Winter Olympics: U.S. Hockey Downs Canada

Men's Hockey - USA over Canada 5-3 - Vancouver 2010

The sky is falling. The U.S. men have beaten Canada at their own game—for now. And after all the hype and hoopla surrounding these Olympics games, Canada may need hockey gold now more than ever.

Team USA trumped our neighbors to the north 5-3 in men’s ice hockey at the winter Olympics for the first time in 50 years. With a perfect 3-0-0-0 record, the U.S. won its group and will move onto the quarterfinal round as 12 pm PST on Feb. 24.“To beat Canada on their own soil is special,” said U.S. forward Ryan Kessler of the cross-border showdown, which ended in the biggest U.S. vs. Canada upset since the epic figure skating Battle of the Brians at the 1988 Calgary games.

While NBC’s primetime coverage went to ice dancing, the U.S. vs. Canada game was relegated to MSNBC. But in Canada, the national obsession is primetime. Which meant all of Canada was watching the stinging national defeat.

“It was an excellent atmosphere tonight and we anticipated a hostile environment,” said Ron Wilson, head coach of the U.S. Olympic men’s ice hockey team.

Hostile indeed. The Canadian Olympic Committee stated prior to the games that leading the medal count was a primary goal for the Vancouver Olympics.

“These games are ours,” said Marcel Aubut, the president elect of the COC. “We’re going to own the podium.”

Much has been made of Canada’s “Own the Podium” program, which pumped $110 million into helping those winter athletes with the most medal potential. Hockey, of course, was a top priority.

But trash talking, Canadians? Really?

“We’re still going to be nice and win,” said Michael Chambers, president of the COC.

That seemed more like it—like running television ads that outlined the quest for gold and money spent, as if to apologize.

“This is so Canadian,” said Catherine Warren, president of FanTrust Entertainment Strategies, a Vancouver-based management consulting company focused on building fan relationships. “You’d never see in the states any sort of justifications or explanation of supporting the athletes. I felt that they were trying to appeal to the average Canadian by saying look we had to do this but we’re almost sorry.”

Indeed, Olympic protesters—both peaceful and the more violent, who smashed windows at the official Olympic merchandiser, Hudson’s Bay Company—have been vocal, especially in the early days of the games. As a result, officials have locked away the Olympic cauldron behind a chain-link fence for fear of further repercussions.

“Our fan community here is very split,” Warren said. “You actually have anti-Olympic fans who are making a point of wearing their anti-Olympic sentiments on their sleeve. And I think that’s very typical of Olympic cities.”

There has certainly been a lot of grumbling among the many Vancouverites I spoke to—from waitresses to construction workers on the Canada Line SkyTrain. Even though many have grumbled, they still whispered that Canada needed a hockey win.

“Canadians here in my community are very polarized around the Olympics,” said Warren. “A lot of people are still under the impression that this money—if it hadn’t been spent on the Olympics—that it would have been spent on social services.”

Of course, not everyone has been down on Team Canada. The spirit at the games among fans has been undoubtedly patriotic and spirited. After Canada won its first gold in men’s moguls, I watched a crowd numbering in the hundreds burst into an impromptu performance of “Oh, Canada” in Whistler. It was a party in the streets that didn’t stop all night.

And with each ensuing Canadian victory, the celebrating hordes with painted faces, hockey jerseys and flags for capes have taken to the streets of Vancouver into all hours of the night, high-fiving strangers as they pass. And if anyone fails to high-five? “You must be American!” a reveler yelled at a group of passing women.

Daniel Johnson, an economics professor at Colorado College, predicted that Canada would “own the podium” with 27 total medals, three more than their haul in 2006, according to Bloomberg News. But with one week left in the competition and only 9 medals to their name, Canada’s odds aren’t looking too good. The U.S. is dominating the medal count with 24.

“They can own the podium,” said Apolo Anton Ohno, the star of U.S. short track speed skating. “We just want to borrow it for the month of February.”

Along with “Own the Podium,” another answer to Canada’s quest for gold seemed to be limiting international athletes’ access to Olympic venues in the year leading up to the games. More time for Team Canada, less time for everyone else—a practice many have argued other host countries have routinely employed.

