It is time to get excited. Really excited! Soon the whole country will be watching the Winter Olympics. We will watch Canadian skiers, figure skaters, speed skaters and bobsledders, but, inevitably, so much more attention will laser in on men’s and women’s hockey games.
Canadians have always thought that, because we invented hockey, we have to be the best at it. If, and it’s happened before, we do not win hockey gold at the Olympics, it will provoke a national calamity. Our hockey is about national pride.
Just as there is a generation of Canadians who remember where they were when Paul Henderson scored that winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets, a new generation of Canadians will remember Sydney Crosby’s overtime, “golden goal,” as it was dubbed, in the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver.
It’s a funny thing how we remember the details of wins, but can’t remember a thing about Olympic losses.
The Summit Series and the Winter Olympics in Vancouver were four decades apart and, yet, there is something about both men’s hockey teams’ performances that’s worth noting. Both teams comprised the most elite players Canada had to offer and, yet, with all that talent, Team Canada squeaked out a last-second win in 1972, and won in overtime in 2010.
While we still stubbornly call hockey, “Canada’s game,” more than ever we have to learn to share it. Interest in hockey is now bigger than ever. Not so long ago, Americans thought hockey was no better than fake wrestling or roller derby on television. There was regional interest, but national hockey ratings in the U.S. were dismal. Ratings have been growing and soaring over the past two years.
On New Year’s Day, when more than 100,000 people attended an outdoor NHL game in a Michigan football stadium, Americans proved they have learned to celebrate hockey just as we do. We may still cling to bragging rights, and we can be fixated on once again being crowned Olympic champions, but it will be a struggle just as it was last time and the time before that.
Getting back to Sydney Crosby’s winning overtime goal at the 2010 Olympics. He scored it against a very strong American team. There is always a bit of luck that goes with a sudden death overtime goal victory and luck was on our side on that magical day. Luck aside, what is a fact, is how evenly matched the two teams were. It was our best versus the American best. On the women’s side, the American team remains Canada’s toughest opponent.
It used to be that the odd American from such northern states as Minnesota, North Dakota or Massachusetts would make it to the NHL. Today there are Americans in the NHL from California and Colorado, as well as many points east, west and south. The American players are trained as well as ours and with their much bigger population, and with so many more young girls and boys playing hockey, they, too, see themselves as the best and with limitless potential to get better. The Americans, both the men and the women, want to turn their silver to hockey gold in 2014.
And how about all the other supremely talented Olympic teams also filled with NHL stars. The Russians used to shine brightest, but they are now faced with stiff competition from the Swedes and the Finns.
There was a lot of Canadian hand wringing this recent winter holiday season when Canada’s national junior team finished out of medal competition for the second consecutive year. After dominating the international tournament for years, it was the sixth year in a row they didn’t win the gold medal. Interestingly, during that six-year span, no single team has dominated, which tells us how many good teams there are.
But that dose of reality does not diminish expectations for the upcoming Olympics. Can you imagine the pressure in the heads and on the shoulders of everyone involved in the 2014 men’s and women’s Olympic hockey teams?
While Canadians continue to fervently believe Canada is the best, the difficult truth is we are now just one of the best.
The consolation prize is Olympic hockey will be so competitive and so much more worth watching!