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2014 Olympics: The Strange Relationship of Canadians and Russians to Hockey

Team Canada, victorious at home, celebrate their golden moment in front of an adoring crowd.

The last Olympics, held in Vancouver, Canada in 2010, saw the long awaited return of the Olympic Championship to the Canadian Men's hockey team. The home team.  "Iggy to Sid" showed up immediately on hats and t-shirts and Jarome Iginla and Sidney Crosby earned themselves a place in the collective hearts of the Canadian people.  Whether or not it is true, Canadians see hockey as "their game" and as long as one being is alive who remembers the moment or the story of it, that will continue to be true. It was the most watched television program in the history of the country and became, instantly, a defining moment in the collective psyche. 

To give evidence to the wide sweeping pull of hockey to the Canadian people, a different sort of iconic Canadian entity, the band known as The Tragically Hip, immortalized another historic hockey moment with their song Fireworks.

If there's a goal that everyone remembers,
It was back in ol' 72
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember was sitting beside you
You said you didn't give a fuck about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr

Like the 1972 goal and the game that spawned it, you didn't have to define "the game" when you asked someone whether they'd seen it. You didn't even have to define "the goal" when you talked about it. To my generation "the goal" was Paul Henderson's game clincher and "the game" meant the final game in the 1972 Summit series. In the new reality, "the game" means the gold medal game against the USA and "the goal" mean's Crosby's, Iginla assisted overtime winner, naturally. It overtook that '72 goal as "the goal" and Crosby became the icon and idol of a new generation of hockey fans.

Both of those great moments were come from behinds. Both series saw the Canadians trailing, entering the final games in "must win" situations. Each needed to win all of their remaining games to emerge victorious. And each did. Both tournaments reaffirmed deeply held beliefs about who and what we are as a hockey country. You never count the Canadians out until they're down and all the way out. If there's a glimmer, we know our players will fixate on it like champions. In those moments they engender us as a nation, embodying the spirit of a sparsely populated, vast country whose very terrain and climate weeded out the weak from the strong with ruthless precision back in the pioneering days.

Of all the major league sports in existence, hockey is one of the toughest and requires, in addition to skill and athleticism, a tremendous determination and brute force of will. It is no wonder that the two countries who have come to epitomize excellence in it, Canada and Russia, share a similar vast, harsh geography that was unkind in the extreme to those of weak mind or body.

In a country that is highly socialized, amateur athletics are what you do in high school and college and Canadian Olympic athletes, with notable exceptions here and there, usually exist in the middle of the pack. Except in the winter Olympics, Canada doesn't win a lot of golds and silvers and doesn't have national programs in place that make being a star amateur athlete particularly easy or worthwhile. There is no particular national pride associated with any other sport, even the official National Sport of Lacrosse. We're happy when Canadian athletes win, of course, but we are not collectively devastated when they lose.

Not so in hockey. We own those wins and losses as if every member on the team was our very own child. We are gripped and obsessed by the spectacle of our guys, who are universally, as a whole, considered the best players in the world, carrying the Maple Leaf to the podium. A little piece of each of us goes with them when they do. When they don't a little piece of each of us mourns with them and for them.

In a way, it is the payback, the bride-price, if you will, that we feel we deserve in exchange for losing so many of them to their jobs in the NHL where they stand at attention for a different national anthem and entertain another country's citizens for much of the year. We're not so foolish that we believe the NHL is an international or even North American organization. We know it is as American as apple pie and that Canada will always struggle to ice competitive teams. That we have a very limited number of cities that can support the NHL version of the game with its need for huge gate receipts and a large market to feed its growing salary hunger. We don't begrudge the players that, we know it's not anything they can change, we're proud of them. 

But, every four years when the Olympics roll around we look forward to having our guys back home where they belong, wearing the red and white, playing for the True North, Strong and Free. For those few weeks we can forget the talent drain, the lost sons and brothers and friends and just be what we feel we are: a hockey country. And not just a hockey country, the hockey country.

There Was Never Any Doubt

Frankly, I was just waiting for the announcement. I never thought, not for a second, the NHL would not send its players. It would have been a public relations nightmare. After a season shortened by a lock-out nobody really understands, the hubris of the NHL trying to further control our hockey experience would have been the proverbial straw under which the camel not only broke its back but refused to get up.

Had the NHL decided to not allow the players to go to the Olympics the sour taste Canadians would have had in their collective mouths would have been positively epic in proportion. Bettman knows this, as sure as he knows that without Canadian players the NHL is, at best, a second tier league. In popular parlance it would have been describable as pissing in the water dish. Not that it would have resulted in a mass migration away from the game we love, but it would have added an unnecessary animosity to an already precarious relationship. Ask, for instance, a Winnipeg Jets or Quebec Nordique fan, what they think of Gary Bettman and the NHL. Fair warning, stand a few paces back when you ask because the response might include some spitting.

