Dan Craig, the Edmonton-born icemaker extraordinaire, did everyone planning to watch, play or cover the Turin Winter Olympics a huge favour yesterday by turning down a request to place a loonie in the ice. As Craig so thoughtfully put it: "My job is to make the ice for everybody. I can't have the Czechs come up to me and say, 'What the heck?' I can't have the Swedes, Finns, you name it, come to me and say I did something to favour Canada."
No, he cannot. Craig is employed by the National Hockey League these days and his primary job is make sure the ice is safe (to prevent injuries) and true (so that those feather-soft passes produced by these skilled players actually reach their targets). But more than that, it's time to put the legend of the lucky loonie to rest.
Four years ago, when Canada won a gold medal for the first time in 50 years in men's Olympic hockey, the story of the lucky loonie was a wonderful postscript to a tournament that started badly but ended in storybook fashion. After Canada defeated the United States in the final game, the team's executive director, Wayne Gretzky, sat in the interview room and pulled the aforementioned coin out of his jacket pocket and told the story of how it had come to be buried at centre ice before the start of the tournament. Gretzky's anecdote made a household name out of Trent Evans, the member of Craig's staff who set the loonie in the ice in the first place.
The problem came later. Just about every Canadian competing internationally in any sport tried to duplicate the success of the lucky loonie. Canada's Davis Cup tennis team, for example, stuck a loonie under the net for a key qualifying match against Brazil and then pulled it out after they'd scored a dramatic upset victory. It went on and on like that, on every stage in every sport, until, finally, what had started out as a nice little story had devolved into a cliché.
What really made me think twice about our fascination with the lucky loonie was a conversation with Paul Kariya the summer after the Salt Lake Olympics in 2002. I was helping Kariya ghostwrite the story of his Olympic experience, and he talked for hours and hours about the process -- beginning with the pre-Olympic camp in Calgary, then the slow start to the tournament and how, in the end, the team got better and better until Kariya concluded: "We could have played the gold-medal game a hundred times and no one was going to beat us -- no matter who we played."
I kept trying to bring up the loonie story and Kariya seemed puzzled as to why I wanted to include it. What bearing did it really have on the outcome? Kariya knew Craig from working with him on the league's injury committee, and after the gold-medal game, Craig went into the Canadian locker room and told the players what had happened.
That was the first they'd heard of it -- long after they'd received their medals, long after the capacity crowd in Salt Lake broke into a spontaneous rendition of O Canada as the clock was winding down and long after they'd played one of the best games of their lives. The best I could get from Kariya on the lucky loonie was, "It was just one more piece of the puzzle, an amazing thing when you think about it."
And that was it; that was all he wanted to say about a story that had developed into a national talking point. But the longer I thought about it, the more I realized Kariya was right to de-emphasize the lucky loonie. As players, they were the ones out there, working and sweating and dealing with the pressure of trying to win. They had to overcome that awful first game against Sweden, the narrow victory over Germany and the tie with the Czech Republic before finally winning three in a row when it mattered most, in the medal round. When they did pull it out in the end, to attribute even a portion of their success to a good-luck charm seemed hollow and frivolous.
In some ways, putting so much emphasis on the lucky loonie in the aftermath of that wonderful game diminished what they'd actually accomplished in Salt Lake -- as if it wouldn't have happened without that coin down there, frozen into the ice. So now, four years later, one can only silently mouth a word thanks to Craig -- that they're not loading up the ice in Turin with a coin, or a rabbit's foot or any other good-luck charm. It made for a cute story -- once. Now, it's time to let it rest in peace.