A must-lose situation

For Canadians, seeing the U.S. take gold would be unbearable

27.02.2010
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Canada Hockey Place Vancouver British Columbia Canada

A U.S. celebration is the last thing Canadians want to see on Sunday. Photo: Matthew Manor / HHOF-IIHF Images

VANCOUVER – Shoot down the bald eagle. Imprison the Statue of Liberty. Do whatever it takes. That's the attitude of Canadian fans as the 2010 gold medal game looms.

They're almost as concerned about the prospect of the United States winning the Olympic hockey crown as they are eager to see their own team triumph.

The Americans, who beat Canada 5-3 in preliminary-round action, must lose on Sunday.

Because as bad as losing to the Russians would have been, handing over gold to Uncle Sam at a Canadian-hosted Olympics would be even worse. Think of how Tre Kronor fans felt when Sweden lost to Finland in Stockholm at the 1995 IIHF World Championship, and then multiply that by a hundred.

You see, most Canadians will at least acknowledge that the Russians have produced some of the world's greatest players, from Valeri Kharlamov to Alexander Ovechkin, and that they play a different, more finesse-based style than Canada, which sometimes prevails. That grudging respect dates back to the 1972 Summit Series, where Team Canada needed Paul Henderson's last-minute goal in Moscow to claim victory. (Something that many Canadians would choose as “the greatest moment in sports history” rather than the 1980 American “Miracle on Ice.”)

To lose to Russia in Vancouver would have been very painful, but not incomprehensible.

However, unfairly or not, the Americans are viewed as cocky interlopers. To have them win would be unbearable. Why? The reasons are multifold.

The average Canadian fan feels that Americans don't really understand hockey. If they did, why, for instance, would FOX TV have experimented with the infamous FoxTrax “glowing puck” between 1996 and 1998 in order to help U.S. viewers more easily spot the little black disc?

It goes further. Many Canadians believe that Americans don't really appreciate the sport that Canada invented. If they did, why are so many NHL markets in the southern United States struggling to keep their attendance up? This, at a time when Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal, and Calgary regularly sell out home games, while hockey-mad cities like Winnipeg, Quebec City, and Hamilton hunger for NHL franchises. Not to mention the unprecedented popularity that IIHF tournaments – World Juniors, World Championships, and Olympics – are enjoying in the “True North strong and free.”

Canadian fans will also point to U.S. players with less-than-humble attitudes. (Never mind that Sean Avery was born in Pickering, Ontario.) Jeremy Roenick and Keith Tkachuk are classic examples of Americans who shoot from the lip as quickly as with their sticks – and, incidentally, made life miserable for Canada by winning the inaugural World Cup of Hockey back in 1996.

Speaking of traumatic losses, it's well-known that Canada takes the annual World Juniors more seriously than any other nation. So surrendering gold to Team USA on John Carlson's overtime goal last month in Saskatoon was as hard to swallow as a stack of ten Big Macs. Especially since it ended Canada's bid for a record-setting sixth straight World Junior title. Talk of revenge at the 2011 tournament in Buffalo is already rife.

In Vancouver, the World Junior defeat just heightens the sense that the Americans must not be allowed to conduct another successful border raid.

Another point of concern is the fact that the U.S. plays essentially the same north-south, chip-it-in-and-forecheck style as Canada. (Even though this year's youthful squad is better equipped to win with young legs than with brute force. Ryan Malone, David Backes and Brooks Orpik don't quite match up to mid-90's Tkachuk, John LeClair, and Derian Hatcher in the grind-it-out department.)

It would be more embarrassing, in the minds of Canadians, to see the Americans take gold with North American-style hockey at Canada Hockey Place than to have Europeans win with fancy skating, passing, and stickhandling. The former would epitomize getting beaten at your own game.

Perception often contrasts with reality, of course. Current young American forwards like Patrick Kane, Paul Stastny, and Phil Kessel can compete quite nicely with their Canadian and European counterparts when it comes to generating creative, rapid-fire offense. That was evident when Team USA jumped out to an early 6-0 lead over Finland in the semi-finals, their biggest single-period Olympic explosion since an 8-0 romp over Germany at Innsbruck in 1964.

Underlying all of this is the cultural insecurity that Canada, a nation of 33 million people, feels about being next door to the United States, the world's dominant superpower with a population of more than 300 million. Throw back a few Molsons with a patriotic Canadian, and he'll probably tell you: “They want our water. They want our oil. They deluge us with their movies, TV shows, and pop stars. (OK, we kind of like those.) They even took Wayne Gretzky in 1988. But we're holding on to hockey!”

And thus, Canadian supporters draw the battle lines. You want gracious Olympic hospitality? American GM Brian Burke's boys are welcome to leave Vancouver with medals around their necks – as long as the colour is silver.

Whatever happens on Sunday, Canadians can take comfort in this fact: no members of the IIHF's 22-strong Triple Gold Club are American – or will be after these Olympics. It's hardly surprising, since the U.S. hasn't won World Championship gold since 1933. (To qualify, Triple Gold Club members must capture Olympic gold, Worlds gold, and the Stanley Cup.)

LUCAS AYKROYD

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