Sunday, February 28, 2010

Canada vs. Team USA

It promises to be the most exciting contest of the Vancouver Olympics, Canada versus Team USA in hockey. I will be watching because I have a few emotional connections to the sport.

My mother was born in Vancouver ninety-three years ago yesterday. While she is not alive to enjoy it, I know wherever her spirit may be she is very proud of her home city and native country. Her father was an executive with the well-known Canadian retailer, the Hudson Bay Company. While she later became an American citizen she had many warm memories of her childhood including walking several miles to school in snowshoes.

I was born in Chicago, the same year my paternal grandmother saw her first hockey game in person. Although she had come up from her home in New Orleans for the Christmas holidays she was able to endure the chill of the Chicago Stadium with great humor. "I went to a fight and a hockey game broke out," she was reported to have said with a laugh.

One of my early hockey memories was the USA victory over Canada in the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics. I had started playing hockey on a local outdoor rink in suburban Deerfield's Jewett Park. I played defense and goalie primarily because I was not an agile skater. Most kids skated unaware of the bone freezing temperatures. Our brand of hockey was fast, exciting, clumsy and hard-hitting. I suffered a couple broken noses while playing, one from a high stick and the other from an elbow.

By the time I was sixteen years old I decided to hang up my skates. But by then I had watched my Chicago Blackhawks win a Stanley Cup. The 1963 team had some legendary Hall of Famers, including Bobby Hull, Stan Mikita, Elmer "Moose" Vasko, Eric Nesterenko and goalie Glenn Hall. They overcame the exciting Montreal Canadians, led by Maurice "The Rocket" Richard, and the Gordie Howe led Detroit Red Wings. These were the good old days, before the NFL expanded, when the NHL included Chicago, Detroit and Montreal, along with the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Boston Bruins and the New York Rangers. The skaters did not wear helmets back then, and most were missing teeth and many had crooked noses from multiple breaks.

Hockey is one of those sports you are either totally passionate about or you don't care about at all. It is a cold sport to watch or play, yet that makes it a perfect fit for Canada. To fully appreciate how great a sport it is you have to have played hockey or have grown up with it all around you. I mean not many Americans understand "offsides" and "icing." It is hard enough to keep up with the puck, in person or on television, when some slapshots zoom at nearly one-hundred miles an hour.

We in the United States have too many other major sports, like baseball, basketball and football, competing for fan loyalty. So hockey has had limited success in America, and many fewer of our athletes take it up professionally. That's one of the reasons hockey has struggled to succeed on American television. That's why some American television executives cynically say, "Everyone who cares about hockey is at the game."

All of Canada will be watching this afternoon as their Olympic team tries to take the gold medal in a sport that is synonymous with the country. A victory will be more than beating Team USA, it will be for national pride. Meanwhile, the Americans will be motivated by their underdog status and the realization that a victory can be a big boost for a game they are passionate about and a country they love.

It doesn't get better than this.

No comments: