Do Canada’s Olympic women’s hockey players ever feel sorry for what they’re doing to other teams?
Not that they should or need to. This isn’t war, but it’s close. If you don’t want to lose, you shouldn’t play.
But every once in a while the Canadians must look across at the other bench and feel pity for the wretchedness of anyone who has to play them, right?
“Not really,” defenceman Renata Fast said on Thursday. “By us playing them hard, it makes them better. They’re going to learn things.”
Fast said this quite brightly. As though she’d given the matter serious thought and decided that she and her friends were doing God’s work.
The flip side of this haughtiness is that Canada can never lose. It is the Harlem Globetrotters, but the other team is trying. As with its opponents, it is 60 minutes away from mocking headlines and humiliation. It’s a lot less likely to happen to Canada, but it’s still possible.
Canada gets one semi-mulligan every four years when it plays the United States in the Olympic final, but no other slips are permitted. So how does that feel?
“Thanks for reminding me of that,” Canadian coach Troy Ryan said after practice the other day. He laughed as he said it, but not really.
In the forever debate about elite women’s hockey – is it too competitively lopsided to be tolerated? – these are the two philosophical polarities. You can’t feel bad about winning, and you should feel terrified of losing.
On Thursday, it was Switzerland’s turn to stand between those forces and get crushed like a red-and-white pop can. The final score was 12-1.
The Swiss are the fifth-ranked team in the world. They reached the semi-finals of the past world championship. In that game, they played Canada tough for half a game.
They were never going to win, but they had reasonable hope of not humiliating themselves.
Canada-Switzerland was the first game on the first day of the Olympic hockey tournament. The officials admitted several hundred Chinese spectators. They were given small flags. They were told when they could cheer. Then they were told when they should shut up.
Every once in a while the Olympic mascot, a corpulent panda named Bing Dwen Dwen, would come out and dance. Nobody moved. But when virtual Bing on the big screen told them to clap, they clapped. Every single one of them.
So this was going to be a complete experience of totalitarian hockey – on the ice and off it.
Switzerland is coached by an easygoing, old-school Torontonian, Colin Muller. Muller went over to Europe to play pro for a year when he was 19 and never came back. He’s been spreading the good hockey word since.
“If we can get it down to 40-20 shots, anything can happen,” Muller shrugged ahead of the game. “Sixty-to-10? Not much is going to happen.”
The shots ended up 70-15. Not much happened.
It’s not that Canada is better than most everyone else. It’s that it seems to be playing a different game from them.
Several times, a Canadian would give lazy chase to a Swiss player fleeing backward toward the Swiss end. Running from Canada is a bad idea. It excites the players’ blood lust.
The Canadian would allow her opponent to drift in the wrong direction, doing all the puck carrying. When the Swiss had entered the danger zone near her own net, she would be dispossessed.
You’ve heard of the transition game. This must be de-transition. It’s like watching an episode of Our Planet entitled Predators on Ice.
A while ago, Switzerland’s Nicole Bullo was asked about her hopes for the encounter. Bullo has been to five Olympics. It doesn’t matter that she hasn’t won anything. That much history puts you at the top of hockey’s social order.
“It’s an honour to be on the ice and play against [Canada],” Bullo said.
So much for mind games. When you’re getting that much deference from a player that veteran, you’ve won before you get out of bed.
If it ended with a crooked number, it should have been crookeder. And the Swiss did score. Switzerland now has three goals against Canada. In history. Canada has 121 against the Swiss.
Is this fair? No, not in the least. It’s so unfair it can be hard to watch.
Some people think this is a reason to either right-size Olympic women’s hockey (meaning only three or four teams get to play) or eliminate it altogether. Those people never seem to ask the opinion of the teams who are out there taking the actual beatings. If it doesn’t bother them, why should it bother you so much?
Thursday’s final score still flattered the Swiss. The only reason they managed to come off that well was their netminder, Andrea Braendli. She managed the odd feat of being beaten a dozen times and still keeping her save percentage over .800.
If anyone on the Swiss team should have been hangdog, it was Braendli. This was her big hockey moment and she’d just been shot so full of holes they’d have to close her professional casket.
But she didn’t sound defeated. In fact, she seemed elated. Like you are after you’ve just survived something terrifying.
“We weren’t that ready for them,” Braendli said. “But it was a good learning experience.”
(Maybe Fast is onto something.)
Another person learning on the job was Canada’s next-gen star, Sarah Fillier. The 21-year-old scored the first two goals of the game. She came off the ice whale-eyed and gulping.
“Speechless,” Fillier said of the experience. “I’m ready to go play another one right now.”
One was struck by the similarity of tone, if not content, of the two young women’s comments.
Maybe playing against Canada has something in common with playing for Canada.
The first is a crucible. The second is a call to greatness. Whenever and however you do it – but especially on this stage – there’s honour in both things.