The Good Old Hockey Game

As a somewhat casual sports fan, I regularly see outrageous claims of instant history, and there is a big what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of mentality that dominates the public perception of players and teams and events as they happen. Too often are we looking at guys to hold up as the next Gretzky or the next Jordan, too often are we saying this was the best team/game/era of all time…the whole thing gets goofy after a while. Everyone is so eager to establish that they witnessed the best ever in their lifetime, to insert themselves into history.

Case in point, it’s unfair – and it’s been unfair since Day One – to even compare this Sidney Crosby guy to Wayne Gretzky. Gretzky was a relatively scrawny dude who was not athletic, too small, and too slow to ever succeed…only he ended up being like the Mozart of hockey and dominated at a level almost beyond comprehension. Gretzky was a 160 pound weakling when he finished third in goals and points in the WHA as a 17 year-old rookie…I mean how do you compare anyone to that? And now all this talk about how Crosby is on pace to be even better than Gretzky because he’s got an Olympic Gold Medal that Gretzky doesn’t have…well…that’s just asinine.

And all this talk about the game being the greatest hockey game ever played and the most significant sporting event in Canadian history?

…not that asinine.

The greatest hockey game ever played? Hard to say. There’s a lot of classic Stanley Cup games that need to be considered first, like the Game 7 of the ’94 Finals when New York beat Vancouver for their first championship in 54 years, in the same playoffs that Mark Messier famously guaranteed that he’d beat the Devils in Game 6 of the Conference Finals…and then scored a hat trick to do it, and beat them again in Game 7 in double overtime. Or even Fight Night At The Joe, when Darren McCarty scored the overtime winner…after bloodying the ice with Claude Lemieux’s face to avenge Lemieux’s cheapshot on linemate Kris Draper in last year’s playoffs.

But international hockey has always carried a special significance, beyond the international competitions for any other sport. International hockey is competitive between a large number of countries and there exist more international powerhouses in hockey than almost any sport. (We of course discount things like soccer and cricket, because they are weird and we don’t consider them real sports in North America.) International hockey carries all sorts of historic bad blood between countries, which carries deeper than the rivalries between local teams. There’s something bigger there, something which relates to you beyond just as a sports fan, but as a citizen of the country you root for. The 1980 Miracle On Ice between the Americans and the Soviets amid all the new Ronald Reagan/Margaret Thatcher Cold War tensions. The 1972 and 1974 Summit Series between Canada and Russia. All the annual World Juniors and the Canada/World Cup tournaments. Hockey has a history of international competition far longer and far more illustrious than other sports.

Was this the greatest Olympic hockey game ever played? It’s up there as well. Of course there’s ’80 in Lake Placid when an amateur US team upset the terrifying Soviet team…but honestly that was a semifinal game, it’s hard to care about that. I remember in ’98 when Dominik Hasek stoned Team Canada all throughout the game in Nagano, and still during the shootout where the Czechs completed the upset, with Gretzky passed over and sitting on the bench. I felt like puking after that one. Although that was in the semifinals as well. In ’02 when both the Canadian men’s and women’s teams won Gold again for the first time in 50 years…I remember exactly where I was, and I remember counting down the seconds in that last game and wanting to punch a guy in the face at the end, I was so excited.

But I think when you consider the actual thrill of the game itself along with the context that surrounds it…I really think we did just finish watching the greatest hockey game ever played, and indeed maybe the most significant sporting event in Canadian history. And I think that would have been true regardless if I had watched it at home or if I had watched it along with the huge crowd at Philthy McNasty’s with Jess, and Annia and Shirley.

