Saturday, February 21, 1998
No excuses from our guys
Press a few buttons, and as soon as any given event is over, you can call it up, at any speed you like and as many times as you want, on replay on the small screen before you. It is the ultimate in armchair quarterbacking and instant gratification, and for reasons I can't articulate very well, except that I find it fundamentally anti-sporting, the very notion of it offends me. I had managed to avoid VOD entirely lo these many days of the Games until early yesterday morning.
The Canadian hockey team had just lost a gut-wrencher to the Czech Republic, the gold medal was now out of reach, and we reporters had finished our interviews and were about to start writing. Rosie DiManno, my great friend from The Toronto Star, and I were talking about the scene that had so grabbed our hearts at the end of that agonizing shootout, when Brendan Shanahan, the fifth shooter and Canada's last chance to tie the sucker, had missed, and, the game over, had bent at the waist, doubled over as if in pain.
We had seen captain Eric Lindros skate over to console Shanny, but another player had as well, and neither of us could remember who it was.
"Can we bear to watch it again?" DiManno asked, and reluctantly, off we headed to the nearest VOD terminal.
A bunch of American boy sportswriters already had the game up, and when we got there, they were replaying Lindros' attempt in the shootout; he had been the fourth shooter, just before Shanahan.
They must have done this another seven or eight times, in slow motion and at regular speed, trying to figure out if the puck had hit Dominik Hasek's glove and the goalpost, or merely the post, or merely the glove. They talked about it endlessly, with that bizarre American thirst for statistical-type information, worried cheerfully back and forth before finally deciding that the puck had hit only the post and deflected out. I felt like gunning them down because they seemed so oblivious to the bravery it takes merely to even be in the situation Lindros and the others had been in -- it strikes me as inherently disrespectful to spend 15 minutes leisurely dissecting what a player had seconds to do with the whole world watching -- but also because, had they merely asked the big guy, he would have told them, as gravely as he had told us, "I went in, faked the forehand and hit the post."
The story offers more than evidence that live is always better than replay, or that man is still superior to machine. It is proof of the rigorous honesty which graces the Canadian hockey player. They don't just tell the truth about the goals they miss, they tell the truth, period. Of all the tremendous values Canuck hockey players have in such abundance, this may be the most important. It is one of the reasons, I think, that this game matters so very much to Canadians, and why we so love the men who play it: They are us at our best.
As it turned out, it was Keith Primeau who had also skated by Shanahan.
Eventually, I'm sure, every one of his teammates would have said a kind word to him. Shanny's handsome young face, just enough of those tiny white scars that are the hockey player's trademark -- like the small red welt across the bridge of the nose that I have seen so often in my life that I have come to consider it an adorable part of the normal male physiognomy -- to take off the prettiness, was such a ruin that it was impossible to look at him and not want to gather him in your arms.
Others came before Shanahan: Stevie Yzerman, self-contained and unfidgety, saying, in his usual droll fashion, "I'm sure the shootout is very exciting to watch, but I didn't care for it much before, and I care less for it now"; Lindros shattered and perilously close to tears, his comment, when asked how he felt, that "Every adjective used to describe the pressure right now is very fitting"; Wayne Gretzky, the jaunty black Roots beret that is part of the Canadian Olympic uniform at odds with his terrible sadness.
"It's just devastating," Gretzky said. "I don't want to be nostalgic or anything, but I realized when it was over that was my last international tournament. That chapter is over. I enjoyed all 19 years of it. Obviously, there were some highs and some lows, but guys like Eric and (Joe) Sakic and (Chris) Pronger will have another opportunity in another four years. I won't get that chance ... I've been proud every time I've put on a Canadian sweater."
He was proud? Canada never has had a one like him, never such a tireless ambassador so incapable of striking anything but the perfect note. I give you one small example. The protocol at the Olympics is that the athletes "do" television, the rights-holders whose huge dollars make the Games go round, first, and Gretzky did, obligingly as always. A Canadian team media attache, at the end of two lengthy TV interviews, tried to steer him to a third. Gretzky refused, having spotted Cam Cole of the Edmonton Journal, the fine writer who had covered him when he was a pup with the Oilers, down the line. "I'm going to see to Cam Cole," he said firmly, and so he did.
Then came Shanahan. He could hardly speak at first when he came out to face us. He talked about the shot he tried, how he had shared the spectators' wretchedness when he was waiting his turn, how he tried to block everything out because "the last thing you want to think of is what's on the line," and how, when he missed, "I felt like I let the team down, I felt like I let the country down."
He knew, he said, that the Olympic hockey had terrific ratings, that everyone in the country had got up early and was watching. I could see he had actually thought about this, imagined people rising in the darkness, making coffee, chattering with excitement and then gathering around the TV set in what is, in our still young country, already a dear and ancient ritual.
Close to tears
He felt terrible for everyone, but mostly for his teammates, "the 19 or 20 players sitting on the bench, and you're taking their hopes on the ice with you." Did he feel most badly for Gretzky and those who would not be returning? He nodded; he couldn't speak. Someone pointed out that four other players had failed to score as well, that the responsibility wasn't his alone. Shanahan nodded. DiManno, desperate to make him feel better, said, "But Brendan, surely you don't feel like a failure? Surely you know you won't be viewed that way at home?" Shanny nodded again; he was now so very close to tears.
Aaaaah, he said a little later, but Patrick Roy had stopped the fourth Czech shooter, he was Canada's last shot. "He (Roy) opened the door, and they asked me to go in, and I didn't score."
He was right. He did fail. So did they all. There's no getting around it. "I just wanted to stick my head in the sand," Shanahan said. God help me, it makes me love him, them, more than ever, because they had the courage to try, and would again in a New York minute. "Hero or goat," he said, "I'd ask to stand up and take my shot again."
I do hope the Japanese don't think they invented Video On Demand. Brendan Shanahan has one of those little machines inside his head. Only difference is, his hasn't got a stop button.