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Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)
Margaret Wente (Curtis Lantinga)

Margaret Wente

How I made my peace with hockey Add to ...

When I was 22, I got my first real job. I was hired as a book publicist by Doubleday Canada. I knew nothing about publicity and not much more about my adoptive land. I certainly did not appreciate the crucial importance of hockey to the national psyche.

I scarcely paid attention to the Canada-Russia hockey series. But when the entire office gathered round the black-and-white TV to watch Paul Henderson score the winning goal, I cheered, too. Someone explained to me that this was the most important goal in the history of the game.

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There was another reason to cheer. Doubleday happened to have a book contract with Team Canada's coach. His name was Harry Sinden. Needless to say, I had never heard of him.

I was responsible for organizing Harry's first press conference back in Canada. It was my first press conference, too. It was a complete disaster. I was used to 15 people showing up at an author event (maybe). This time, there were 150 impatient sports journalists - and they were all on deadline. They were not happy. Afterward, Harry bought me a consolation drink at a swanky downtown bar, where he was mobbed. The book sold more copies than any book we had ever published, no thanks to me.

It's not that I'm completely ignorant of hockey. In Chicago, I grew up rooting for the Blackhawks. But hockey was merely one game among many. My little brother grew up playing baseball, not shinny. There's no equivalent to hockey in the United States.

"I really hope you guys win," said an American friend on Sunday. "It matters so much more to you than us."

Hockey proves that, even as nations undergo profound change, their cultural traits remain rooted in bedrock. Hockey is the one thing that Canada is supposed to do better than anyone else - and, therefore, all threats to our hockey dominance are existential.

This is just as true today as it was nearly 40 years ago, when Canada's best players ventured forth to lick the world. To everyone's shock, they failed to dominate. In Europe, they were widely criticized for their thuggish style of play. National panic ensued. A Russian victory over Team Canada would have totally unmanned us. (I use this word advisedly because, to be blunt, our national obsession is overwhelmingly a guy thing.) In fact, the Russians might well have won - until one of our players slashed the ankle of their star forward and fractured it.

My second brush with hockey glory came during the height of the Wayne Gretzky years, when a guy tried to pick me up at the baggage carousel. We chatted and he introduced himself as Glen Sather. I'd never heard of him, either. "So, Glen, what do you do?" I said. Bizarrely, he asked me out on a date, where it took roughly 30 seconds for us both to realize we'd made a terrible mistake.

After 40 years in Canada, I confess that the allure of hockey remains a mystery to me. Why do Toronto Maple Leafs home games sell out year after year, even though the team is always lousy? How did Don Cherry get to be a folk hero? I know not. What I do know is that all the cab drivers in Toronto listen to the games, even though many of them come from places where there's no ice. In this way, they are learning how to be Canadians.

On Sunday afternoon, I was at a party. The party happened to be for me, but it was clear that I was destined to be upstaged. As the guests arrived, the men looked furtively around for the TV. Soon everyone was crammed into the TV room, including some visiting Americans who looked bewildered. I explained to them that our national honour was at stake, and that Sidney Crosby's goal was the most important goal in the history of the game.

I've made my peace with hockey. And I know that everyone at my party will always remember how great it was.

 

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