It has been 17 years since Nike Inc. insulted every athlete who ever dared to dream.
The athletic apparel maker did so in posters and television ads that seemed everywhere in the lead-up to the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics: “You don’t win silver – you lose gold.”
The advertising campaign outraged those who had won the “lesser” medals and eventually, over time, the controversial campaign was dropped.
Canada, unfortunately, embraced this absurdity two years later, in 1998, when the NHL decided its best players would be free to go to Nagano, and women’s hockey made its Olympics debut.
Canada’s national game was finally a true part of the five-ring circus and, naturally, Canada had to win gold. It was a national right, a national obligation and, of course, it would be international confirmation.
Nagano didn’t exactly work out – the men finished fourth, the women “lost gold” to the United States – but each was quickly rationalized. Czech Republic goalie Dominik Hasek explained the catastrophe for the men. And the silver was just a one-game fluke – the Nike ad proved – as Canadian women were then on a world championship streak that would reach eight consecutive golds by 2004.
Canadian men and women both won Olympic gold in Salt Lake City four years later, and Canadian women won gold again in Turin in 2006, and in Vancouver in 2010. (The men came seventh in Turin before rising again to gold in Vancouver.)
The men don’t always win; the women always win, better win and have to win.
So how’d you like to coach them?
With all that in context, it may be somewhat understandable why Dan Church abruptly quit last week as head coach of the national women’s team, currently training for the 2014 Sochi Games. The only way his timing could have been worse would have been if he refused to walk out to the bench for the drop of the first puck.
If it can be presumed it was at least a mutual decision (Church didn’t even say goodbye to the team) and also that, as insiders say, there’s no smoking gun of scandal here, then it must have to do with expectations – both those of Hockey Canada and Church’s own.
The expectation has been clear since he first took on the job: Win in Sochi, nothing less.
In fact, if the team were to win, all glory would go to the players; lose, and a large proportion lands on the coach. You can’t win, but you certainly can lose.
At the 2013 world championships in Ottawa, Church’s team ended up with the dreaded silver (in women’s hockey, there are only two teams battling for gold or accepting, with regret, silver.)
The Americans were younger but, most significantly, they were dramatically faster. Watching Amanda Kessel fly around the Canadian defence in the gold-medal game was to know, instantly, that the Canadian team in Ottawa could not possibly be the Canadian team in Sochi.
Over the intervening months, Church and Team Canada officials – including former coach Melody Davidson – tinkered with the lineup and even dropped familiar players. Whether the roster changes went too far, or not far enough, we will now never know.
The Canadian women’s record heading into Sochi had been excellent, yet, Church quit because, he said, he did not feel the organization had full confidence in him.
That would be correct; it did not. And it was not a sudden lack of confidence – it had been around since the Ottawa stumble and, as Sochi approached, had intensified.
National team veteran Caroline Ouellette said “It was an emotional day,” when Church made his decision public. But, in fact, it has been an emotional year: the loss in Ottawa, the death of Church’s father, necessary and debatable changes to the roster, surging expectations for Sochi.
That the Canadian women promptly went out and lost 5-1 to the Americans in a Calgary exhibition match could not have been encouraging with the Winter Games only eight weeks away.
As telling as Church’s departure is Davidson’s instant refusal to consider taking up the task, even though she previously had enormous success in leading the team to gold medals in Turin and Vancouver.
But who needs the pressure?
Not when, as that appalling ad put it: “You don’t win silver – you lose gold.”
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