The Birth of a Love: 2002
I am from a family that loves the Olympics. Winter or summer, the television is on non-stop if it is Olympic time. My family is also not much of a hockey family, until the Winnipeg Jets came back to town hockey was rarely watched in our house; until the Salt Lake City Olympics came around. We would gather around the television to watch Team Canada play, my sister and I not really understanding the game we were watching. I wish I understood the game more than I did during that time.
I remember the women's final clearly, that was the game when I learned who Hayley Wickenheiser was. I learned about the women's game. I learned why a flag should never touch the ground. Most of all I was introduced to women's hockey and the fast game that it still is. I also learned of the infuriating nature of referees in that game, the final featured 11 minor penalties for Canada to 4 for the USA, with 2 more sets of offsetting minors. Canada would prevail, prompting the most impassioned interview until Richard Sherman recently stole the crown. Seriously, who could forget Hayley Wickenheiser's interview about the Canadian flag?
I don't have as many clear memories about the men's hockey tournament as I do the women's. What I do remember is the final game. I remember trying to memorize who was who. At that point I had learned who Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, and Jarome Iginla were and that they were really good at playing hockey. I was just starting to understand that icing was not the ice shavings that came up from the playing surface when a player stopped but rather when the puck was sent the length of the rink to relieve pressure in the defensive zone. I was truly a kid and a rookie at this point.
I don't think the significance of that one game can really be explained to anyone outside of Canada. I remember the next day at school that is all anyone talked about. I was in grade 3 at the time and the Olympics dominated the schoolyard discussion. There was the comments that the streets of Canada were dead for the night, everyone huddled around a television to watch the game. Maybe it was nothing on the surface, an expensive show of patriotism but it was all we had, all we still have.
The following year Vancouver would win the right to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.
The Flameout in Torino:
I was in grade 7 and at this point the Olympics were a two week affair for me. I would wake up early in the morning to see how the Canadians did through the night. My math teacher gave me an Olympic pin because he realized that I had fallen in love with the Olympics. My memories from Torino are based around cross-country skiing and a terrific Norwegian coach who gave the Canadians his ski pole, allowing them stay in touch with the leaders and eventually win silver; Norway finished fourth. If their coach hadn't done one simple act of sportsmanship, Canada most likely wouldn't have medalled and Norway most likely would have won a medal. Sometimes sportsmanship isn't rewarded with winning but maple syrup. Canada finished fourth a lot in Torino, leading many athletes to miss out on the stated goal of 25 medals and a Top 3 finish in the medal standings. Canada finished fifth in medals with 24, including 7 golds.
Cindy Klassen owned Torino and all of Canada. She became a sensation; the failed hockey player turned speed skater who zipped around the track, winning five medals at one Games. The best race of the Torino though was the 5000m, where Hughes came first and Klassen came third, a Winnipeg sandwich on the podium. I watched most of that race at the hair dressers, the whole place stopped to watch Hughes race. The Cindy Klassen Recreation Centre bears her name in Winnipeg. The speed skating oval at the CKRC is still called the Susan Auch Oval after Winnipeg's first great speed skater.
Canada, Hockey, and the Influence of 2010
Canada is a complicated country; there is no one defining characteristic unless you count being polite as a defining characteristic. We have our healthcare, Don Cherry (who half of the country hates), and winter. Until Vancouver 2010 Canada had not dominated the Olympics. In 2010 we sang "O Canada" for everyone to hear. We came into our own. But the perfect Olympics included hockey gold. It always does. There was something inherently wrong with Canada going 50 years without a gold in hockey. 2002 fixed that wrong, giving us the top spot, but nothing would be as sweet as the gold on home ice, mere hours before the Vancouver Olympics would close.
I remember when the "Own the Podium" protocol came out, people questioned it. Was it right to be so brazen in goal setting? Was it right to say that the goal was to "Own the Podium" when you were hosting the Olympics? Canadians wrestled with these questions while the athletes went to wind tunnels to find the perfect suit to race in; they were concocting new strategies to win relays, and Clara Hughes was preparing for her last race as a speed skater.
Watching the women win gold from high in the press box were the men. My sister commented that the looks on the faces of the Canadian men was not one of happiness for what the women had just accomplished but one of fear for what they had to accomplish. Double gold was the goal and the men knew it, but they were also being set up to bring the perfect ending to the games rather than the medal that would make our break the games. Thanks to Alex Bilodeau winning on the second full day of competition, Canada was not longer the only country to never win a gold medal on home turf. We met Alex's brother Frederic and Canada as a whole started get used to winning. We became comfortable with the idea of our athletes jumping on top of the podium with joy for winning gold. Marianne St-Gelais showed she was one of us while she watched Charles Hamelin, her boyfriend, win gold.
The hockey tournament in Vancouver was the icing on the cake. It was the event that made a great games perfect. Canada was home, claiming what we always think should be ours. with that one yell, Crosby's desperate call for Iggy to pass him the puck, Canada's games went from great to perfect in my eyes. When the games were closed, Canada continued to revel in all the gold for four years.
The Olympics are going on 9 or 10 times zones away (I still haven't figured it out) and Canadians are still tuning in to watch the events live over night or they wake up to find out Canada has won a medal. Others live stream them at work, schools show them live in the library. Canada has become a country that has learned to embrace its winter, love the athletes who compete in crazy, new age sports like slope-style snowboard/skiing, moguls, as well as continuing to love the old school (but still fairly new) sports like short track speed skating. Canada has become one with winter, even though we complain about it endlessly while we shovel ourselves out from under another snow fall.
Sometimes, usually, the strongest thing uniting Canada isn't a beaver or a moose but a hockey puck, ski poles, skates, or simply two brother celebrating a medal together, one inspiring the other, winter unites us in ways we never realized until we were able to experience it first hand. It took hosting an Olympics and experiencing winning at home for the first time to really feel it, really see it, but for two weeks every four years Canada changes from a country that has problems to one that pulls as one.
We are winter. We are proud.