It managed what coast-to-coast ice storms, power outages, blizzards and colossal snowfalls could not.
It brought this country to a standstill.
Even the federal government came to a full stop, Minister of Transport Lisa Raitt on hand and Prime Minister Stephen Harper taking to his Twitter account to let the country know he was “Looking forward to @HockeyCanada’s announcement at 11 AM ET. With so much talent to choose from, I’m sure they’ll make us proud in #Sochi2014.”
While there are many positives to be said about the naming of the men’s Olympic hockey team, the best thing about the event may be it puts an end to everyone within reach of a microphone or a keyboard playing general manager Lego with the 40-or-so names under consideration for the 25 jobs.
Only in Canada could you fill the stands of a hockey arena to watch middle-aged men in dark suits take turns reading from a list of names. If it looked at times like good church wardens moving up to read the gospel, so be it. The faithful were all ears and, in the end, cheers.
“Our goal,” Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut said. “Easy. Finish No. 1.”
No pressure here.
So seriously do Canadians take this team that they once watched live, coast to coast, as a press conference was held to announce the third goaltender for the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, a player who would never play a game and not even dress for most.
So opinionated are Canadians about who should make such a team that the immediate discussion concerned those not named rather than named. It was fascinating to watch Canada executive director Steve Yzerman grow increasingly annoyed at the questions concerning the non-selection of the likes of Martin St. Louis and Claude Giroux.
No wonder at one point Yzerman apologized for losing “my train of thought” during the formal announcement – he was thinking, surely, of the repercussions to come if on Feb. 23 Canada does not win the gold-medal game.
Worse, if Canada is not even in the game.
Yzerman may elect to become the Edward Snowden of Sochi International Airport, refusing to leave for fear of what his home country will do to him if only they can get their hands on him.
Yzerman hardly acted alone – he headed a six-man selection committee that included Boston Bruins general manager Peter Chiarelli, St. Louis Blues GM Doug Armstrong, Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe, Detroit Red Wings GM Ken Holland and head coach Mike Babcock – but he will be the lightning rod if matters go wrong.
Yzerman’s team took a number of debatable turns. They left off hot Philadelphia Flyers sniper Giroux and reliable veteran St. Louis of Yzerman’s own Tampa Bay Lightning – electing instead to take a surprise such as San Jose Sharks forward Patrick Marleau and the winger for which certain team captain Sidney Crosby had openly lobbied, Chris Kunitz of the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Still, it is a superb team, and Canada is deep enough in hockey talent to put together two teams that could compete well in Sochi.
Merely competing, however, is not what the 34.88 million GMs who live in Canada expect. They want gold and nothing less, just as Aubut promised.
It was intriguing, then, to listen to Babcock raise a few caution flags that will, unfortunately, be ignored by the populace.
“Honestly,” the coach said when asked about which other teams he feared, “I’m nervous about them all.”
Well he should be.
Sweden was the best team in 2002, and fell asleep against Belarus. Gold-medal winner Canada might well have been out of the medal round in Vancouver in 2010 had its match against Slovakia gone only a minute or two longer.
Canada has gone through a long stretch lately of failing to come out on top in both the world championship and the world junior championship.
To Babcock’s credit, he seems to have moved beyond the coaching arrogance that has doomed this Canada at so many world tournaments. Poor coaching decisions in Nagano in 1998 left Wayne Gretzky and Yzerman on the bench during the lost playoff shootout because, incredulously, those running the bench had decreed the snow on the ice called for strong skaters. A foolhardy decision in Turin in 2006 to “play our NHL game” and forget the bigger ice surface saw the team lose even to Switzerland as it stumbled throughout the tournament.
The most recent lesson coming out of the Canadian juniors coming fourth in Malmo, Sweden, last weekend was that speed and skill are of the essence. Babcock said Tuesday a lot of the decision-making that went into this men’s team had to do with “pace” on the larger ice surface.
“How quickly you have to play,” he said, determines who succeeds and who fails.
Canada has succeeded more than any other country since the NHL first freed its players to go to the Olympics in 1998.
Twice, Salt Lake City and Vancouver, Canadians wore the gold medal. And twice, coming seventh in Turin and fourth in Nagano, they have finished with no medals at all.
A medal this time – of any colour – would be most welcome.
For one thing, it would distract the eye from the Petro-Canada jerseys and those, uh, stunning new jackets they also introduced Tuesday.
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