It makes you cringe to realize that obnoxious Nike campaign from the Atlanta Summer Games back in 1996 came true in Canada on January 5, 2011:
"You don't win silver, you lose gold."
While the Russians staying in my Buffalo hotel will be waking up with real hangovers this morning, the people of Canada went to bed with throbbing heads last night: what happened? How did we screw up? Who's to blame?
Morley Callaghan had it partially right when he called hockey, Canada's national game, truly "our national drama," but he wasn't all the way there. I think Calgary poet Richard Harrison, who sometimes writes poetry about the game, comes closer when he tagged it "the national id."
Few things, perhaps nothing, strike deeper into the national psyche than hockey, particularly a loss at the game.
When we win, as in the Vancouver Winter Games (both men and women), we swagger. When we lose, we wallow.
It's just part of the weird national character that is Canadian.
What happened last night? Well, on the scoresheet sitting before me, Canada takes a 3-0 lead into the third period and somehow loses 5-3. I would say by any imaginable definition that is a "collapse." It might not be a "national tragedy," as some have been saying. It might or might not be a "choke," as all the media was whispering last night but few, if any, dared to say out loud or print. But it as sure as hell a monumental collapse.
So be it. How many times do we have to write "stuff happens" in hockey - it is, truly, as much an essence of the game as pucks and skates and sticks. Stuff happens, though I am tempted here to use the proper hockey word for "stuff."
Yes, the Canadian teenagers lost gold. And the game will be sliced and diced for a long time, without ever changing that scoreboard.
The kids panicked, obviously. No one can deny that. But that tends to happen when you feel helpless and scared and it must be said that the Canadians, a self-proclaimed "lunchbucket" and "blue collar" team - no matter how absurd those thoughts, given the price of minor hockey these days - was up against a more elite, skilled bunch. Undeniable. Any of us would have panicked faced with such skill and determination as the Russians showed in that third period. Skill can be scary. Very scary.
The coaching was good, at times excellent, but head coach Dave Cameron and his staff had no strategic answer for the onslaught apart from dump and dump and dump and sometimes chase. Not very inventive, but some will say they didn't have a whole lot to work with. That would be unfair to the kids, as they are superb players. Still, it would have been nice to have a couple of truly and wildly offensive Canadians on the team. They were available. They weren't chosen.
The coaching staff also stressed, endlessly, keeping it simple, which worked fine for a while but not once it got complicated. Simple doesn't have too many answers for complicated, unfortunately.
But all that, of course, is hindsight, and hindsight is a mug's game.
Goaltending is indeed a fair question. In the last two gold-medal games, Saskatoon and Buffalo, Canada has allowed 11 goals in losing both championship matches. That's a considerable number.
But hockey is a game of trends, and trends vary by country. In the era of Patrick Roy and Martin Brodeur, Canada - and particularly Quebec - Canada seemed to produce goaltenders as effortlessly as maple syrup. But then, for no particular reason, matters changed. The trend in Canada became excelling at big, strong, skilled forwards. The leading goaltenders began coming from places like Russia, Finland and, almost unbelievably, Switzerland.
Should we then call a Royal Commission? Or should we insist that the Harper Government pound billions of infrastructure dollars into new rinks and coaching clinics and goaltender development? Of course not.
Get a grip, Canada.
Instead of eating our young alive, why not just flip that coin - or silver medal, if you prefer - over and consider the other side.
You don't lose silver - you have to WIN gold.
The Russians were an astonishing team as well as surprising. No one anticipated that they would be there at the end. They opened the tournament with two loses, one to Canada and one to Sweden, and they were largely forgotten and written-off by New Year's.
And yet they won it all. And they did it by adapting the best of Canadian hockey - the ability to come back against all odds.
Russian and European hockey has always taken what they perceive best from the game Canada invented. Led by the Finns, they became tougher, more physical. The Swedes and Czechs took elemental systems and made them far more complicated, at times even too complicated to the point where they had to back off (as in the Swedish hockey world). They have all worked at and improved their goaltending development until it not only stands with Canada but, for the moment, anyway, has surpassed Canada.
Now the Russians have taken on that most Canadian of traits. Dig down deep when necessary. Never say die. Play with heart as well as grit. And never, ever be counted out.
Canadians today need to remind themselves of their own best traits.
Never say die. Throw your heart as well as your skills into the game. And just wait 'til next year in Calgary.
Buffalo marked 10 straight appearances in a row in the World Junior Hockey Championship final - Calgary can be 11.
But keep in mind that one reality that came out of Wednesday's great collapse in Buffalo and the lesson that it holds for all.
You don't lose silver - you have to WIN gold.Report Typo/Error