VANCOUVER, British Columbia–A novelist couldn’t have written a better finale to this story. The last event of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics was a cross-border showdown between Canada and the United States in the men’s gold medal hockey match. It seems the gods on Mount Olympus were smiling on Canada today as they defeated the U.S. 3-2 in a sudden death overtime. “It doesn’t even feel real,” said Canadian forward Sidney Crosby, who scored the final goal. “It feels like a dream.” But for the U.S., it was a stinging defeat that could have gone either way. “It’s going to be tough to swallow,” said U.S. forward Jamie Langenbrunner. Of course, when the two teams first met at Canada Hockey Place last week, the U.S. stunned Canada 5-3 for a win. “That’s a good hockey club over there,” said U.S. forward Ryan Kesler afterward. “To come out with the win is pretty special.”
But Canada got the rematch they wanted, and in the gold medal final no less. It was the make it or break it moment for Team Canada. With men’s hockey gold, they surpassed Russia’s 1976 record for the most gold medals won in a single Winter Olympics.
But more importantly, they won redemption in perhaps the biggest game ever played on Canadian soil. To call this game the Canadian equivalent of the Super Bowl is an understatement. This was more than an annual spar between two clubs. This was a once-in-a-lifetime fight for national honor.
“Hockey is not a sport in Canada,” said Brian Burke, the U.S. men’s general manager. “It’s a cult.”
And the Canadian hockey cult was ready for battle. As team USA skated onto the ice for the warm-up, the overwhelmingly Canadian crowd bellowed a hearty boo. The crowd was dressed in red through and through. A few brave American flags dotted the seats with Americans wearing the navy blue of Team USA’s jerseys.
With five minutes to game time, the crowd was hyped. The Black Eyed Peas’ “I Gotta Feeling” was playing and the crowd was literally hopping. Thank goodness for concrete foundations.
The referees skated onto ice to boos—ironically, seeing as the two refs for the game, Bill McCreary and Daniel O’Halloran, were both Canadian. Linesman Jean Morin was also Canadian, leaving linesman Stefan Fonselius of Finland the only non-Canuck in black and white. That will likely make for some grumbling, much like in the short track 500-meter race when the Canadian ref disqualified Apolo Ohno after a crash and none of the other three skaters, who included two Canadians.
But the game went cleanly, with no fights and no major questionable calls. The puck drop went to the Canadians and right away the crowd let rip an en masse, “Let’s go Canada,” cheer. A handful of empty seats dotted the arena—13 in one section alone by my count—much to my amazement. It seemed criminal.
Fans hoisted signs galore like “Just Married,” “Destiny On Ice,” “Hockey is Canada’s Game,” “Hey Sid, Check Out My Soft Hands,” “Canada Tastes Victory,” “Our Game. Our Gold,” “Our 14th Gold is Coming,” “Miller Time is Over,” “Go Canada! Cheers, Thunder Bay,” “Believe Canada,” “Allez Canada,” and my personal favorite, “Someone Offered Me $50,000 For These Seats, But I’m Canadian, Eh?” There was even someone toting a Russian flag that read, “Go Canada.”
The first few minutes of play suggested this was going to be a guts on the floor game of aggression and will. And it was, with the Canadians willing a win just a wee bit more.
All “U-S-A” cheers quickly turned into “Can-a-da!” The Americans were drowned by sheer numbers, and professional fans led Canada cheers in the sections behind the nets.
With 10 minutes left in the first period, an incredibly close U.S. shot at goal nearly led to the game’s first fight, but the refs broke it up quickly.
The players moved so quickly and elegantly that if I didn’t know better, I’d have thought they were part of another breed of human entirely—one born with blades on their feet.
And with 7 minutes left in Period 1, Jonathan Toews scored the first goal for Canada, assisted by Mike Richards. Need I say it? The crowd went bonkers. It was as if they collectively wiped their brows. The flags were flying, the signs were waving and it seemed like every single fan shouted, “Go Canada Go.”
A woman decked out in stars and strips appeared on the big screen and the crowd booed. It sounded like the stereotypical Ugly American had found a new friend—the Ugly Canadian.
And with that, the first period came to a close: Canada 1, USA 0.
At the start of the second period, the American fans tried to start a “U-S-A” chant, but the crowd simply wouldn’t let them. The teams traded power plays, and with 12:47 left in the second period, Canada scored again. This time it was Corey Perry, assisted by Ryan Getzlaf and Duncan Keith.
“Yeah!” was the deafening scream. The announcer didn’t need to say, “Let’s make some noise!” The crowd was already making plenty.