It's Not a Trend, It's History

Whether it is the fact that hockey was invented in Canada (about a mile from my home, actually, on Long Pond, where I skated as a child) or the natural way it slid into Canadian lives, hockey has been important to Canada for much longer than it has been important to any other country. Since somewhere between 1800 and 1810, if Thomas Haliburton can be considered a reliable narrator. That has less to do with any real or imagined athletic supremacy than it does with natural conditions.  The one thing Canada has lots of, for large parts of the year, is ice. The one sport almost every Canadian played as a child was hockey. The one minor league virtually every village, town and city organizes and supports is hockey. The one team almost every school found the funds to participate in was hockey. There is always a hockey game, and a good one, within driving distance. If you can't afford seats to the Maple Leafs, you can probably afford to go to the London Knights and all their great players will end up in the NHL some day, anyway. It's a little like a preview.

If there is no NHL team, as is the case in the area where I live, when you can't get to Halifax to see the Moosehead for fifteen dollars or so, you can always go to the local rink and watch the Royals. Three bucks and you're in. You can get a hot chocolate with change from your five spot.  And it's good hockey. There's no Sidney Crosby, but there's that kid who's likely to be drafted and that other one who already has a scout parked in his driveway. I have seen both Nathan McKinnon and Jonathon Drouin play dozens of times. If you're a fan of either the Avalanche or the Lightning, you're in for a treat. One most of the people around here could not afford, even if the team was camped down the road. But they're still ours and we will allow no one and nothing to change that.

Not even Gary Bettman. You can take the player out of the country, but you can't take the country out of the player. Like the Swallows of Capistrano, they arrive in a flock every four years to don the uniform that looks like a modified flag and give us a little back. It's not hockey for a paycheque, it's not hockey for an NHL team, it's not even hockey for a love of the game, it's hockey for home.

In Canada, you may not always be able to watch NHL hockey, but you can always watch hockey. We can't prove our love of the game with attendance statistics for teams we don't have, the proof is in the hundreds of players who skip across the border every year to make sure the NHL remains a premier league. Those players aren't born and raised in a vacuum, they are surrounded by a hockey culture from the time they can walk. They get there, across that great, wide border, because they live in a country that values them highly and supports their dreams and when the time comes, sends them away with sadness but without recrimination or bitterness. 

As long as they come back to play for the home team, that will never change. The NHL understands this and although nothing forces them to do it and it represents a potential loss of revenue for them, I personally consider it an act of good faith. We might not be buttering the bread of the NHL, but we're the bakery.

Even Coke Gets It

Rarely does a piece of advertising (although the beer companies try very hard to accomplish it) speak for a nation and become a proof of what was always known by the rank and file. I have never witnessed such a visceral, if not sentimental, response to a piece of ad work as that which erupted over the 2010 Olympics Coke Commercial. I am not the only one who goes back to YouTube time and again to watch it.

I'm old enough that I was one of those kids sitting in a school gymnasium watching the big television on stilts when Henderson scored the goal against a team our fathers called "the Pinkos" or the "Russkies" or the "Commies". That two seconds of advertising, from .08 to .10, took me back to a moment that is tattooed on my soul. For the first time I was part of something bigger than me, something communal, something unifying. I didn't know it then, but it was national pride and that moment, shoulder to shoulder with my school mates, became indelibly linked to my sense of myself and my country and, in turn, that became linked to hockey. 

What other country, I ask, would take children from their classes and plop them together in a gymnasium to watch a hockey game?

The kid in the opening sequence could have been my brother, that little girl with the Christmas morning hockey stick could have been me, the crazy-face painted guy could be any number of my friends or family. Oh yes, Coke got it. They got it so thoroughly that they made two commercials, one to play before which encouraged our players to show the world whose game they were playing and one for after we won, if we did, that did a bit of good natured gloating. Now they know, it said, whose game they're playing. They should make t-shirts.

Don't laugh, but I drink Coke now. Because they got it. They should be rewarded for understanding their market so well. And every time I snap a tab or crack a seal on a Coke, I remember that moment all over again. 

We Get It. Canada Loves Hockey. What about the Russians?

Ah yes. The Russians. The Nemesis. Russian hockey began in 1930, about a hundred years after the Canadians first started batting a wooden puck around a frozen pond, but otherwise followed a close enough trajectory, evolving from the game of bandy but played on ice.

Under legendary coach Anatoli Tarasov, considered to be the father of so-called Russian hockey, heading CSKA Moscow from 1946 to 1975 and the Russian National Team from 1958 until 1972, hockey claimed a wide following in the Soviet Union and later, in its primary component part, Russia. The Tarasov developed "Russian Style" still evident in today's players, is very much influenced by Bandy, with a tremendous emphasis on athletic skill, where skating, passing and offensive talent is most valued.

