Sunday, February 28, 2010

It Had to be The Kid

Of course, it was Sidney Crosby who scored the overtime goal to beat the US and deliver a hockey gold medal to Canada. The Kid has had a solid 12 months, to say the least, winning the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal in that time span. He was always supposed to be Canada's next hero on ice, and now he is.

If he played for the Toronto Maple Leafs instead of the Pittsburgh Penguins, Crosby's story as a Canadian legend would be perfect. But Canada will take what it has--probably the best current player in the world and two teams (both the men and the women) that are the best hockey teams on the globe.

It was difficult watching our young American lads, professionals though they are, accept second place after such a riveting performance not only in the gold-medal game but throughout the tournament. The final match lived up to expectations from a quality perspective, and it certainly didn't lack for excitement or drama. Had we won, there would have been a lot of happy hockey fans in the US and maybe even a few non-hockey fans down here who would have enjoyed the moment.

But we'll move on here in the States. March Madness, spring training, the NBA playoffs, even the NFL draft--the American sporting calendar offers very few down times, and given that we don't have a true "national sport," we can move relatively easily most of the time from defeat in one sport to interest in another. Let's not forget that this is a country in which 90,000 people will fill a football stadium in the South to watch an intra-squad spring scrimmage game.

Even the NHL starts back up tomorrow night, and it's very likely (although far from a sure thing) that an American franchise will win the Stanley Cup again. Canada's team--the Toronto Maple Leafs--almost assuredly won't, and neither will, in all likelihood, Quebec's team, the Montreal Canadiens. The Habs were the last Canadian team to win the Cup, capturing it way back in 1993. The Leafs, famously, haven't won it since 1967.

Hockey, though, is at the heart of Canada's culture. It's a national sport of national sports, so integral to the Canadian identity that names like Gretzky and Richard (and now Crosby) evoke images and emotions not unlike those Americans feel when we hear names like Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln. An exaggeration? I really don't think so. Quick, name a great Canadian. See? (That's not a shot at Canada's contribution to the world, either--only an example of how big hockey is there. And, yes, I've known more than a few Canadians.)

Beyond that, today was a triumph for Canada over its dominant neighbor, the country that swallowed North America years ago before gobbling up--culturally, anyway--much of the rest of the world. We stole Canada's league, the NHL. We took Gretzky, Crosby and many, many other native sons of the True North and stuck them in franchises south of the border. We dragged the Stanley Cup to places like Dallas, Carolina, Anaheim and Tampa Bay while folks in Toronto and Montreal looked on and Canadians in Quebec City and Winnipeg lost their NHL teams altogether.

It was hard, then, not to feel something positive for Canada as the home team received its gold medals. This wasn't just the players' victory; it was the nation's victory. While we're wondering who the Browns will take in the third round in a few weeks' time, Canada will still be reliving the last day of February. Today will likely live in Canadian history forever, long after Americans have forgotten who Seth Wescott (remember him?) or Lindsey Vonn was and what happened in the 2010 Olympic gold-medal hockey game.

The American players wanted to win. That much was clear. The Canadians had to win. And in a match-up as even as this one was--remember, the US won a thrilling opening-round game--that was the difference. At some point, heart and determination do matter, and the Canadians had just a drop more than our lads did today. Personally, I'm a little disappointed that the US lost, but I'm also happy for Canada. And not happy in a patronizing way but in a genuine, head-nodding, you-all-deserve-this way. Well done to the True North strong and free. (And, oh yeah--Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic, we Americans are better than you at hockey. Yup. It's true.)

On a final note, a lot of people have speculated as to whether the TV success of Olympic hockey will spill over into increased popularity for the NHL. It won't...because the NHL doesn't look anything like Olympic hockey. It never has. The NHL regular season is a massive grind full of fights, clunky third-line players and (some) guys dogging it, and despite how exciting the Stanley Cup playoffs can be, nothing can match the drama of a single-elimination tournament and a grand-final game. Besides, the Olympics pit the best against the best in a setting in which the players care more than ever about taking home the top prize. Even the Stanley Cup finals can't do that.

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has been talking about not letting NHL players compete in Russia in the Olympics in four years' time. That might make sense for the NHL (or maybe not...), but it would be terrible for hockey. Then again, Bettman has never cared much about what's best for the game. Canadians, who have watched their sport drain down to the American Sun Belt over the last couple of decades, know that. It is their game, after all, and today they took it back. In Canada, The Kid is now The Man.

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