As public resentment grows over allegations of election fraud, what is the leader of a hockey-mad nation to do? If you’re Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, you commemorate the 40th anniversary of the 1972 Summit Series – although his weekend orchestration of nostalgia has failed to quell street protests there.
Well, I can’t help but let the reminiscing begin.
On a September afternoon in 1972, with most of Canada holding its collective breath, I joined my classmates at public school in Montreal on an emotional roller coaster. Cheers were followed by desperation until Paul Henderson’s goal – his third straight game-winner – allowed us to emerge unabashedly from our shell of self-effacement.
The Summit Series cemented my love affair with hockey, which had blossomed the year before, during another monumental journey: the improbable 1971 Stanley Cup win by the Montreal Canadiens, led by rookie goaltender Ken Dryden. It also marked the final season for Jean Béliveau, whose example still resonates in the hearts of Canadians, judging by reaction to the stroke he suffered late Monday.
The 1970s would prove to be the Canadiens’ decade, with Ste-Catherine Street serving as the perennial Stanley Cup parade route. Many waxed philosophically that the Habs had restored honour to the game, by championing skill, speed and finesse over the thuggery epitomized by the Philadelphia Flyers.
These days, the Canadiens hover close to the bottom, behind even – gasp – the Maple Leafs. Just two years ago, Montreal fans were basking in upset wins over Washington and Pittsburgh, just one round from a rendezvous with Lord Stanley. As a proud fan, I knew my priorities. While giving a lecture one evening that May, I asked audience members to turn on their cellphones so they could provide scoring updates during the Canadiens-Flyers game in the conference finals. I threw austerity to the wind and bought nosebleed seats (at 15 times face value) to Game 4 at the Bell Centre. We lost that series, but what a ride it was.
More important, my son joined the Habs nation. Even during this annus horribilis, he proudly wears his Canadiens jersey to hockey practice in suburban Ottawa. (But I’m horrified about his team’s name. A male, Muslim “Bomber” is bad optics.)
Canada’s existential angst remains intertwined with hockey, especially on the international stage. Deflated by the 1998 debacle in Nagano, we regained our Olympic moxie in 2002 at Salt Lake City, with gold-medal wins by our women’s and men’s teams. During those Games, my husband was in spiritual seclusion performing the hajj. After completing his religious rites, we informed him of the hockey wins. He was so happy, and told other Canadian hajjis in his group. Imagine: hockey night in Mecca.
In 2010, we held our breath again in the gold-medal showdown against the United States in Vancouver. It was 1972 all over again. Canadians from coast to coast to coast, united in national joy. Everyone got into the spirit, including Muslim women in my social circle who ululated when Sidney Crosby scored.
Hockey is central to our collective identity. But these days, I worry about that identity.
Concussions are the new normal. Advances in equipment design are no match for Newton’s laws of motion, which stipulate that grey matter accelerates inside a shaken skull. Hit the head often enough, and the brain gets bruised. It’s not rocket science. At least two of my son’s teammates have left the team due to concussions – at the tender age of 14.
We have accepted the demise of hockey, from a thing of beauty replete with speed and skill, to a weekly display of maiming and fisticuffs.
Hockey’s integrity is slipping away. Cue the diversions.