A year ago, Sidney Crosby went down, and the way we see hockey changed. A few days ago in the world junior championships, Canada lost to Russia in a way it shouldn’t have lost, and almost won in a way nobody should win. Each speaks to something in our nature.
Where does it come from, this fight that is in us?
Surely, it must have to do with the hard land and hard climate of our past when illness or injury weren’t allowed to keep us from the fields or the forests. This was survival. So when we created our games, we’d play them in the only way we knew how.
Or, in an indirect way, maybe the answer’s as simple as the difference between a puck and a football or soccer ball. A puck is hard and small. In hockey’s earliest days, when it flew out of play it could travel far and stop the action for many inconvenient seconds. It could injure someone watching. Not so a football or soccer ball. So hockey created boards to surround the ice. Low ones at first, to keep the puck in play; higher ones later when more spectators found reasons to watch the game. For hockey players from the beginning, there was no out-of-bounds. There was no escape.
So the struggle that is hockey began. At first, it was on a much smaller ice surface, seven against seven not six against six, and with no substitutions and no forward pass, there was no way to open up the clutter; no escape even to rest. For the entire game, it was body pushing against body, the boards an unmovable opponent everywhere around the perimeter. To score, a player had to get close to an opponent’s net, and in the offensive zone it’s as though the oval of the rink suddenly becomes a funnel, the struggle, the strain growing ever more intense.
To get to the net is a fight.
The most legendary player of hockey’s first hundred years was Rocket Richard. He was not much more than average size. He possessed no blinding speed, no overpowering shot. The lingering image of him now more than 50 years after his last game is his eyes. Wide, wild, his pupils so focused on his task, to get to the net, they’d bore a hole through anything that stood in their way.
It’s the Europeans who first saw this unrelenting will in Canadian players. Before European amateurs were allowed to play against the NHL’s best, the Europeans saw only the Penticton Vees, Whitby Dunlops, Trail Smoke Eaters and those who came before them.
By the mid-1950s, the Europeans had closed the talent gap. They could skate and pass as well or better than their Canadian opponents, but still Canada would win. The Europeans had come to hockey late from soccer or bandy (much like field hockey on ice), games played on big wide-open spaces, with strategies, skills and attitudes to match. Even their Olympic-sized hockey rinks were bigger. They’d dazzle in the open ice, but in the funnel to the net, unused to the smash of bodies, they’d look for a final pass.
Canadians first saw this fighting spirit in ourselves in the 1972 Canada-Russia series, and we only truly saw it when the series was over. Before then, Canadians saw Canadian players who looked slow and undisciplined, thuggish at times, and Russian players who looked the way we’d always seen ourselves. When the eight-game series seemed finally over – after a crushing loss in what had been a very promising first game in Moscow – with the Russians leading the series 3-1 with one game tied and the final three games in Moscow, things changed. We won the sixth game, then came from behind to win the seventh. In the last game, down 5-3 at the end of the second period, we scored three goals, including Paul Henderson’s winning goal with 34 seconds remaining.
There was a lot not to be proud of in that series. But we were proud that we won, and we were proud that we didn’t give up. In a series in which one player scores the game-winning goal in the final three games and the series-winning goal in the last minute of the last game, there can be only one hero – Paul Henderson. But there were two – Henderson and Phil Esposito. Moments after the series’ lowest moment, our fourth-game loss in Vancouver, Esposito had given his “speech” in a TV interview. With sweat pouring down his face and fight still oozing from him, he took on those who booed us and doubted us. He embodied what we’d show ourselves to be in Moscow – the never-quit, never-say-die Canadians others had always seen us to be.