COVER

National pride

BRUCE WALLACE February 9 1998
COVER

National pride

BRUCE WALLACE February 9 1998

National pride

The world’s top players take to the ice

BRUCE WALLACE

Bobby Clarke stands at the back of a Vancouver hotel reception room, silently watching dozens of reporters maul the hockey players who will put their good reputations on the line for Canada’s Olympic team in Nagano this month. Behind him, a TV set glows with highlights from the legendary 1972 Canada-Soviet series, featuring a younger, toothless Clarke in his playing days. If that first hockey summit between the Free World and the Evil Empire was another case of the Cold War fought by other means, then Clarke, with his infamous overhand chop that broke brilliant Russian forward Valeri Kharmalov’s ankle, would arguably be Canada’s first war criminal. Twenty-five years on, Clarke just tips his head back and flashes a now-gapless smile at the suggestion. “People seemed to think it was OK back then,” he says, dismissing any current tut-tutting over the slash as so much revisionist nonsense.

But the way that 1972 series still cannonades through the Canadian mind says much about the stakes in Nagano where, for the first time in Olympic history, the NHL will shut down regular-season action to allow the best and the feistiest to play for their countries. Undoubtedly, the pressure to win gold weighs heaviest on the Canadians. A nation that spawned the sport, and for generations raised its hockey-playing sons to dream only of lifting the Stanley Cup, has discovered since 1972 that nothing unites it more than watching its stars take on the world. And even before a puck is dropped in anger in Nagano, Clarke has been feeling the sting of pressure: he is the Canadian general manager, the gambler who had to pick the team.

In a country where most guys (and some women, too) figure they should be general manager, Clarke’s choices have come under more scrutiny than a lineup of prospective Supreme Court judges. No Mark Messier? Still-maturing Eric Lindros captaining a team that includes natural leaders Wayne Gretzky and Steve Yzerman? And who is Rob Zamuner, anyway? (Actually, a pretty talented two-way forward playing in Tampa Bay, as any Canadian snowbird would know.) The criticism is the same everywhere hockey is talked, from old-timers’ dressing rooms to the loudmouthed medium of sports talk-radio: Clarke’s team is deep in thicknecked, head-banging players; short on creative playmakers. It is a team, they say, designed more to stand up to the brawny Americans— who upset Canada at the 1996 World Cup—than it is to skate with the swift Swedes and Russians.

Nonsense, answers Clarke. “We took the players to cover every part of what can happen in a hockey game,” he says. “It’s not always the 50-goal scorers and it’s not always the checkers who win for you—it’s the combination. Our position is: let the other teams worry about us.” Maybe so, but there is enough talent throughout the Olympic hockey pool to suggest that there will be no easy games in this tournament—just ask Canada’s national junior team about the Kazakhstan team that whupped them at the world championships last month. Commentators and fans may be looking ahead to a Canada-U.S. final, but the Canadian players insist they are not. “I wouldn’t rank the Swedish team any lower than Canada or the United States,” says Yzerman through a cut lip.

One reason the Canadians are cautious is the widely held wisdom that Olympic gold is to European players what the Stanley Cup is to Canadians: the true hockey grail. “We’re not underestimating the Europeans,” says ebullient power forward Brendan Shanahan, who looks like he could get excited talking about a game of ball hockey. “The way we grew up dreaming about the Stanley Cup, they grew up dreaming about the gold medal.”

Nagano marks the first time the Olympics will matter just as deeply to Canadians. Without its best players competing, Olympic hockey has always been a sideshow to Canadian fans. Since Canada last wore Olympic hockey gold in 1952, overmatched Canadian amateurs and fringe professionals valiantly went off, Winter Games after Winter Games, to play against the best Russians, Czechs, Slovaks and Swedes. Their predictable futility seldom inspired young Canadian boys to dream of Olympic hockey glory. “I watched it, yeah, but I never thought too much about it,” says centreman Joe Sakic, one of the few Canadians whose offensive talents can match the best Europeans. “As a kid, I always wanted to play in the NHL.”

And so it goes through the Canadian team. Yzerman recalls watchj ing the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, the miracle American upset of the Soviets in the semifinal, but cannot remember any others. “Oh, I’d

watch any kind of hockey,” says goalie Martin Brodeur, who even grew up with

an Olympic medal in the house. His father, Dennis, played on the 1956 Canadian team that won a disappointing bronze. “But my dream was always the NHL.” Perhaps the lack of interest in Olympic hockey is a North American phenomenon. Asked if he thinks sending the best NHLers to the Olympics is an idea worth repeating, U.S. forward Keith Tkachuk replies: “What is it—every four years?”

It is still uncertain whether the experiment of shutting down the NHL for the Olympics will become a regular event, although league officials may not be able to resist the shot at prime-time promotion provided by the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City. But— Tkachuk’s confusion aside—the elite players certainly seem to like it. “It is a great honor to put on the yellow-and-blue jersey and play for your country,” says Swedish forward Daniel Alfredsson. “Olympic gold is one of the biggest things you can win.”

And hockey fans, who have endured dozens of sluggish, tight-checking NHL games that make this one of the dreariest seasons in memory, will be able to lean forward in their seats for a look at which country’s style of hockey carries the day. The Swedes are counting on the bigger Olympic ice surface to prove the superiority of their emphasis on quick skating and puck control. “It’s a different game almost,” says Alfredsson. “The Canadians will think they have to hit our skill guys, but it will be tough to make the big hits with all that open ice.”

The other teams reflect the state of their national programs as well. The Russians, for example, still boast great talent but are in organizational disarray. Some of their best players either were not asked to play, or chose to sit out. “I’m going to watch the Olympics on television, expect a great tournament, and root for Russia,” defenceman Slava Fetisov says wistfully. The great, two-time Olympic gold medallist says he was not invited to play. Meanwhile, the Americans are determined to prove they are a true hockey power, that their World Cup win was no fluke or the result of a hot goalie. ‘When it comes to getting down to business in Nagano, we won’t be saying ‘Hi’ to the Canadians,” says the ferocious Tkachuk, who has needled Canadian fans with suggestions that their days of hockey supremacy are over.

To Canadians, that World Cup loss was the greatest American threat to Canadian honor since, say, the American invasion of 1812. ‘We feel a responsibility to avenge the World Cup and we have a chip on our shoulders,” says Lindros, who is counted on to score goals as well as to play with his usual grizzly bear temperament. Yzerman agrees. “There’s not much tolerance for second place in Canada,” he admits, though a more sanguine Clarke warns, “If you’re going to compete in tournaments, you’re going to lose sometimes.”

But it is hard to see how hockey fans can lose. Nagano will showcase the sport’s global elite, all in mid-season form, playing on a big ice surface for bragging rights. There will be no home crowd. Excuses can be checked at customs. “The pure spectacle of the Olympics is something unique,” gushes Shanahan, one of the best salesmen for the sport. “It is something that will be refreshing.” For rabid Canadian fans, of course, real refreshment will be gold. □