“It’s not inappropriate for us to have more time on these facilities than some of the other countries may have, as long as we are not prohibiting them from their fair share,” Chris Rudge, chief executive officer for the Canadian Olympic Committee, told The Canadian Press last April. “We are investing considerably to bring these Games to Canada. A return on that investment is expected by Canadians.”

But many athletes had been vocal speaking out against the practice, most notably Venezuelan luger Werner Hoeger, who in November warned Canadian and international luge officials of the dangers of limiting access to the Whistler Sliding Center. The tragic death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili has only added fuel to the fire. Before his crash, Kumaritashvili had completed just 26 runs on the Whistler track, whereas Canadian lugers completed an average of 250 runs, according to The New York Times.

“At the Olympic games, they limited the amount of access and the training time we could have on the track,” said American bobsledder Stephen Holcomb. “And while they’re letting the Canadians on to train as much as they want, you have smaller nations that have never been down before. It’s kind of unfair and now it’s a tragedy. This could have been avoided.”

In light of all the criticism, whether fairly levied or not—from complaints about access to the flame and the weather to more serious questions about the Canadian will to win and at what cost—it seems that Canada needs hockey gold now more than ever. If the Canadian men and women win hockey, it will all have been seen as worth it.

“Winning gold is the expectation for all Canadian fans at each and every Olympics,” said Michael Gerstel, an MBA student at Concordia University in Montreal, about Canadian hockey. “It’s our national sport, and even though it’s being embraced by more and more countries worldwide, we still feel as though it’s ours. It’s only natural that hopes would be that much higher when we’re hosting the competition.”

And what will happen if Canada doesn’t win gold? National outrage, Gerstel said. All that money spent may seem like a waste.

Warren said winning gold “absolutely” matters to Canadian fans.

“I think we have extremely high hopes specifically around hockey,” she said. “If we can win the biggest competition in sport, that’s going to really affect our sense of identity. We’re just known as somewhat self-effacing and modest or self deprecating and humble.”

Judging by the outpouring of Canadiana on Facebook and Twitter, the fans will let their voices be heard.

Facebook groups like “Canada for Gold,” and “Gold Canada Gold,” have popped up all over Facebook.  “First Gold For Canada,” self-described as “a group of hockey fans lending their support to the biggest achievement of any athlete in Canada’s history! First Gold On Canadian Soil!” has over 10,000 members in their regional Facebook groups.

Of course, the gold-or-bust mentality started with the fact that prior to these winter games, Canada was the only country that hadn’t won a gold medal as host. Indeed, I had been shocked to discover that fact at a bar trivia night a few months ago. When the question was posed, my team was baffled.

“What country has twice hosted the Olympic games—both summer and winter—but failed to win a gold medal either time? It’s the only country that hasn’t won gold as host.”

My team was a mix of Americans and Canadians—I have a gaggle of Canadian friends. Dubbing ourselves “NAFTA,” we debated the possible answers. Ruling out our home countries right away, we honed in on Japan and France. We decided on France. I mean, who doesn’t love to pick on the French?

But hon, hon, hon, we were wrong. The answer is now well known, and Canada quickly rectified the matter with their first gold medal in men’s moguls on Valentine’s Day.

But now, it seems, that hockey is all that everyone cares about.

“When Canada won gold, I actually became more Canadian in that moment,” said Vancouver physiotherapist Danielle Glen about Canada’s gold medal hockey win in 2002. “And I probably will again.”

But Team USA is looking to capitalize on their win and bring the gold back stateside.

“Obviously, we know we can beat anybody now,” said U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski, who scored Team USA’s first two goals.  “It’s a huge step for that and the confidence of the players.”

While the U.S. celebrates, you can bet Canada hockey will be watching their backs.

This post first appeared in the Washington Times Communities on Feb. 22, 2010.

Karla Bruning

About 

Karla Bruning is a regular contributor to SHAPE.com, the host of NYRR's On The Run web + TV show, and a race announcer at events like the TCS New York City Marathon. She used to report for Newsweek but spent her free time squeezing in workouts. Now she freelances as a running reporter. She's run 7 marathons, 20 halves, 6 triathlons, sings in an '80s cover band, spoils her dog + travels compulsively.

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