Sunday, February 28, 2010

Promise? Fulfilled

I was nine the first time I watched Canada play on an international stage -it was September 1972, and Canada was playing a best of eight game series with the Soviets, what would come to be called the Summit Series. Everyone, whether they were actually alive to witness it or not, remembers Paul Henderson's goal in the dying seconds of game 8, which clinched the series for Canada. What far fewer people remember however, is the wildly uneven road Canada took to game 8, and the tangible possibility we would lose, at our own game, when everyone on the planet was watching us.

During the intermission before the overtime period in today's Olympic gold medal game, I couldn't help but think of the Summit Series, which was the first time I remember being aware of how hard it was for Canada to win, even though we thought it should be a lot easier.

We are raised, skating on ponds and rinks in every nook and corner of this country, our ears filled with the notion hockey is "Canada's game", and we are stuffed full of the mythology that we dominate our sport in the global arena. That alleged dominance took a pounding in 1972, and it hasn't ever really recovered, even though we tell ourselves every chance we get that this time, gold is obviously ours. We are, after all, the favorites - at least in our own minds.

The Summit Series was split, 4 games played in Canada, 4 in the USSR. Russia took the first game 7-3 at the Montreal Forum (while ghosts wept), lost 4-1 in Toronto, and the teams played to a 4 all tie in Winnipeg. By the time Team Canada dropped game 4 5-3 in Vancouver, it was booed off the ice and we seemed on the verge of perpetual international embarrassment and a national group meltdown. The Soviets took game 5 in Moscow before Canada rallied to take three consecutive one goal games and the series, 4 wins to 3.

The Series was such a significant moment in the country's young history that I remember my elementary school, like hundreds across the country, ushering us out of classrooms and into the auditorium to huddle around the TV, so we could watch the games from Moscow live. It was my first communal experience of the power of sport to unite and unify a country.

All these professional observers who have been going on and on in the media from Vancouver about the "new" Canadian pride evidently weren't around in 1972. It seemed for a month that our entire purpose on earth was to play, and win, these hockey games, to show those Soviets that while they might play our game, they couldn't win our game. Certainly not against our best NHL players. We were then, as we are now, wrapped in our flag and proud of our country, our history, and our place in the world. Those who seem surprised at the outpouring of national pride during these Olympics don't remember how empty our streets were on game night in 1972. For nearly a month, the country held its breath, not at all sure anymore that our best would be good enough. In an era before satellites, DVRs, cable and internet, you had to be at home in front of the TV (or, if unfortunately elsewhere, with a transistor radio in hand) to share the experience, to follow the game as it unfolded. And we did on more than one occasion, hold our breath.

Today, giving up a tying goal to the U.S. team with 24 seconds to go, after several minutes of panicked scrambling around in our own end, seemed like 1972 all over again. And like 1972, Team Canada found some way to rally and close out a nailbiter with a key goal at a key moment.

During the opening ceremonies, Yellowknife poet Shane Koyczan performed his poem, "We Are More", which in hindsight was quite prescient about the view Canadians have of themselves, and how that is seldom the understanding the outside world has of us. Much of the national pride that we have seen play out across the country in millions of individuals these past couple of weeks is contained in the lines of the poem, which includes my favorite phrase, "We are an idea in the process of being realized". Today, with a men's hockey gold medal in hand, Canada's 14th overall of these Games, we have fulfilled the promise contained in that one line. No other country - not the U.S.A., not the U.S.S.R. - has ever done as well in a single Winter Olympiad. That we have now done something so momentous, in our own country, proves if nothing else that, as a country, we have left our awkward adolescence behind and are now fully exploring our confident young-adulthood. Long may we reign.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Well, that's it then

Civilization is officially OVER. From today's New York Times:

"Ruth Eldredge, 49, said she had decided on her dream ticket for 2012: Mitt Romney for President and Scott Brown for vice-president, with a promise that they'd make Sarah Palin secretary of state. "They'd be so good-looking that people would just love us," she said, meaning Republicans. "They're beautiful!"

Because beauty is the ultimate criterion for anything in the U.S.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Every 50 years or so...

We manage to beat the Russians at the Olympics.

Oh sure, we face and beat them semi-regularly at the World Juniors, the World Championships, and various invitation/staged events like the Canada Cup, or the 1972 Canada-USSR best of eight series. But the last time we faced and beat them at the Olympics, it was 1960 in Squaw Valley, California, again in a quarter-final matchup, and we had our ass handed to us 8-5. Tonight, everything that needed to come together finally did, building on the glimmers of teamwork pushing to the surface in the elimination round against Germany. Perhaps we can do this after all. They'll play a semi-final against the winner of Sweden-Slovakia (on right now), and with the Americans beating the Swiss 2-0 to also advance to a semi against Finland, there's a potential Canada - U.S.A. final on the weekend. That will give Canada the chance to redeem itself and crack Ryan Miller, who was really the only reason we didn't beat the U.S. in the round-robin play, considering how well Team Canada played for most of the game (why, oh why, couldn't Switzerland be the spoiler today?)


Monday, February 22, 2010

Now comes the fun part

The last time - nay, the only time - Canada won an Olympic medal in ice dancing, Scott Moir was five months old. His partner, Tessa Virtue, wouldn't come along for another 15 months. That medal too was an indelible performance on Canadian ice, when Rob McCall and Tracy Wilson took bronze in Calgary.

Usually in figure skating, skaters spend years slowly climbing out of obscurity, inching up the standings in tiny increments, season in, season out. Longevity and perseverance are rewarded almost as much as talent and athleticism. What makes Virtue and Moir's championship performance tonight so stellar is that they have come, if not exactly out of nowhere, then certainly a lot farther than we had any right to expect at this point in their young careers, considering they first placed a toe on the world stage in 2007.

By the time folks win at the Olympics, they've usually picked up some World championship placings, some national titles, and while they are presumably happy to win at the Olympics, they have long since learned to be disciplined, at least in public.

No such worries here. The sheer exuberance and delight on display from both Virtue and Moir the moment they realized they had won the gold was exceptional, both for the rarity of such overt emotion in the figure skating world and the uncluttered joy of attaining that pinnacle at home. Eleven thousand fans sang O Canada to them as the flag was raised and the official anthem played after the medal presentation - what must that feel like ?

And to win, not only with an exceptional program, but also by accepting the challenge laid down by training partners and friends Charlie White and Meryl Davis of the, who had skated a flawless program a bit earlier in the evening. If you really want it, show us, they said - beat this. And so they did, by a score so high, it wasn't even close, leaving the Americans to polish their silver medals one rung below on the podium.

But here's the really fun, exciting part - Virtue & Moir, White & Davis, are only in their early 20s. They should have been trying for top 10 finishes at this point in their careers, not taking the top two spots. They train together and push each other, and the results of that daily competition are obvious on the ice. Not since Torvill and Dean took on a passel of Russian teams in the early to mid 1980s has the sport of ice dance stood to gain so much from professional rivalry. Barring catastrophic injury, we as an audience can expect to see these four jockeying for position on podiums around the planet for probably the next decade - including a couple more Olympics. It promises to be a developmentally rich experience as well, as each team will have to keep raising the bar in creative and dynamic ways to stay ahead of the other. As lovers of the sport, we can all be thankful for that. My only hope is that the Canadians continue to enjoy their success as much as they have tonight, and that we are never faced with a ceremony where they stand atop the podium looking as if it's just been another day at the office.