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Ken Dryden, former NHL goaltender, photographed in 2011. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Ken Dryden, former NHL goaltender, photographed in 2011.

(Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

Canadian athletes again shatter the ‘nice, eh, but can’t win’ stereotype Add to ...

Canada’s men’s hockey players are the most different of all our Olympians. They play always in the limelight. They make fortunes of money. They play a sport Canadians originated and have dominated. They expect and are expected to win. In Sochi, they played without arrogance, with no misdirected emotion. They were solidly, forcefully, smartly better than everyone else. Their gold medal win in the last Olympic event was the punchline to the story their Olympic teammates had been writing for 17 days. In Sochi, the men’s hockey team came to embody what we have become.

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The Sochi Olympics didn’t hold the same drama for Canadians as the 2010 Games. In Vancouver, we were hosts. We worried, and hoped about everything: would they – the athletes, fans, and media – like the arenas and venues? Would they have a good time? Would they like us? Would we – Canada, Canadians – be a success, or a failure?

Then the disastrous start: A luge athlete from Georgia, Nodar Kumaritashvili, died during a training run; the hydraulic cauldron malfunctioned during the opening ceremonies; the weather, great for spectators, wasn’t so good for snow or winter athletes. For days that seemed like months, we won no medals. Our Olympic leaders had proclaimed we’d “Own the Podium.” We felt embarrassed. We knew better than to brag. Something always happens.

Then we started to win.

Alexandre Bilodeau. It wasn’t only his gold medal, the first ever by a Canadian on home soil. It was watching his parents, and the over-the-podium joy of his brother, Frederic, who lives with cerebral palsy. Then came Maelle Ricker, Christine Nesbitt and Jon Montgomery – every win, out of the fear of defeat, felt like 10. The second week – Ashleigh McIvor, Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir, Heather Moyse and Kaillie Humphries, Charles Hamelin, the women’s hockey team. Then Joannie Rochette, shutting away the pain of her mother’s death for the few minutes she skated, to win a bronze medal. Then finally, bringing down the curtain, a moment no one had the right to dream: Sidney Crosby’s goal in overtime to win the men’s hockey gold medal.

These had been our best Olympics ever. We finished third in medals behind the U.S. and Germany, winning 14 golds, four more than any other country.

In Sochi, we won early. Justine and Chloé Dufour-Lapointe, gold and silver in women’s moguls; Bilodeau, with his parents and brother, again a gold, and Mikael Kingsbury, a silver in men’s moguls. Hamelin, again; and Dara Howell.

On Tuesday, Feb. 11, for a few hours, Canada was at the top of the Olympic medal standings for the first time ever. The roll that had begun in Vancouver seemed unstoppable.Then Hamelin fell, and later fell again. Our skiers never threatened. Virtue and Moir skated their perfect best, and were judged second. But if they had engendered outrage, Patrick Chan brought frustration. As a brilliant prodigy, for him there had always been a next time. He seemed never to understand that if the moment might be there, you have to seize it. In Sochi, we could see the crash before he did.

For days, Canada’s athletes found no lift anywhere. Our men’s and women’s curlers were winning, and so too the women’s hockey team, but that was to be expected, and for each the medal round was days away. The men’s hockey team was winning too, but not easily. Worryingly. They weren’t scoring. We fell back in the medal standings. A Globe headline read, “Canada’s no-medal day in Sochi: Is it time to panic?”

We began to notice that much of our success had come in the new events – freestyle skiing, snowboarding, short-track speedskating. In X-Games sports, cult sports – not in the major ones. In sports that we weren’t sure were really sports at all. Maybe our success was willful illusion.

Then we started to win again. Moyse and Humphreys, again, in the women’s bobsleigh. Then women’s curling. In a sport Canadians seem to dominate, we don’t – we hadn’t won since Sandra Schmirler’s rink took gold in 1998. A cruel irony faced Jennifer Jones and her rink in the final against Sweden. They had gone undefeated all week, and their only loss would keep them from a gold. In the fresh-faced steely cool of Jones, irony had no chance.

Then women’s hockey. Everything had been predictable. Canada and the U.S. had both run over their opposition in the preliminary games. They would meet in the final. One would win gold; the other silver. The game was tied into the second period. The U.S. went ahead. This is when Canada would score. Instead, early in the third period, the U.S. scored again. This is again when Canada would score, but we didn’t. Not until less than four minutes to go in the game. Then another goal by Marie-Philip Poulin in the last minute. Then another by Poulin in overtime. The most predictable of all gold-silver finishes in Sochi had ended in the most unpredictable frenzy.

Then Marielle Thompson and Kelsey Serwa in women’s ski cross. Then Brad Jacobs and his rink, after starting with two losses in their first three games, in men’s curling.

Then men’s hockey. Russia had crashed out. Canada’s first showdown came against the U.S. in the semi-finals. Both teams were at their best – fast, strong, smart, competitive. Both had top goaltending. Their best players were as good as our best; our next level players were better than theirs. The score, 1-0, was fair.

The gold-medal game against Sweden closed down the Games. Early in the second period, ahead 1-0, it was clear: We would lose only if we began playing in a way we refused to play. Early in the third period, this was obvious even to the Swedes.

We finished with 25 medals, one fewer than in Vancouver, 10 of them gold, four fewer than in 2010. We were fourth overall this time, instead of third, after Russia, the U.S. and Norway, but only eight medals from the top, not 11. And this time we did it 8,000 kilometres from home.

We lost some events we thought we’d win. We won others we didn’t imagine. That is what happens when, as a country, you become truly competitive. Events are decided usually in a single day, often in a few minutes, sometimes in seconds. If you’re a real contender, you are always close enough to win. And if you do lose, you aren’t sent into a spin because you are near enough to win the next time; or for a team, to win the next event.

Athletes in defeat often talk of achieving “personal bests.” They have committed themselves to their sports most of their lives, and it is a phrase they need to bind their wounds. Said too often by Canadian athletes in earlier Olympics, the words came to sound annoying. Everyone but us, it seemed, was competing for medals. Now the words strike our ears as aspiration, as a step achieved toward the next step, where the final step – intended and possible – is the podium.

Our athletes have come a long way. When an Olympic Games begins, they can’t know they will win. But now, they don’t know that they won’t. A loss isn’t fundamental. It’s a loss. There will be wins. We haven’t yet grown comfortably into this new skin, but it is ours nonetheless. “Own the Podium” was an important rallying cry, but we’ve moved on. In Vancouver, in Sochi, as if no big deal, no strut, we’ve become “at home on the podium.”

“Typically Canadian, eh?” For decades, it has been our own personal explanation for every manner of failure. For being unable to pull off in any field what, it seems to us, every other country can do. The words sound wise. No shortcoming is our own. The fault is in our national DNA. We weren’t great in Sochi. Not everything went our way. We didn’t run a hot hand of upset winners. In the end, we did win in men’s hockey, but this time, for the first time, we didn’t need to. Given all that we had achieved, our psyche could have survived a defeat.

After any apparent breakthrough, as for us in Vancouver, the test is always what comes next. Were we that good? Were we lucky? Was it because we were at home? Can we do it again? In Sochi, we found out. We’re good. Next time – in South Korea; anywhere – we’ll be good too.

“Typically Canadian, eh?” is dead.

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