It’s hard to argue with actual drama of the game itself. Two extremely high powered teams playing fantastic cohesive team hockey up and down the entire game…clearly showing why hockey is the absolute greatest international best-on-best competition there is. Stacked with NHL All-Star, All-Time talent it wasn’t even like the first match-up when Ryan Miller single-handedly stole the game along with a few bad bounces against Canada. I honestly had no idea who was going to win this game, and honestly I don’t know if Canada really significantly raised its game to another level until the overtime period. And like all great games you wonder about the controversy surrounding it as well – should Babcock really have pulled Brodeur out of the tournament as quickly as he did? Doesn’t the greatest goalie who ever lived deserve a a bit more benefit of the doubt, even if the next guy is the hometown favourite? Do we even go to overtime if we had Brodeur was between the pipes with an actual working glove hand instead of a very rebound happy Luongo? How big of a bitch would Ryan Kesler have been if the US had actually completed the comeback? Do Iginla and Crosby still pull off that two man cycling game if the puck didn’t bounce off the referee’s skate in the corner there at the end? Do these things even matter now that we’ve won? It doesn’t really – watching a game like this with so much legitimate hockey talent, you’re reminded of great of a sport this is, especially if you’ve been following the Leafs for the past half decade. Hockey isn’t just about sitting in front of the goalie and wacking at the puck into it goes in. It’s about strong positional play that puts you there in the first place to be able to do that. It’s about generating quality scoring opportunities by advancing the puck through the neutral zone by playing the passing angles and creating distance with speed and size. It’s about forechecking and cycling and battles in the corners and winning face-offs for puck control to set up these opportunities. Just like how baseball isn’t just about who can hack the bat at the ball the hardest, or basketball isn’t (or shouldn’t be) decided by who gets to the freethrow line the most based on name recognition. Honestly I blame the local lack of appreciation for well played hockey on typical idiot Toronto fans who glamourize the “toughness” and “grit” of unskilled hacks like Tie Domi, unable to distinguish thuggish posturing from actual hockey skill. The best versus the best, with your country’s name on the line, on the biggest international stage there is…games like this are exactly what is needed for the game of hockey to legitimize itself as an actual top tier sport again. And not just here in the cradle of hockey civilization, but internationally. A game like this…the first ever overtime goal to win a Gold Medal, scored by the team’s best player and the appointed face of Canadian hockey…I don’t know how it gets better than that.

Consider as well, that this took place on the last day of the Olympics, the most significant sporting event to ever have taken place on Canadian soil. Consider that it took place on the last day of these Olympics, one with so many stories, and one where anyone involved in Canadian Olympics was ready to embarrassingly cede the overall medal count to a number of other countries. And specifically to the United States, made especially embarrassing after all that nonsense “own the podium” talk. But to rally back with a late surge to a record 14 Gold Medals…and to do it as the home country…that’s a story you can have to be proud of. But fairly or unfairly (…probably very, very unfairly), none of it meant anything if the flagship team of Canada’s Olympic team couldn’t win it all. Gold in hockey would legitimize every other medal, and silver would render them irrelevant. A chance to “win” the Olympics at home, in front of a Canadian crowd…I don’t think you can beat that in terms of significance in Canadian sporting history. Consider that the game drew 16.6 million people in Canada, and 28 million in the US. It was most-watched television event in Canadian history, sporting or otherwise. It’s a cliche thing to say that this wasn’t just a hockey game…but it’s true. It was a chance to establish a new standard of winning on the biggest international stage there is, and a chance to cap off the efforts of all the other athletes and to legitimize it all to the local and international audience.

On the other hand…it really was just one hockey game. And if you are a fan of any level of sports, and you missed it or just didn’t happen to even be casually interested in this one hockey game, then that’s too bad. Because you really did honestly miss something historically great.

And it’s going to be a shitload of time before we accomplish anything like this again.

LUOOOOOOOOOO

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Destined to fight the world's evil, The WAMBAG endures massive battles involving impossible stunts, races on horse-pulled carriages, and the desecration of enchanting medieval castles (all done with dizzying computer graphics). Not only does the eye candy keep on coming, the tongue-in-cheek writing and deep Transylvanian accents perfect the film with a dose of dark humor.

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