A near goal by Team USA almost led to the second fight of the game. It had gotten wild at that point, with bodies literally flying all over the place. Players looked like they were playing a cross between ice hockey and kill the man with the puck. And the crowd rode the roller coaster along with them shouting, “Oh!” at the near misses, and “Yeah!” at the good Canadian plays.
And then, it happened. Team USA scored. Ryan Kesler got it into the net, assisted by Patrick Kane. The American flags were flying and the Canadians who had been so boisterous simply sat sullenly.
Naturally, a “U-S-A!” and “Go Canada Go!” shouting match ensured.
Most of the empty seats had filled in, thankfully. And every time Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo did anything worth cheering about, the stadium filled with bellows for “Luuuuuuuu!”
By the end of Period 2, the U.S. had made it onto the boards, with a score of 2-1 Canada.
During the downtime, crowd-pumping music blasted out of the speakers—a mix of rock and pop, like Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” Franz Ferdinand’s “Do You Want To,” and “Because We Can” from Moulin Rouge.
Donald Sutherland was sitting a few rows behind me, looking grand with his lion’s mane of white hair, as was Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, dressed in a red Canada zip-up hoodie, naturally.
The professional fans, armed with drums, kicked off Period 3 with cheers of, “Go Canada Go!”
Roberto Luongo was dynamite in nets for Team Canada, blocking shot after shot from the marauding Americans.
The crowd stood up. The crowd sat down. Over and over again, as they rode the waves of excitement. With 3 minutes left in the game, the air was electric. And with 2 minutes left, the crowd was on their feet, showing the U.S. a thing or two about patriotism.
If the men’s half-pipe competition was like a party, this was like a riot waiting to happen. With 54.8 seconds left in the game and Canada on the power play with no U.S. goalie in nets, the crowd was salivating.
But no! The U.S. scored with 24.4 seconds left in the game! Zach Parise found the loose puck and went for it. The Americans leapt out of their seats, myself included. And I could hear “U-S-A!” almost as well as “Go Canada Go!”
With that, the third period ended with a tied score of deuces all around. You just can’t make this stuff up.
“We battled hard,” said U.S. forward Jamie Langenbrunner. “Scoring a goal with 20 something seconds left shows the character in this room.”
During the intermission, the crowd sang along to Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing.’” They didn’t. They believed with all their might.
“You have to believe it’s going to happen,” said Canadian defenseman Scott Niedermayer. “It’s going to take work but you have to believe.”
As the players came onto the ice for the 20-minute sudden death overtime, the crowd leapt to their feet again—Americans and Canadians alike—as “The Final Countdown” played on the speakers.
It was anyone’s game. The players seemed frantic, desperate to win the game for their country. And then, it happened. Canada scored with 12:30 left for the win. The crowd lost their minds, and players’ gloves and sticks littered the ice as Team Canada leapt into a group hug. The crowd chanted “Hockey! Hockey!” and “Luuuuuuu!” as Luongo skated onto the ice for a well-deserved bow.
Prior to the Vancouver Olympics, Canada men’s hockey had 93 Olympic wins, the most of any country. And now they are just the second Olympic host country to win men’s hockey on home soil—the USA did it at Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lake Placid in 1980.
At the victory ceremony, which immediately followed, the crowd cheered admirably for the Americans as they received their medals. Maybe the Ugly Canadian moniker won’t stick after all.
But when the Canucks got their medals, the decibels levels raised the roof, with the biggest cheers for Sidney Crosby who scored the final goal and Luongo, who had a brilliant game in nets.
During the hoisting of the flags and national anthem, the entire crowd sang along for the most rousing version of “O, Canada” I’ve ever heard. Fireworks lit up the stadium, and the players brought out the largest Canadian flag I’ve ever seen. The crowd let loose one last cheer: “Hockey! Hockey! Hockey!” Canada will sleep well tonight.
“Anytime you get a Gold medal at the Olympics, but doing it in front of our fans is special,” Niedermayer said.
In the end, it was an evenly matched game with the U.S. taking 36 shots on goal to Canada’s 39, but Canada scored when it mattered for a 3-2 win claiming double hockey gold on their own soil, and reclaiming their national honor.
“This medal is not only for myself, but for Canada and obviously the city of Vancouver and the fans that have supported me since the moment I got here.”
And the U.S.—where many people look upon hockey as “the other” professional sport, much like pork is “the other white meat”—won the silver. It almost couldn’t have ended any other way.
Well, if it’s any consolation, Canada will wake up tomorrow still having to look at the Queen on their money. And the U.S. won’t. At least there’s that.
But before then, though, I’m guessing there will be riots in the streets of Vancouver tonight.
This post first appeared in The Washington Times Communities on Feb. 28, 2010.