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MacGregor: National dance of life branches out from its hockey roots

When, in the long march of time, they speak of the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games, they will talk about the "Golden Goal."

When they speak of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games, they may mention the "Golden Goalpost" – but no matter, the point is that Canada has now proved world dominance in its national sport, both men and women, through two successive Olympics.

There will be things said of these Olympics that, over that same stretch of time, people will simply not believe – as in the toughest challenge put up against Canada in the men's tournament when it mattered was Latvia; as in the remarkable luck the Canadian women had against the leading United States, when first a shot bounces in off a knee, when second a clearing shot on an empty Canadian net ticks off a goalpost, when third an absurd penalty to the U.S. affords Canada the power play in overtime that gave it the gold.

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Well, so what? The most accurate analysis, metrics or explanation ever delivered on the game of hockey remains, and always will be, stuff happens – even if that is not the precise wording.

The Canadian men deserved to win because they were able to play any game presented to them at Bolshoy arena: the plug of the plucky Latvians, the NHL game of the United States and the hybrid match against Sweden, which oscillated back and forth, one minute a classic European chess game, next minute an NHL unleash-the-horses match, next minute a full period of, "Let's just end this thing and go home" as the Swedes conceded defeat long before the clock could order it.

The Canadian women deserved to win because they faced incredible adversity over the past year, losing four in a row at one point to the Americans, losing and gaining a coach, losing and gaining a captain, and coming through it all under the inspiring play of Hayley Wickenheiser, whom some foolishly said was done at 35, and the hope of the future in 22-year-old Marie-Philip Poulin, who scored the winners in both Vancouver and here.

Sochi was an incredible journey for both hockey teams – nine time zones for most, a dozen for some, to a world of little familiarity.

It harked back to the very first Winter Games, held in Chamonix, France, in 1924, where the team sailed on RMS Montcalm in seas so high it was said that Harry (Moose) Watson made walking-around money by betting his teammates on who would throw up first. The big Newfoundlander later claimed he never missed a meal on the voyage.

Moose was retained by the Toronto Telegram to send back reports, which he did faithfully, one telegram – early e-mail – telling readers the 1924 version of Team Canada would "justify the confidence that has been placed in us and retain for Canada supremacy in the hockey world."

Back then it was a bit of a lark. Canada never lost a game and Moose set an Olympic record with 36 goals, including 13 in one game.

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It is not only much harder to deliver on that mandate, but that expectation in supremacy now includes the women, gold-medal winners at the past four Winter Games.

The Canada of 1924, however, is not the Canada of 2014. Something happened in Vancouver in 2010 that had an effect on how Canadians regard their treasured winter game. Supremacy was spread to cover all of winter and in sports far different from the national game.

In Calgary in 1988, the host country, Canada, managed all of five medals, none of them gold. In Vancouver 22 years later, it counted 26 medals, 14 of them gold. It was a moment that changed this country forever – and for the better.

Canada came to Russia with a new international personality, a new slogan – "We Are Winter" – and in a foreign land with profoundly different pressures, the athletes delivered: 10 gold, 10 silver, five bronze for a total of 25, very nearly matching Vancouver's glory.

Canada had set a higher goal, hoping for most overall medals, and came up slightly short as host Russia took 33, U.S. 28 and Norway 26. But there are times when not quite reaching your goal is more than enough. Aim high, end high.

Perhaps Sochi held no final moment as Vancouver did, where Jarome Iginla hears his name shouted – "Iggy! Iggy!" – and somehow gets the puck out of the corner to Sidney Crosby who scores the overtime goal that put the exclamation mark at the end of a spectacular Winter Games.

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But that is not to say Sochi did not have equal moments. So very much, perhaps too much, has been made in the past of the import of hockey in the Canadian psyche. Morley Callaghan called it our "national drama." A half century ago, John Macfarlane and Bruce Kidd wrote that, "In a land so inescapably and inhospitably cold, hockey is the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive."

But that "dance of life" has other tunes now. Hockey may be our religion, the rink our church, but they dance now beyond the rinks and, as we all know so well after watching first Vancouver and now Sochi, it is a beauty to behold.

Think of freestyle skier Alex Bilodeau racing to the barriers to lift his physically challenged older brother Frédéric over so the two could celebrate Alex's gold medal together; see slopestyle skier Dara Howell flying through the air as if sprinkled with pixie dust; try to keep a dry eye as the Dufour-Lapointe sisters, all three of them, hold onto each other as if gold and silver in freestyle moguls is a family prize, not an individual one; feel for Charles Hamelin collecting gold in one speed-skating event and then inexplicably crashing in the next; marvel at Jennifer Jones curling to absolute perfection from opening match to gold medal; laugh as the super-fit men's curling team leaps as one to the top of the podium; and give thanks to the ever-mysterious hockey gods for the women's hockey team mounting a comeback against the arch-rival Americans that strained credulity and will go down as one of the greatest resurgence-collapses in Olympic hockey history.

And these, understand, are but a few of the stories here. Canada found a swagger in Vancouver that was as apparent on the sidewalks of Sochi as ever it was along Robson Street.

It is the smallest moments, at times, that linger longest. Yes, Jonathan Toews played a brilliant game against the Swedes, as did goaltender Carey Price. Yes, Sidney Crosby's first goal of these Olympics was a beauty and much welcomed. Yes, the Canadian defence was likely as good a unit as ever iced by this country.

But what of that moment when it was all over? Back of the bench you can see a man who did not play the game in full uniform and skates. He is P.K. Subban, who was not even tapped to play, but damned if he was going to miss out on the celebration.

And right behind Subban, hobbling, is John Tavares, the wonderful, brilliant centre for the New York Islanders, a man who currently stands third in NHL scoring but will quickly slip away, his season lost to a torn knee ligament and torn meniscus in a collision suffered Wednesday in the game against Latvia.

Subban waited to help him onto the ice so they could join their teammates. Tavares took a few tentative steps out onto the ice, stopped, turned, and tossed his crutch back onto the bench.

He, after all, comes from a country that now stands on its own when it comes to the Winter Games.

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