Friday, February 20, 1998
It's no longer our game alone
The Olympic Games don't end for another two days but they might as well be over for Canada: Team Canada has been given the boot out of the Olympic hockey tournament, beaten early this morning by a gritty and determined club from the Czech Republic, and the Canadian grasp on the national game is ever more tenuous.
For the fourth time in six years - the Albertville Winter Olympics in 1992, the Lillehammer Winter Games in 1994 and most recently, the 1996 World Cup -- a bunch of good Canadian boys has failed to emerge atop the hockey world.
It has been Sweden before, the United States in 1996, and now it is the Czechs' turn.
And, for the second time in these Olympics, Canadians have had to watch their hockey teams that had been expected to win gold came up short.
Just last week, the Canadian women lost the gold-medal game to the American side, and as fans at that game rose to their feet for the U.S. national anthem and the playing of the Star Spangled Banner, among those in the crowd were most of the Canadian men's team.
The lesson appeared to sink in; several of the players who were in attendance that night spoke later of their dismay at having to watch that difficult.
But early today, before a capacity crowd at the Big Hat arena, where loyalties appeared about evenly divided if can judge such things by the number of flags being waved, the Canadians and Czechs played a hard, physical game that was scoreless for two periods, with both goalies, Patrick Roy for Canada and Dominik Hasek for the Czechs, stopping everything the other side could throw at them.
It wasn't that the Canadians didn't play well, or that their effort was lacking, or that they were undisciplined; they didn't take their first penalty until late in the second, when Trevor Linden was sent off for a rather feeble slash on Hasek.
But what has traditionally worked so well for Canada -- a tough physical game -- is clearly no longer the sure ticket to success it once was.
The Canadians began the game with the obvious intention of wearing down the Czechs early on, and then taking advantage as they either tired or began hearing footsteps.
Quickly, the Canucks set the down: Al MacInnes nailed Josef Beranek, Shayne Corson flattened anyone who got in his way (and Roman Hamrlik and Richard Smehlik, among others, did), Stevie Yzerman took out Frantisek Kucera and little Mark Recci dumped Petr Svoboda, who promptly retaliated with a highstick on Recci, and took the second Czech penalty.
It was the traditional tried-and-true Canadian route to dominate a hockey game, and by the second period, it appeared to be working the Canucks were penetrating the Czech end and getting more shots on the wily Hasek.
But where European teams have more often than not crumbled after a continual pounding, the Czechs did not. Their own big players were undeterred, and even the frightening sight of big Eric Lindros bearing down on them like a runaway train didn't create the sort of space or opportunities the Canadians needed.
In the language of the game itself, no one is hearing Canadian footsteps any more -- or if they are, they've learned to control the fear.
Fear of failure is what has usually motivated the greatest Canadian hockey clubs.
No Canadian boy growing up familiar with the storied history of the game in our country can easily bear the shame of belonging to a team which doesn't return home with the big prize and bragging rights, though in truth, Canadians, unlike their now-disgraced American counterparts, have rarely actually ever bragged.
But now, undoubtedly as a result of their increased presence in the National Hockey League, where Canadian-born players deliver lessons in responsibility and perserverance day in and day out of the toughest and most physically demanding season in all of professional sports, players from other countries are becoming more and more Canadianized. The traits that once defined us are in truth no longer ours.
In a way, it is a small-scale version of what is happening all over the world, in every other regard.
The planet is shrinking daily, and we are all becoming more and more alike.
Nike knows no particular loyalty or nationality; neither does Coca-Cola, nor any of the other handful of corporations which have so successfully marketed themselves that now, teenagers in Japan look just like those in America and Canada and Africa. National identity is in many ways an endangered species; what is surprising to me is that there is still enough of it about that there are still enough ancient grudges about that we still have wars and bouts of ethnic cleansing.
It was during the great wars that Canadians first found our feet, and defined ourselves as a nation. Hockey quite quickly became the peacetime war for us to do the same thing, to find sustenance as a people from the one thing we consistently did better than any other people in the world, from our cold rinks and fearless boys.
This crew was just as fearless, one of the most likeable and responsible of Canadian teams in recent years. They wanted so very badly to deliver the goods this time. I can think of nothing else they could have, or should have, done. The heart was there, and the effort, and the fierce work ethic. But the rest of the world has caught up, and that is what makes it so hard. Feel for the boys today. All we can be sure of is that they will be hurting more than we are.