Hockey has no founding father or mother or identifiable moment of birth. It was invented in the imagination and is reinvented every day from early fall on in the backyards and - where still permitted - side streets of this hockey-mad country.
As the National Hockey League returns to the ice on Thursday, this much is undeniable: Hockey is Canada's game. There is nothing to be gained by pointing out that a Mesopotamia tablet dating from the third millennium, B.C., makes reference to men using wickedly curved sticks - apparently not illegal in those days - to propel a wooden ring over the dirt. There is no ear here for the argument that Pieter Breugel's Hunters In The Snow, painted in 1565, appears to contain a game of shinny in the background. Nor do we really much care about the more localized claims that the game was first played in the Far North by the men on the Franklin expedition, and if not there then on a pond near Windsor, N.S., or if not there then at Kingston, Ont., or even that there are newspaper clips to prove that the first organized game took place in Montreal.
Soccer might claim more numbers, but hockey leads, as it always has, in nightly dreams and daily conversation. The grip this "national drama" - Morley Callaghan's phrase - has on people is difficult to explain to those who did not grow up in its grasp or, as happens increasingly these days, came to embrace the game as they and, in particular, their children came to terms with a new climate.
Lester Pearson tried to convey this sense in 1939 when the future Prime Minister of Canada told an audience in London, England: "It is perhaps fitting that this fastest of all games has become almost as much of a national symbol as the maple leaf or the beaver. Most young Canadians, in fact, are born with skates on their feet rather than with silver spoons in their mouths."
Hockey had to be Canada's game. Had Canada invented baseball instead, players would have frozen to death between pitches.
"In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold," Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane wrote many years ago, "hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive."
Very soon after Kidd and Macfarlane published their book on hockey, however, something happened to the national game. It was called the 1972 Summit Series.
The famous series is generally hailed as Canada's greatest victory on ice - Paul Henderson's dramatic goal surely the "singular moment in time" for generations of Canadians who can recall not only where they were but what they were wearing. The remarkable comeback in Moscow by the spunky Canadians launched a celebration that had as much, if not more, to do with relief as it did with triumph. Heading into the eight-game series - supposedly a friendly exhibition - the Soviets had not been given a chance. They had no goaltending. They had no shots. They had no coaching. Canada would probably sweep the series because hockey is Canada's game.
When Henderson scored that final goal, it meant that Canada had won by the narrowest of margins imaginable - a single goal scored with only 34 seconds left in the final game.
"When the country's celebration ended," Ken Dryden and I wrote in Home Game: Hockey and Life in Canada back in 1989, "the new day looked different. A lot had happened in the twenty-seven days since the first game in Montreal. A symbol, something about us, that we had always taken as self-evident, had been rocked. Our innocence, our confidence and enthusiasm, our urge to jump into the world's deep water - we had changed."
This lack of confidence, so often buried under bravado, would rise and fall for decades following the 1972 series. The 3-3 tie between the Soviet Red Army and the Montreal Canadiens on New Year's Eve, 1975, would be spoken of as "the greatest game ever played," yet if that were true - and many still believe it was - then it meant that the Russian robots had risen to a level equal with the very best of Canadian hockey. And if the Russians were coming, how soon the Americans?
Outsiders could still be beaten by Canadian players in Canada Cups or in NHL exhibitions, but too often the difference maker would be brawn (as when the Philadelphia Flyers pummelled the Red Army back into the dressing room in early 1976) or, as it was so often said, heart - despite medical proof that Russians, Swedes, Finns and Czechs all got their blood from a similar pump.
Canada had entered an uneasy time with its own game. Every loss, no matter how close it might be - the 1981 Canada Cup, Rendezvous '87, various world championships and junior championships - seemed to cause another jolt of identity angst. Having wished for a century or more that the world would appreciate the game that Canada had given it, many Canadians seemed unable to accept that the game had indeed been taken up by others and that others could play it. It made no sense, but hockey does not have a great track record of making a lot of sense, common included.
This anxiety came to a crisis point as the professional game entered its second century. Canadians had always believed that if only NHLers were allowed to participate in the Olympics, world dominance would be automatic. When it happened in 1998, and the Canadian men's team failed even to win a medal, the blow to national pride was devastating. That year also saw the beginning of seven consecutive world junior championships in which the best hockey country in the world could not prove itself best.
By 2002, in Salt Lake City, this growing national anguish was expressed perfectly by the country's greatest player, Wayne Gretzky, when he told a startled media gathering that "The whole world wants us to lose."
A few days later, however, the whole world (at least the small world that gives a damn about hockey) saw Canada win, and not only the men's gold medal but the women's as well.
In retrospect, the self-doubt and anxiety played an important role. Canada began questioning its own sense of superiority in the 1990s - never so much as at the 1999 Open Ice Summit which could basically be summed up in three words: "What went wrong?"
To the great credit of those who have a say in shaping the way the game is played as well as those who play the game - from Hockey Canada down to the smallest local minor hockey organization - everything from coaching to skill level was re-examined and, often, reconsidered. You would have to be naive and foolish to call it perfect - much will always remain to be done, especially in the area of preventable injury - but there can be no doubt that the game is in better shape in Canada today than it has been for decades. The 2010 hockey summit held in Toronto this last summer seemed oddly unpressing, almost unnecessary.
Canada is once again comfortable in its hockey skin.
The men and women won gold in Vancouver. If the juniors don't win gold, they at least play for it. Young stars such as Sidney Crosby (captain of the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins), Jonathan Toews (captain of the 2010 Stanley Cup winning Chicago Blackhawks) and the two top draft picks of the 2010 draft, Taylor Hall of the Edmonton Oilers and Tyler Seguin of the Boston Bruins, are all … Canadian.
There remains, however, one itch still to be scratched.
One that has grown increasingly irritating since 1993, when the Montreal Canadians last accomplished the feat.
And that is to bring the Stanley Cup home.
Where it began - and where a great many Canadians believe it belongs.