Hockey

Last Hurrah

AGAINST THE BLEAK BACKDROP OF A MAJOR NHL LABOUR WAR, CANADA REASSERTS ITS HOCKEY SUPREMACY

CHARLIE GILLIS September 27 2004
Hockey

Last Hurrah

AGAINST THE BLEAK BACKDROP OF A MAJOR NHL LABOUR WAR, CANADA REASSERTS ITS HOCKEY SUPREMACY

CHARLIE GILLIS September 27 2004

Last Hurrah

Hockey

AGAINST THE BLEAK BACKDROP OF A MAJOR NHL LABOUR WAR, CANADA REASSERTS ITS HOCKEY SUPREMACY

CHARLIE GILLIS

THE MOST PROPHETIC placard at last week’s World Cup of Hockey final was easy to miss in the crowd. The woman holding it was seated next to a man wielding a redand-blue strobe light, which produced a display of colourful flashing with every pause in play. As an attention-getter, the doodad was a hit—no mean feat on a night when Toronto’s Air Canada Centre was crammed to the rafters with flags and horns and people painted up like walking maple leaves. But the sign told the story of the whole tournament. “Hockey is Canada’s Game,” it said in blood-red letters, and no one—least of all the sullen band of Finns seated a couple of sections away—seemed inclined to argue.

So relax, everyone. Call off the royal commission. Cancel the open-line therapy sessions on sports talk radio. It turns out the country’s much-maligned hockey system is just fine, thank you, even as the pro league it supplies with talent sinks into a potentially destructive lockout. Last week’s World Cup victory over the Finns gave Canada its fourth international title in elite men’s hockey since 2002, when it clinched the gold medal at the Winter Olympics. During this period, the team has had no equal. Thirty wins in its last 37 games. Two titles at the International Ice Hockey Federation championship, which is played during the Stanley Cup playoffs. One Olympic gold and a World Cup trophy that—while decidedly homely on its pedestal at centre ice—looked downright pretty in Mario Lemieux’s hands.

Funny, then, to think the sky was falling less than a decade ago. Fears that began simmering in 1996, when a squad of upstart Americans nabbed the first World Cup, reached full boil as Team Canada finished out of the medals at the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano. Thus began a kind of national anxiety attack, whose symptoms included collective depression, endless criticism of the country’s amateur hockey system and newspaper serials on how we could learn to puckhandle as well as the Europeans. We played too much, critics said, and we practised too little. We valued strength above skill in a game whose pace was increasing with each new generation. Worse, we got dollar signs in our eyes. We forgot that hockey is a kid’s game and we drove our youngsters too hard in search of NHL contracts.

You would think, after such a clamour, that a few hockey types would use last week’s victory to settle scores; no one, after all, likes

to be accused of squandering the national birthright. But if one thing distinguishes Canada’s hockey community, it’s caution. So as reporters and family members mobbed the undefeated team in the Canadian dressing room, Hockey Canada’s easygoing president, Bob Nicholson, stood quietly in the margins, denying any suggestion that he’d shown the nattering so-and-sos what the country is made of, and warning of greater competition ahead. “We can’t take anything for granted,” he said, clutching a beer as if someone might take it away. “We’ve got to just keep enjoying these moments, making sure kids enjoy the game.”

Nicholson did plug the programs his organization was running in the mid-’90s. Tuesday’s grinding 3-2 win over the Finns, he noted, was defined in large measure by

emerging stars like Shane Doan, a tireless winger from Halkirk, Alta., who swept in the Cup-winning goal on a play worthy of Maurice Richard. Or Vincent Lecavalier of the Tampa Bay Lightning, who walked onto the team in place of the injured Steve Yzerman and was named tournament MVP. Or the two young defencemen, Robyn Regehr and 20-year-old Jay Bouwmeester, whose stalwart play erased any doubt raised by the

‘WE CAN’T take anything for granted. We’ve got to just keep enjoying these moments, making sure kids enjoy the game.’

absence of four veteran blueliners due to injuries. All of these players were rising through Canada’s elite junior and minor hockey programs during the dark years following 1996—about the time Canada’s hockey system was supposedly unravelling.

Together, they supplied the youthful vim that a winning team needs. But victory on the world stage requires veteran wile, too, and Canada had plenty of that. Wayne Gretzky, the team’s executive director and as cagey as they come, credited older players like Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic and Adam Foote, who’d endured their share of outcry following Canada’s previous losses. “Mario did the things he had to do to lead this team,” Gretzky said, “and Sakic was outstanding. This is a good night for hockey in Canada.”

Right. So what was all the fuss about a few

years ago? With such a wealth of blue-chip talent—either on the team, or rising through the system—how could a couple of losses send us on what Regehr (in only a slight overstatement) described last week as a “witch hunt?” Why not swallow hard and move on, the way we did when our rowers fell short at the Olympics? The answer of course is pride. Pride in the game we invented, pride in showing the world how it’s played. Jarome Iginla, who practically personifies the word competitor, isn’t so sure pride is a deadly sin where hockey’s concerned—even if it leads to the occasional bout of paranoia. “The exciting thing about a competition is that it can go either way,” said the Calgary Flames captain. “A bad bounce here or there can change everything, and I think that’s what happened to Canadian teams in some very key international situations. At the same time, it was good because it fired everybody up.” And fired up is how Canada will need to be to stay atop the hockey pecking order. While last week’s win fulfilled most World Cup predictions, it’s easy to forget the Finns lost by a mere goal, or that Canada stole an overtime win in the semifinal from a Czech team that quite simply outplayed them. In the end, Finnish coach Raimo Summanen tipped his hat to Canada’s players and management: “What a hockey country, and what a tradition.” But he also served notice of titanic battles to come. In years past, Summanen noted, Finland would have been scrambling for enough world-class players

GRETZKY credited older players like Lemieux, Sakic and Foote, who’d endured all the outcry following previous losses

to ice a competitive team. Now they’re hunting for titles. “Later on,” he added in cheerfully broken English, “we can maybe win sometimes at this tournament.”

It’s a development devoutly to be wished, for the sake of both Finland and fans of competitive hockey. It may be Canada’s game, after all, but better competition has obviously brought it to new heights. And losing a few times has done nothing worse than remind us how much we love it. n

charlie.gillis@macleans.rogers.com