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    Monday, February 23, 1998

    Gretzky deserved flag honor

     NAGANO -- It took a Russian, head coach Vladimir Yurzinov, speaking through one of those wonderful translators who can make a breakfast order sound profound and moving, to say it.
     Explaining that the European style of hockey and the North American (read Canadian) each has considerable merit, and that this Olympic tournament has proven that "some reciprocity and mutual respect would be in order," he added with a shrug, "we're not supposed to all pray to just one god."
     Perfectly correct
     Strictly speaking, Yurzinov is perfectly correct: Sometimes, on the bigger European ice surfaces, the advantage will lie with the Europeans, and sometimes, on the smaller North American rinks, it will be the Canadian and U.S. teams which have the edge, and sometimes, speed and finesse will win the day, and others, it will be hard chippy play and who works best in the corners. The widening hockey world can accommodate much.
     But metaphorically, the magnificent truth of the game that is still so essentially Canadian, whichever nation's players happen to own the bragging rights of the day, is that we all do worship if not precisely the same god, at least in the same sort of place, all of us Canucks, Russians, Czechs, Americans from certain of the northern fringes of their country, Finns and Swedes.
     We are all of us members in good standing of the great hockey church.
     After the likeable Czech Republic team beat the Russians to win the gold medal, Dominik Hasek and Robert Reichel were brought to the victory press conference.
     If I closed my eyes, I could have been listening to Patrick Roy and Brendan Shanahan. Hasek and Reichel kept interrupting one another in their excitement. Their joy was palpable. "We're going home to Prague," Reichel said. "The whole country's waiting for us." Hasek said, "There's a big TV screen set up in the square there, and I heard there were 50,000, maybe 100,000 people there, in the cold weather, watching us."
     It could have been Toronto, Moscow, Helsinki, Stockholm, in a pinch, Detroit.
     Listening to Yurzinov or the smart and thoughtful Slava Lerner, the Czech co-coach who used to work for the Calgary Flames, or the coach for Kazakhstan for that matter, was like listening to Marc Crawford or Bob Gainey. Each was generous, whether in victory or defeat; each took extraordinary pains to praise their opponents; each shared the values of respect for the game, dignity on and off the ice, and taking responsibility for failure, if that's what came his way.
     Hockey hasn't been for a while solely the property of Canada -- there are six nations which routinely produce fine players now, which is why, as Gainey pointed out a few days ago, even though, for instance, Canadian junior teams have had a lot of success in recent years, they have won those tournaments in overtime or "by the skin of their teeth" -- but it remains imbued forever with Canadian character.
     We gave the world this game, and the qualities which render it so compelling, the grit and intelligence it demands, the life lessons it teaches the young men (and a growing number of young women) who play it, the recognizable stamp it leaves on those in it are all indisputably ours. This is not to suggest the other hockey nations haven't contributed to the game, or that they won't have much more to give in the years to come, but rather that it was Canada which gave hockey its shape and made it what it essentially is.
     This, in a tortured way, brings me to my point, which is that it should have been Wayne Gretzky who carried the flag and led the Canadian contingent into a darkened stadium yesterday for the closing ceremonies.
     Catriona Le May Doan, the double-medal-winning speed skater who was given that honor, is a magnificent athlete and my comments are not meant in any way to disparage her or her considerable accomplishments here, any more than I intended to demean Jean-Luc Brassard, the bumps skier who got to carry the flag in the opening ceremonies, when I said that I thought Gretzky, or skater Elvis Stojko, would have been better choices.
     But these great honors should not be based primarily, let alone exclusively, on athletic performance. There is room in the choice of a country's flagbearer not only for sentiment, but for a sense of responsibility, for what the nation may owe to an athlete. There bloody well ought to be room in these decisions for what is in a country's heart.
     At the centre of Canada's national heart is hockey, and there is no athlete who is more loved or respected, and none who more deserves it.
     No one has better represented this country, let alone for two decades, than he has; no one has so consistently found joy where others see only obligation (I cannot imagine, in my wildest dreams, Wayne Gretzky carrying the flag and then, later, blaming that exercise for an unhappy performance); no athlete has given us more, so willingly, for so long. This was the last gasp of his brilliant international career, and, appearances to the contrary, he will not play in the National Hockey League forever.
     We have in Canada no sense of occasion. If we had, No. 99 would have been carrying the maple leaf, and with or without a medal, all would have been right with the world.