When they began to play on the International stage in the 1954 World Championships, they immediately won - and then again in 1956 at the Olympics. Nine consecutive world championships, between 1963 and 1971 and nine consecutive Olympic golds cemented them and they became both a national treasure and a feared competitor, earning the name "The Big Red Machine". 

By 1972 Canada, never able to ice a team of its best players, fared poorly outside of North America and was boycotting international play in protest of the term and application of "amateur" status. The team that won the 1936 Olympic tournament with a combined score of 100-2 was no longer an international contender and 1952, when they won the Olympic gold, was the last year Canada was a factor in International or Olympic play until the next century. It is no coincidence that the Russian win in 1956 set the stage for a great rivalry between the two hockey juggernauts.

They won, the general consensus in Canada was, because Canada could not send her greatest players.

The 1972 Summit series was Canada's way of saying that on a level playing field they were every bit as good, and maybe better, than the Russians. While the NHL made sure the game stayed healthy and paid players to entertain fans across the continent, it cost both Canada and the United States an ability to compete at "amateur" events such as World Championships and Olympics. The Summit series was a match-race. An alley fight. An arm wrestle on the hood of a car.

By the time NHL players were allowed to compete in the Olympics, hockey was entrenched in Russia in much the same way it was in Canada - not merely a game, but a game that carried with it some of their National identity. They loved it the same way Canadians did and although they came to it later, they shared the same natural conditions which helped it integrate itself into the popular culture and their collective psyche. 

Naturally they became good at it. Not just good. Great. Such a tremendous rivalry, one of the greatest in modern sports, could not have survived had one side been clearly superior or always prevailed. No, the Russians and the Canadians always brought game to the arena and the ensuing result was always spectacular, if not heartbreaking.

With the cementing of the KHL as a bona fide competitive league of elite players, Russia proved the obsession was not a fleeting one, the love of the game not transitory, their talent at it not generational or anomalous. They were great hockey players and they were here to stay. They boast the same sort of die hard fans that Canada does, a child who displays hockey talent is rewarded with a system that will wring the last bit of natural skill out of him, a son who grows up to be a great hockey player is more than a national treasure, he is a prime bauble in the family jewel vault. They feel about hockey the same way Canadians do. Not just that they belong to it, it belongs to them.

And so the two countries are locked in an eternal state of competition - each claiming such a superior wealth of talent and skill, such a vast, seemingly endless supply of young players and adults willing to coach and support the sport.  An end to the rivalry does not appear on the immediate or distant horizon. Fewer and fewer Russians come across the pond now to claim Lord Stanley and a place in the NHL record books. Fewer and fewer of them need to leave home to get the adulation and stardom the NHL used to claim as its own, exclusive ability. Fewer and fewer of them need North American endorsement to be considered among the greats of the game and fewer and fewer of them believe the NHL is the only premier league these days.

Such incredible international dominance, held firmly for so many years gave the Russians the same thing that underpins the Canadian love affair with the game: they're good at it and whether it's the preponderance of frozen surfaces both nations share or something more intangible built into a people that must endure harsh conditions and make the best of them, the two countries are, seemingly indisputably, the most overwhelmingly attached to the game. 

Maybe most importantly, there are two basic styles of hockey. One, played by many European countries is called Russian and players like Sergei Federov, Alexander Mogilny and Pavel Datsyuk embody it. It is finesse and skill, incredible agility and athleticism. It is the stuff highlight reels get out of bed in the morning for. It can be physical, of course, but that is not the essence of it.

The other style, generally called Canadian, is played by North American countries and a few European countries and has more grit and grind in it. It is more physical and relies on physical strength and endurance as much as skill and finesse. Some players, Gretzky for instance, manage to straddle fence between the two styles while other greats, Crosby and Iginla as examples, are virtual textbooks cases of the so-called Canadian style.

Winning at Home 

It is an accepted hockey aphorism, like "defense wins cups", that "home ice is an advantage" and so the Russians have what Canada had at the last games. They are playing in their place, among their fans, for their people's pride. For a place in the same history book Team Canada has tucked under its arm. 

No other country, except Canada, would be so bitterly disappointed at a failure to win gold on home ice. The Russians will come out of the gate like the fabled bears that roam in the hinterlands and the Canadians will follow like stalkers, I have no doubt.

It doesn't matter that the Russians did poorly last Olympics, much like it doesn't matter that Canada did poorly for most of the last half of the last century,  the rivalry is not results based, it is tradition based. Through whatever trials and tribulations our teams drag us, through whatever losses we must endure, we never consider ourselves down and out. No Canadian will ever care how many things we lost and will never allow a statistical analysis or success record or last year's standings to tell us anything different than what we know in our bones: hockey is our game. 

And the Russians know exactly the same thing. 

Whomever wins the gold, whether its the Canadians or the Russians, the United States or Sweden, Finland or the Czech Republic, every Russian and every Canadian will go on believing what they believe ... and waiting for the next time. 

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