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Tuesday, February 10, 2009
Updated: February 12, 3:43 PM ET
Hockey embedded in Canada's psyche

By Damien Cox
Special to ESPN.com

Canadian Fans
Canada last celebrated Olympic men's hockey gold on U.S. soil -- at the 2002 Games.
It's open to argument whether there is any other country in the world so closely associated with a single sport as Canada is with hockey.

Perhaps Brazil and soccer. China and table tennis. Pakistan and cricket. Norway and cross-country skiing.

So, there are parallels, but few of them.

For Canada, the national focus on hockey goes beyond passion into obsession, to the point where you could argue the country's psyche is affected by the successes and failures of its hockey players on the international stage.

That was certainly the case when Canada faced the Soviet Union in the unforgettable, eight-game 1972 Summit Series, a hockey competition set against the ominous backdrop of the Cold War.

There was coast-to-coast shock when the Soviets blew the doors off the Canadians in the first game, and the Canadian team was booed and hooted off the ice after the fourth game in Vancouver, causing team leader Phil Esposito to make a plea for support on national television.

When the series came down to the final crucial games in Moscow, Canadian children either watched the games on television in their classrooms, or were let out of school early.

Canadians, often sketchy on our history, may not all be able to answer that John A. MacDonald was the country's first prime minister. But they can sure tell you who Paul Henderson is (Hint: Who scored the winning goal for Canada in '72?).

A quarter-century later, in rapid succession, Canada lost the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, was beaten by Kazakhstan at the prestigious 1998 World Junior Championship and finished out of the medals at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, with Wayne Gretzky left sitting on the bench as Canada lost a crucial shootout to the Czech Republic.

The response? A national hockey conference called the Open Ice Summit designed to root out systemic problems and get the country back on the path to winning again.

Canada certainly doesn't own the game it invented anymore. Other countries share both the joys and victories now, and have for decades.

But it's doubtful any other hockey country cares as much.

With this history in mind, it certainly doesn't take a visionary to understand that the 2010 Winter Olympics hockey tournament in Vancouver could supersede the '72 Summit Series as the biggest hockey event in Canadian history and place the Canadian men's team under mind-boggling scrutiny and pressure to win the gold.

For Canadians, it will be comparable to the Super Bowl -- that's if the Super Bowl were played for 13 consecutive days.

Before the competition even begins, the strengths and weaknesses of the Canadian roster will have been chewed over relentlessly. Yes, the same was the case for Nagano in 1998, Salt Lake City in 2002 and Torino in 2006. But Canada finished well out of the medals in '06 with Sidney Crosby not even picked to participate, so there has already been a slow buildup to the selection of the national side, with one media outlet or another churning out a potential Olympic lineup from time to time over the past two years.

There was less participation in last year's federal election than there will be in unofficial voting for the identity of the 2010 Olympic coach. It's true that Canada's demographics are changing, and hockey officials fear immigration is gradually reducing participation in what is still a very expensive game for children to play.

But no worries. You can still count on millions of Canadians having an opinion on whether Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo or some other masked man should start in goal for the country's Olympic team.

By the time the pucks drops on Feb. 16, 2010 for the opening game of the tournament between Canada and Norway, the clenching of teeth and national apprehension will already be at excruciating levels.

It's not just that Canada wants hockey gold. First and foremost, it wants gold of some kind, and the hockey team is supposed to lead the way.

Back in 1988, you see, Calgary hosted the Olympic Winter Games and Canada failed to win a single gold medal in any sport. Ditto for the 1976 Summer Games in Montreal, leaving Canada with the dubious distinction of never having won gold on its own soil despite hosting both a Winter and a Summer Olympics.

Despite this history, in 2005, Canadian Olympic officials launched an ambitious $120 million program called "Own the Podium," the objective of which is to have Canada not just win a gold medal or two, but more medals than any other country. In Torino, Canada won the third-most medals, fewer than Germany and the United States, and was tied for fourth overall in Salt Lake City.

Lord knows what kind of frenzy we'll have on our hands if Canada qualifies for the Feb. 28 gold-medal men's hockey game and hasn't won a gold medal up to that point.

Whether Canada should even be considered the favorite in what will be a tightly packed Olympic hockey peloton is open for discussion, and it has certainly been a long, long time since Canada was dominant in Olympic hockey.

Yes, Canada won gold in 2002, but that's the only time the country has won a medal in men's hockey in the three Olympics that have been played using NHLers, and it was the first hockey gold for the Great White North in a half-century.

So it's fair to say that expectations may be somewhat outsized for the host country when it comes to the hockey tournament.

It won't all be left up to the men's hockey team, of course. The women's hockey squad has won two of the three Olympic tournaments played, and will be co-favorites along with the U.S. in Vancouver.

Canadian skier John Kucera became the first Canadian to win the downhill at the World Alpine Ski Championships in Val d'Isere, France, last weekend. On the same weekend, figure skater Patrick Chan won gold at the prestigious Four Continents event, which was held at the Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver.

"I can state unequivocally and give you an absolute guarantee that we're going to have a number of gold medals in Vancouver," said Chris Rudge, chief executive officer of the Canadian Olympic Committee.

Tricky things, guarantees; even more dicey for Canadians when it comes to the Olympics.

In 1976, Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau said, "The Olympics can no more lose money than a man can have a baby." The result, however, was a massive $1.5 billion debt that took 30 years to pay off.

To some extent, of course, the Canadian men's hockey team exists outside this historical context and, given that it's comprised of millionaire NHL players, somewhat outside of the "Own the Podium" program and other Canadian Olympic initiatives.

That said, some believe this will be the last Olympics that will include NHL players -- the NHL players' union says it wants to continue to participate beyond 2010 -- which will add another layer of expectations to the event.

It's as though a drumroll has started to rumble from a distant mountain, and by February 2010, it will have gradually accumulated decibels until it will be like standing beside a jumbo jet at takeoff.

And then there's the fact this will all take place in Vancouver -- the site of all the boos and Esposito's memorable speech in '72, the same city that booed the Americans and cheered the Russians at the 2006 World Junior Championship, the home of an NHL team that has never won the Stanley Cup, the city that prides itself on being a little bit different from the rest of Canada.

What we have here, ladies and gentleman, is a rather explosive and unpredictable mixture of national gold-or-nothing expectations and combustible obsessions.

It won't even require a spark to ignite.

Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."