If the home team doesn't win hockey gold, much of the nation will mourn the Games as a failure
In his decorated 17-year goaltending career—four Vezina Trophies, three Stanley Cups, NHL career records for wins and shutouts—Martin Brodeur could not recall anything quite like it, thousands saluting him in this place and in this way with the most precious, emotionally charged words in his nation's vocabulary. "I love you"? No, "Go, Canada, Go!" ¬∂ "They're going crazy. People are screaming, 'Bring home the gold for Canada!'" Brodeur says. "It was unbelievable." ¬∂ Brodeur still marvels at the scene because it happened not as he was boarding a flight to the Vancouver Olympics, but as he was playing in the Mike Weir Charity Classic outside Toronto seven months ago. Only in Canada: A man goes to a golf outing and Olympic hockey breaks out.
If Brodeur and his teammates reach the gold medal match on Sunday, Feb. 28, it will be the most anticipated, most watched and most significant hockey game ever played on Canadian ice. That assertion covers almost as much ground as the country itself (3.9 million square miles, six time zones). But the other milestone matches in Canadian history—the finale of the 1972 Summit Series with the Soviet Union and the 2002 gold medal win that ended a 50-year Olympic drought—were played in Moscow and Salt Lake City, respectively. One might argue for the 1975 New Year's Eve classic in Montreal between the Canadiens and the Red Army ("If there's more pressure than that in Vancouver, we'll need paramedics in the dressing room," says Jacques Lemaire, a Team Canada assistant coach who played in the 3--3 tie against the famed Soviet club), but that game didn't consume a nation for four years, which has pretty much been the case since Canada lost to Russia in the 2006 Olympic quarterfinals in Turin.
No, this is the perfect storm: each country's best, the five-ring seal of approval, mid-winter hockey in the sport's homeland. To further elevate the stakes, Vancouver could be the last Olympics for NHL players. Commissioner Gary Bettman is hesitant about another midseason hiatus for Sochi in 2014 because many owners believe the two-week break hurts their business more than the global spotlight helps. "If this really is it," says Team Canada defenseman Chris Pronger, "you want to go out with a bang."
The projected gold-medal-game TV audience of 12 million Canadians (a third of the population) seems modest considering that 3.98 million, on 13 electronic media outlets, glimpsed the puff of white smoke emerging from a gussied-up agricultural exhibition hall in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, on Dec. 30 when executive director Steve Yzerman, surrounded by Hockey Canada advisers and hundreds of cheering fans, named the 23-man Olympic roster. Since being given the job in October 2008, Yzerman, the former Detroit Red Wings star, has displayed surpassing calm in dealing with what International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel has called "a nation of 35 million general managers." As Canadians argued the merits of suitable wingers for Sidney Crosby and debated Patrick Marleu's mental toughness, Yzerman and his staff crisscrossed the NHL, dog-paddling around a remarkably deep talent pool: Of the NHL players who were left off their countries' Olympic rosters, nine of the top 10 scorers are Canadians.
"Everybody on my [cottage's lake in Saskatchewan] picked the team all summer," says Mike Babcock, Canada's Olympic coach. "They auctioned off a fishing trip with me to raise money for kids' cancer, and one night I laid out for them [which players had the best chances of making the team]. I figured they might as well get something worthwhile from the trip."
The 46-player orientation camp run by Babcock in Calgary last August drew more than 200 credentialed media. "I was figuring we'd just be working on systems so I went down to the rink in the morning and did some [weightlifting]," Pronger says. "Then I go out for practice, and it's 100 miles per hour. I'm like, Holy f---, I hope they're not looking at me. Guys are flying around, and I'm like, Tone her down, boys."
Four days of Mach 3 practices ended with a Red versus White scrimmage in the new Olympic team jerseys before 19,289 fans, who paid $20 to $50 a ticket. In the third period White forward Patrick Sharp, a Chicago Blackhawk, looked around the sold-out Pengrowth Saddledome and murmured to teammates on the bench, "It's like we're back in the playoffs, Game 7."
