Alan Hobkirk sipped sherry with the Queen, cheered Greg Joy’s high jumping in the rain, took to the playing field with Canada’s Maple Leaf on his chest.
His Olympic experience also came with great responsibility, for he was named captain of Canada’s hockey team. Alas, it was the field hockey team, a version of hockey for which a hockey-mad land shows little interest.
Mr. Hobkirk, 59, is today a partner in a prominent law firm in Vancouver, his Olympic adventure a dimming memory now 36 years in the past. Like most athletes, he concluded his Olympics without a medal. After the Montreal Games, he continued with his sporting career, kept on hitting the law books, got on with his life.
Only with the passing of years has he come to fully appreciate the experience.
“I’ve realized how special an opportunity it was,” he said, “and what a privilege it was to represent one’s country.”
Even in this day of saturation coverage, many Olympians compete in near anonymity. They fill out the pack, round out the bracket, serve as sacrificial fodder for athletes even greater than themselves.
Such was the case for Mr. Hobkirk and his teammates back in 1976, acknowledged minnows in a sport dominated by other Commonwealth nations.
At the time, field hockey was considered a sport for high-school girls.
“We had to tell people we didn’t wear skirts when we played,” Mr. Hobkirk said.
After the first match, a 3-0 loss to Australia, The Globe and Mail helpfully noted field hockey was “a sport in which not much was expected of Canada.”
The Canadians faced arch-rival Argentina in their second game. At the 20-minute mark, Mr. Hobkirk scored on a penalty corner. Reg Plummer added a goal in the first half before each side scored in the second half. The Canadians won, 3-1. “We were riding atop of the world,” Mr. Hobkirk said. “With that win we could have done something surprising.” But the victory came at great cost. An Argentine’s stick had caught Mr. Plummer flush on the face. “May or may not have been deliberate,” Mr. Hobkirk said. The scorer suffered a shattered cheekbone and orbital bone and was out of the tournament.
The victory sparked minor media interest in the team, but the rare turn in the spotlight was short-lived. India whipped them 3-0 and then Malaysia scored a goal seven minutes from the end for a 1-0 victory. “We blew it,” Mr. Hobkirk said.
That evening, two members of the team were expected to attend a reception aboard the royal yacht Britannia. Gutted by the loss, Mr. Hobkirk tried to beg off, but the team manager insisted. “Alan, we’ve got to show the flag,” he said. A band paraded them aboard ship by playing the Colonel Bogey March.
The athlete was presented to the Queen, who not surprisingly did not remember him from an earlier introduction during his time as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University’s Jesus College.
He had learned the sport as a boy in Vancouver under the tutelage of Harry Warren, a University of British Columbia scientist known as Professor Midas for research in which he showed underground gold deposits could be found by examining plants on the surface. Prof. Warren himself had learned field hockey as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford in the 1920s. He competed at the 1928 Olympics as a runner, during which he roomed with Percy Williams, the Vancouver schoolboy who stunned the sporting world by winning two sprint gold medals.
Prof. Warren’s evangelism of hockey on turf instead of ice led to Mr. Hobkirk’s own Olympics. He competed at a stadium on the McGill University campus, a facility named after Percival Molson, a fine athlete who won hockey’s Stanley Cup in 1896??, ran at the Olympics in 1904, and was killed in action at Vimy Ridge.
On its own, Mr. Hobkirk’s Olympics seem inconsequential. Yet he is part of a legacy bridging the decades of Canadian Olympic lore.