Thursday, February 19, 1998
Our chance for redemption
"It was crushing," he says soberly, referring to the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, wherein Canada lost to Team USA, the game, the tournament, bragging rights and something far more visceral.
"It's been a long time since I went into a dressing room and cried my eyes out after a game," he says, speaking in the present tense, as though it was that game against the evil Americans which had just ended, and not, instead, this Team Canada's match against Kazakhstan, which the Canadians won handily, not that you'd notice it in any of the players' demeanors, for they're the antithesis of cocky.
"A few of us were crying," Shanahan says, in his head still back in the fall of '96.
"It was a real kick in the pants. It was a very, very difficult time for all of us. It really stung. Like most of Canada, we took that very personally."
So all the pre-Olympic talk about this tournament being Canada's chance for redemption was not just so much chatter, but real. Yet it doesn't manifest itself as a quest for revenge, nor was there any joy apparent that the Americans have been knocked out of contention by the Czech Republic, or the highly rated Swedes, either, for that matter. The Canadians, many of whom were, like Shanahan, on that World Cup club, know how bloody hard it is to build a successful team in a short time; it tends to preclude gloating.
"I don't think we needed to see upsets," he says, to understand either the precarious nature of the Olympic tournament, where one loss sees a team eliminated, or be reminded of how fragile a team's grasp is on any given game and how quickly it can slip away. "We respect all the teams in the tournament," he says. "We're not an overconfident bunch. We respect our opponents."
Shanahan will admit now that Canada's World Cup team "for whatever reason, didn't really click as a team. We just didn't gell."
There were all these fabulous players, all of them desperate to win and terrified to lose, all of them as unselfish as great Canadian hockey players always are at such critical junctures in history, all of them well aware of how very much the national game and the country's place in it matters, with some of the best minds in hockey running the show and the best of everything available for the players, and the whole darn nation behind them -- and yet they didn't, couldn't, come together as a club.
Part of it is luck, and timing, and black magic; there aren't any easy answers. That's evident in how baffled some of the American players are by their abrupt ouster. As Brett Hull says, the Americans had great attitude, effort and preparation, and this team was in coaching staff and players a very similar club to the World Cup winners, and yet, here "We never got it together out on the ice."
One piece of the puzzle, which the Canadians appear to have solved this time around, is to build in time together for the players.
"Being over here, we've done more things together," Shanahan says, "instead of going our own separate ways at the end of the game. There's a lot of down time (in hockey generally), and instead of going to your room and turning on HBO, or taking 20 family members out for dinner, we go to the Canada Room and watch the live feed of CBC. Or you go down to the cafeteria and share a coffee.
"I've never felt in past tournaments that I've had as much opportunity to get to know the players on my team, and that's primarily because we've stayed in the village ... and anywhere we go, we go as a group."
One of the places the team went, en masse, was to the Big Hat arena to see the Canadian women play the Americans in their gold medal final. The Canucks lost, and it's clear that the men, watching from the stands the U.S. celebration and the wretchedness on the faces of the Canadian women, were suitably shaken.
Hard to relax
"There was so much pressure on them (the women)," Shanahan says. "They were so up for the game, almost so focussed and so determined it was kind of hard for them to relax themselves." He felt a little of that himself until the Kazakhstan game, felt himself becoming desperate to score, holding onto his stick too tightly. Assistant coach Wayne Cashman had a chat with him. "Basically," Shanahan says, "he told me to put a smile on my face. He tried to relax me a bit. I put a lot of pressure on myself."
It worked; instead of chasing the puck, Shanahan decided to control it, and ended up scoring his first goal of the tournament, getting the monkey off his back, as he put it.
But in truth, the big monkey is still there, perched on Brendan Shanahan's shoulder, and on all of theirs, waiting for one mental mistake, one slip, one lapse.
It's funny; the Kazakhstan coach, a man with a perpetually worried and wrinkled brow, said after losing to Canada that what he was most proud of in his players is that they were not "star-struck" by the great Canadians on the ice, and that they continued to play. That's the very same thing Canadians at home should be most proud of in this bunch; they're not at all taken with themselves, and for all their money and easy lives, they're playing, right now, a rather pure version of the game we all love.