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Colorado Avalanche defenceman Ray Bourque lifts the Stanley Cup after defeating the New Jersey Devils 3-1 to win the series four games to three in Denver on Saturday June 9, 2001. (RYAN REMIORZ/Canadian Press)
Colorado Avalanche defenceman Ray Bourque lifts the Stanley Cup after defeating the New Jersey Devils 3-1 to win the series four games to three in Denver on Saturday June 9, 2001. (RYAN REMIORZ/Canadian Press)

Roy MacGregor

Sports matter to the nation, but hockey matters the most Add to ...

There are times when Canada feels like a one-sport country.

So dominant is hockey in the national conscience that, at an Order-of-Canada ceremony held at Rideau Hall on Friday, so much fuss was made over the two hockey stars being honoured – community-conscious Trevor Linden and three-time Olympic champion Hayley Wickenheiser – that it seemed there might a fourth level to the three-tier national honours system reserved only for those who can skate.

While attendees crowded about the two deserving recipient for autographs and photographs, brilliant scientists, generous philanthropists, accomplished artists and one other gifted athlete – four-time Olympian Tricia Smith, winner of a silver medal in rowing and senior vice-president of the Canadian Olympic Committee – had to make do with family pictures and the well wishes of other recipients.

Such is the power of the national sport. (There are two, officially, but the hold of lacrosse, a wonderful game, on the national psyche compared to hockey is roughly the equivalent of the Green Party’s hold on Parliament.) Hockey is so dominant, in fact, that it almost squashed all other sports in the country when it came to having a special place in which to honour the stars of the various games Canadians play.

At one point, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame shared quarters at Toronto’s Exhibition Place with the far more popular Hockey Hall of Fame. When the Hockey Hall of Fame left for its own downtown quarters in the early 1990s, the second hall foundered to a point where it virtually disappeared.

“We became the orphan,” says Roger Jackson, the 1964 Olympic gold medal rower who ran the successful Own the Podium program at the 2010 Winter Games and is today chair of the reborn Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame.

Efforts were made to find a new home, but they failed. The hall found the “perfect location” in the old Ottawa railway station, only to have the government of the day change its mind and decide to keep the building operating as a conference centre. By 2006, Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame was an embarrassment, existing only as a web site and in storage.

Jackson was asked by then Senator Trevor Eyton if he could help “find a solution.” They put the Sports Hall of Fame out for proposals, nine cities made pitches and in 2008 it was awarded to Calgary. On Canada Day 2011, the new $30-million building opened at Canada Olympic Park, fully financed and, according to Jackson, $112,000 under budget. A $20-million endowment fund to cover operating costs is, he says, well on its way to completion.

Tuesday night at Calgary’s TELUS Convention Centre six new athletes will be inducted – football star Lui Passaglia, paralympian Lauren Woolstencroft, soccer player Andrea Neil, triathlete Peter Reid, IOC member Dick Pound and, of course, a hockey star in Raymond Bourque – bringing the total number of inductees to 520, representing some 60 sports.

The new hall is, by early accounts, a hit. It opens with a 14-minute film that captures the emotional highs of all Canadian sport. “People come out of it just trembling,” Jackson says. Visitors pass by statues of eight iconic sports heroes – from Wayne Gretzky to Herman (Jackrabbit) Smith-Johannsen – and visit a dozen galleries and 50 interactive exhibits.

Hockey, of course, is represented, from early community teams (Kenora, Dawson City, etc.) to Paul Henderson, the hero of the 1972 Summit Series who, for reasons that no one comprehends, is not in the Hockey Hall of Fame in Toronto.

But hockey here is only a portion, one sport among five dozen sports. There are exhibits paying tribute to diver Sylvie Bernier, skier Ken Read and the other Crazy Canucks, cyclist Clara Hughes, speed skaters Gaetan Boucher and Catriona Le May Doan, curler Sandra Schmirler, paralympic star Chantal Peticlerc, swimmer Alex Baumann, inspirational runner Terry Fox and even a horse, Northern Dancer.

“They all hold their own,” Jackson says.

“They all tell us that sport does matter to us as Canadians – and finally, we have this important tool in which to honour those athletes who make sport matter so much.”

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