To borrow from Pronger, maybe Canada should tone 'er down. There is something charming about the hyperventilation, of course, but something equally insidious. The Canadian hockey team threatens to be The Monster That Swallowed Vancouver. If Team Canada loses the final—or fails to reach it—the disappointment could color the nation's take on the entire Games. The only color that counts is gold.
Nearly 34 years after his memorable Olympic downhill victory on the home snow of Innsbruck, skier Franz Klammer, who carried Austria's hopes on his back, says, "It's extremely difficult to block out the hype in your own country, but Canada has to do what it needs to do in ice hockey. There's an extra burst, a kind of turbocharge in these situations. You have a chance to do something at home for your country in the Number 1 sport." Kaiser Franz pauses. "If you don't win, it takes a lot away from your career."
Don't squeeze those sticks too tightly now, boys.
On a November afternoon in Ottawa, a formal man strides into a conference room in the Langevin Block building across from Parliament. He seems taller and, blessedly, less stiff than he does on TV. Stephen Harper is prime minister of Canada. More to the point, he is the First Fan and a hockey historian. He is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research and a booster of the Hockey Hall of Fame candidacy of James George Aylwin Creighton, who organized the sport's first indoor game, in Montreal in 1875. The pictures on the walls include Harper with the Calgary Flames, with Bobby Orr, with Jean Béliveau. His enthusiasm when he's quizzed about the photos makes clear that the honor of being in the same frame with these men is all his.
Of course, if Harper were a working stiff from southwest Montreal, he still might have had a close link to the game's great names. The mover lugging the bed up the stairs might have been Raymond Bourque's brother-in-law. The folks in the house diagonally across the way might have been Scotty Bowman's parents. This is why the sport, and this gold medal game, are so personal: Virtually everyone in Canada has a connection to hockey, and most seem to know someone who knows an NHL player or coach—sort of One Degree of Kevin Bieksa (the Canucks defenseman).
In a sprawling land with two official languages and seemingly 200 regional grievances, hockey is the connective tissue, the game that reflects Canada's best self. "Hockey is a fast, aggressive, tough sport, and that's an important part of Canadian psychology and history," says Harper, who blows past the interview's allotted 15 minutes because the subject is right in his sweet spot. "It's sometimes forgotten because Canadians are thought of as peace-loving and fair-minded and pleasant. Which we are. But that's not inconsistent with tough and aggressive and ambitious."
French historian Jacques Barzun wrote that "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." That is even more true of hockey and Canada. "You can say soccer in many countries is just as important as hockey is in Canada," Harper says, "but nobody has a national claim to soccer the way Canada has a national claim to hockey or the United States has a national claim to baseball. They define the country in a unique way."
As if to make his point, the prime minister presents a parting gift: a puck with his signature on one side and Canada's coat of arms on the other.
Starting with a cushy opener on Feb. 16 against Norway, a team with just one NHL player, Team Canada will feel the vise of pride (and expectations) that enveloped Brodeur on the fairways last summer slowly squeeze ever tighter. If Canada—with Crosby as the offensive fulcrum and Brodeur as the presumptive No. 1 goalie—secures its gold medal birthright on that final day in Vancouver, a nation will warm itself in the reflected glow of Olympic glory.
And if a tricky bounce or a hot opposing goalie should high-stick a nation's destiny—six different countries have played in the three finals since the NHL first participated in 1998—well, the mood will be Go, Canada, Go ... and don't hurry back.
For Michael Farber's interview with Canada's First Fan of Hockey, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, go to SI.com/olympics
The country's beloved hockey team threatens to become THE MONSTER THAT SWALLOWED VANCOUVER.
LARRY MACDOUGAL/CP/AP (TEAM)
FULL FOCUS An August camp in Calgary for men's, women's and Paralympic players fueled the national debate over lineups and roster picks.
P.M. EDITION Harper (with son Ben and the Flames in '08) is Canada's devoted First Fan.