Hockey pride on the line at Olympic Games
Someone asked the other day why it matters so much — this sport, this tournament, the Olympic hockey showdown in Vancouver from Feb. 16-28.
Why does it matter?
Because it's hockey. Because it's Canada. Because we've always carried a collective sense of entitlement about the game, combined with a frustration, for decades, of not being able to ice our strongest teams against the very best Soviet teams of the 1960s and '70s.
As a child growing up in the street-hockey haven of Scarborough, I remember fondly the heroic efforts of Father David Bauer's Canadian national amateur teams, with the likes of Terry O'Malley, Fran Huck, Morris Mott, Marshall Johnston and Roger Bourbonnais.
They played their hearts out for the red Maple Leaf, beating out the best of Europe at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France, only to fall 5-0 to the Soviets in the gold-medal game. To be honest, the Canadians hardly got a sniff against a Soviet club that was essentially the same roster Canada would confront four years later in the 1972 Summit Series.
Until that best-on-best showdown in '72, which culminated in Paul Henderson's historic goal, Canadians moaned and groaned as one about what could have been if the International Ice Hockey Federation had allowed professionals into the big international tournaments, especially the Olympics. Imagine a 1968 Canadian Olympic hockey team that included Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull and Bobby Orr.
(As a hockey nation, how we despised IIHF chief Bunny Ahearne in those days).
Four years later we learned just how good the Soviets were, narrowly beating them with our best National Hockey League stars (minus Hull, scorned by the NHL for leaping to the World Hockey Association, and kept out of the '72 Summit Series because of hockey politics).
The great summit proved to be Canada's great "teaching moment" as we like to call our opportunities with our children. We learned that some other countries could also play our great game. In a spirit of co-operation that did not exist during the Cold War climate, countries came to share the best teaching programs.
But, while Canada's pros were continuously barred from Olympic competitions, the Soviets had a field day. And by the time the pros did get access, inching in for the 1988 Calgary Olympics, then with full NHL participation and co-operation by the 1998 Nagano Games, the world had done some catching up.
Early on in Olympic hockey tournaments, Canada could send its best amateur teams and win the tournament without breaking a sweat. The Canadians could score goals and then sign autographs between whistles. As recently as 1948, in St. Moritz, Canada had a goals for and against of 57-2, while winning gold.
But from 1964-1992, the Soviets (including a 1992 win as Unified Team) won six of the seven Olympic tournaments. It took a miracle (on ice, so Al Michaels said) in 1980 at Lake Placid to upset the Soviets.
Some may not remember Canada was so irked about being unable to send professionals to the Olympics, it did not participate in the 1972 or '76 Olympic hockey tournaments.
Fewer still may remember the sporting element of Trudeaumania. When he was elected prime minister in 1968, Trudeau made a push to improve our standing in the international sporting arena, creating what was known as a Task Force on Sport.
One of the offspring of that task force was a baby that grew up to be a giant — Hockey Canada. Mandated by the Trudeau government to get our pros into international events, Hockey Canada seemed to have an OK from the IIHF to have professionals take part in a 1970 world championship to be held in Winnipeg and Montreal. Late in the planning stages for those worlds, however, the IIHF reversed its decision, apparently worried that amateurs who played against Canada's pros might be tainted, and barred from future Olympic competition.
Today the lines between amateurs, semi-pros and pros have all been blurred, if not completely erased, but in that time, hockey's international body stubbornly clung to its view of amateur competition — never mind that the Soviets were a professional operation masquerading as amateurs.
Angrily, Canada lashed back at the IIHF with the only weapon it had — its own participation in international events. Canada withdrew from Olympic competition until the 1980 Olympics, and from the world championships for eight years until returning in 1977.
By then, the worlds had become fully opened to professional participation.
Understanding how it felt to not have our best representing Canada for all those years, helps explain why a simple, eight-game exhibition series between Canada and the Soviets in September 1972 took on such enormous significance.
The sense of Canada defending its honour against the threatening hordes, has not abated, even as Dominik Hasek and the Czech Republic stood in the way in Japan, 1998, and the Russians made us look bad four years ago in Turin.
When Canada won the gold medal in 2002, it ended an astounding 50-year Olympic hockey drought by the Canadian men. (Our hockey women have had a better time of it, with gold medals in 2002 and 2006, after the first tournament, 1998, was won the by the U.S.).
The joy, the dancing on the street in 2002, echoed the mania of '72 when Canadians burst from their homes to celebrate Henderson's goal.
Now, the best Canadians are back, on home soil in Vancouver, to reclaim what was lost in '06.
That's why it matters. For 20 years, Canada was ripped off by not being able to have its best players at the Olympics, then by the time Canada's NHLers got their foot in the door, the Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Americans and Slovaks, not to mention those omnipresent Russians, got pretty darn good at playing Canada's game.
With the top NHL stars in Vancouver, it's a more even playing field than Father Bauer and his boys faced against the Soviet Red Army, but we're about to learn just how level the playing field has become.
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