At the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, when Canada lost the hockey gold to Sweden in a shootout and the Canadian press corps rushed to ice level to get into the dressing room and security guards kept us waiting an eternity, I carved an anti-Swedish expletive into the end boards with my pen.
Then I pushed past the tiresome security boys, somehow incurred a gash to my hand and shed the only Canadian blood at the rink that day (thus the reason for the Canadian loss, I always say), and headed toward the room.
(Well, I intended to go there. Naturally, with my built-in anti-GPS, I instead got lost in a maze of corridors and was confidently striding in precisely the wrong direction when two of my sporty press colleagues from the Toronto Sun rescued me.)
I’m neither proud nor embarrassed about that escapade – so don’t bother writing to tell me the obvious, that I am a bad/warlike/juvenile person.
It is, in truth, absolutely typical of my reaction to the national game, which is always over the top, emotional, loud, profane and tearful. Anyone who has sat next to me in a press box over the years can vouch for that, sometimes to their tsk-tsking horror.
I was raised in a rink in Noranda, Que., thanks to my late father running the joint. All I know and love about men I learned by sitting high up in the empty stands of the Rec Centre there, watching practices for God’s sakes, and, later in life, as I followed various boyfriends/husbands and their teams, where I was often the lone shrieking lunatic at every game.
And let me be clear: I like how hockey is tied to Canadian values, that we see it as our game and believe that it is born of some unique mix of geography, miserably long winters and toughness. Some of the best nights of my life were those spent in hard-rock Hamilton, after the games of the 1987 Canada Cup, as the crowds spilled out onto the streets and into various Tim Hortons, the strains of the shouted national anthem still reverberating in my bones.
I am, in other words, perhaps the last Canadian who should object to the hyperbole (God knows, I’ve written my share) surrounding the recent world junior tournament and in particular, the Canadian gold-medal loss to a patient and dogged Russian squad – and yet I do.
It’s not the florid language of the day-after front-page headlines – “Meltdown”, “Stunned”, “Debacle on Ice” – or the endless pointy-head analysis that has followed as predictably as night does day, the only aspect of which is absent, but surely coming, the 12-part “What’s wrong with Canadian hockey?” series.
What unnerves me just a little is what’s missing, some acknowledgment of the truth every Olympian knows, and any half-assed but serious athlete too, which is that at the world juniors, as in any venture worth doing, it isn’t the prize at the end that matters most but rather the journey.
Gold medals are lovely, both for those who actually win them and those who bask in the reflected joy, and I would never say differently. And hockey golds are the best of all, for all the reasons we already know. But if winning was all that counted, hardly any of us would try to do anything well – race, game, romance, job, relationship, diet – because the knowledge of our likely failure would cripple us.
To call me a half-assed athlete is to put it kindly. I am a dreadful runner, impossibly slow, ungainly and until recently, a fattish one. I have completed four marathons, hope to do a fifth this year, and if I do one under five-and-a-half hours, I will be more unbearable than I am now. I am pretty clearly never going to win a damn thing, unless I outlive everyone else in my age group (my secret hope).
What I value most are those friendships cemented on long training runs around my city, all of us working out various problems as we go, all of us with quirks the others have learned to love or at least tolerate; the way the group – bitching and querulous collective that it is – is larger than any single one of us. What I love are the ridiculously rare moments when running feels right and easy, the regular glimpses of beauty, whether in the person beside me or the rosy sunrise on the horizon. What I need are the reminders that effort matters, however laughable the result; that hard work pays off if only in the satisfaction of putting in the hours; that for all the times you strike out, once in a while you’ll manage to hit it out of the park.
The juniors would have had all this, and more, on the road to their silver. And that’s the thing to celebrate.
Mea culpa: It’s not only an anti-GPS I have built in. In Friday’s column, despite looking at an e-mail with his name on it as I wrote, I got Toronto communications co-ordinator Bruce Hawkins’s name wrong and called him Blair. I am an idiot.