 the Canadian national team played the Soviets 11 games and lost every one of them.
Then came the Canada-Soviet summit of 1972. How deeply could we mine our national anxiety? The Soviets emasculated Team Canada 7-3 in the holy ground of the Montreal Forum. Phil Esposito took on the mythic role of hero, carrying his people’s pride on his own tortured frame, and Bobby Clarke took the role of avenging angel. Although Paul Henderson performed the brave deed that restored the faith, underneath it all, we knew that hockey was not only “our game" anymore. Some spoilsports even pointed out that the Soviets had outscored the Canadians.
The Canada Cup of 1976, won by a Canadian team stacked with the two Bobbys, Orr and Hull and Guy Lafleur, revealed that the Czechs and Swedes were now as deep a threat as the Russians. In retrospect, though it was no solace to Canadians, the real victor in the 1984 and 1987 Canada Cup tournaments was the game itself, with Canadian teams wrenching victories in matches of drama, grace and beauty. But talk of how great it was that “the game" was spreading was hollow. Winning was still what was important, even if it had to be, in Wayne Gretsky’s words, on “guts alone."
The euphoria of those two victories did not last long. When the Americans won the World Cup in 1996, everyone was back asking “What’s wrong with our game?"
By 2002 the quality of hockey in the NHL, despite the influx of European skaters, had deteriorated badly. The contest at the Salt Lake City Olympic Games revived interest in the game, but it took a magic looney and an “us against the world" mentality to wrench, finally, Olympic gold. The Canadian women managed a dramatic “us against the American referee" gold-medal victory.
So now we find ourselves again biting our nails and displaying our national insecurity. We may have felt humiliated on the world stage in Athens, but we console ourselves that we excel at this one great thing. Win or lose, perhaps it is time to use some perspective, historical and even (how un-Canadian) philosophical. Does it make sense to define ourselves as a nation by how well we play hockey, rather than by how well we treat our poor, ill or disadvantaged? There will be time for reflection, afterwards perhaps. First we have to win this tournament
James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.
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