As always, anything less than gold will be regarded as a failure for the Canadian hockey team.
The rewards of success are many. A gold medal win will reaffirm that Canada is indeed the world’s dominant hockey nation, and everyone on the team will bask in reflected glory. Steve Yzerman will be praised for his managerial genius. We will be regaled with tales of Mike Babcock’s coaching prowess. The offensive stars will be feted. The players who don’t put on an offensive show will be praised for either their defensive game or their willingness to buy into the team concept at the expense of personal glory. ‘The way they did it in Vancouver’ will be held up as a model for every team, be it international or NHL.
The perils of failure are as extreme. A loss will spark soul-searching in the columns of newspapers nationwide. Questions will arise as to whether Canada really is the world’s first nation of hockey. Yzerman’s strategy will be dissected and second guessed; questions about youth, character and the value of chemistry will abound. Every decision made by Babcock will come under intense scrutiny, and he’ll invariably be found wanting for mistakes real or imagined. The players involved will be questioned: the young ones for their inexperience, and the old ones for their age. Any San Jose Sharks forward will see their character judged harshly, yet again. Whichever narrative gets set upon as the team’s chief failing will be brought up in four years – ‘remember when they did ______ in Vancouver? They can’t do that again.’
It happened after Nagano in 1998, with the chief blame going to coach Marc Crawford for leaving Wayne Gretzky on the bench for the shootout, a decision that still resonates. “You win with your best,” said one commentator after Sidney Crosby scored against Switzerland last night, evoking memories of Crawford’s perceived blunder. Honourable mention goes to Rob Zamuner, a surprise selection as defensive specialist and a player who continually finds his way into stories which caution against bringing anything less than the best available players.
It happened in 2002, after Canada won gold at the Salt Lake City Olympics. That veteran group (half of whom have since retired) was praised for their savvy, and the memory of their lackluster start has almost faded completely – although the memory of Gretzky trying to deflect attention away from the team during an emotional press conference remains. It was well for Gretzky that things went the way they did; he’d gambled heavily on a few players, particularly Eric Lindros and Theo Fleury and it would have went very badly for him had things worked out otherwise.
It happened in 2006. Gretzky employed the same strategy in 2006 that he had in 2002, bringing aboard a mostly veteran group that once again included a major reclamation project (Todd Bertuzzi) and a role player (Kris Draper). In hindsight we’ve come to regard “veteran” as code for “old” and the omission of Sidney Crosby (then an 18-year old only halfway through his first professional season) is held up as a great error.
While this bipolar view of Team Canada can be lauded as all that matters, and has the virtue of simplicity, it isn’t a reasonable way to assess the work done by Steve Yzerman and the selection group. Any team can win one game, as we’ve seen time and time again. Consider, for instance, the 2001-02 Carolina Hurricanes, a plucky underdog team that made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they won just a single game before being eliminated by the vastly superior Detroit Red Wings. The game they won was the first game of the series – in other words, if the Stanley Cup final was decided like the gold medal game is, we might be looking back at two cups for Carolina, and the simpleminded could continue to argue that Dominik Hasek wasn’t a great goalie because he never won a Cup.
Olympic history tells us this too, and not just Canadian history. In 2006, both the United States and Russia fell to defeat at the hands of Finland – the Russian game was particularly embarrassing, a 4-0 shutout loss to Antero Niittymaki and a dogged but inferior Finnish squad. In 2002, Canada’s road to gold was paved in part by a humiliating loss for Sweden. Early in the tournament, the Swedes were regarded as the favourites (they beat Canada 5-2 in the first game for both teams), and faced a woefully inadequate Belarusian team, fresh off an 8-1 defeat at the hands of the United States. Belarus. Somehow, Sweden lost 4-3, and the winning goal destroyed Tommy Salo’s reputation (though not, as widely thought, his career):
I don’t think Steve Yzerman selected a perfect team, but he did select a very good one, a team I’d be very confident in over a set of seven-game series. I don’t think Mike Babcock’s a perfect coach, but he’s proved time and again that he’s a very good one. But certainly, looking at history, we can allow that even if both of these men were perfect at their jobs, it’s completely possible that Canada wouldn’t come away with a gold medal. The reverse is also true: it’s completely possible that even if these two men were bad at their jobs, Canada has enough talent that they could win gold.
Despite the movies, despite the stories, despite conventional wisdom, the best and most deserving team does not always win. The losing team is not always deficient in character or talent. That isn’t to say that the victors don’t deserve credit, or that the losing team shouldn’t attempt to find their errors and learn from them (because there are always errors, however small). But chance is involved, and whichever way the tournament eventually goes to Canada, we will almost certainly overreact in one direction or the other.