The pendulum of redemption

Canada delivered from decades of drought by hockey gold

You can gather the whole of Canada today from coast to coast - citizens, hockey worshippers, polar bears, and all, and raise a question: Doesn't everyone - a people as well as mountaineers - have a Mt. Everest to climb in life?

If the answer is yes, then revise your geography books, liberate Canada from the icebergs, and look up at the mountaintop to see who's standing there now.

Winning the Olympic hockey championship was Canada's Everest. Nobody in Canada was bashful about admitting it beforehand. They said it loudly and petulantly. They quarreled with themselves about why it was taking 50 years. In doing it they were risking even more humiliation if their maple leaf shriveled one more time, in the Winter Games in Salt Lake, in full few of a couple of billion people.

But how good is it in Canada today, after its 5-2 victory over the Team USA in the culmination of the Winter Games? It's as good as the keys to the kingdom. It is discovering that the lost continent of Atlantis has just surfaced off the coast of Labrador and has asked for admission as the newest Canadian province (English-speaking). It is a hundred thousand French-Canadian voices in Quebec singing "For He's a Jolly Good Fellow" in honor of the mayor of Toronto.

Nobody said Canada had to win both the men's and women's hockey championship. Or that the vanquished would be the United States of America both times. How many ghosts can you exorcise in one three-hour hockey game? Line them up: All of the moronic jokes about the Great White North and its big, blustering godfather to the south. Can anyone in Canada end a sentence without a long "eh"? And, incidentally, when was the last time the Canadians won an Olympic gold in the game they invented?

But look at Canada today. You can do it in chagrin if you're an American hockey zealot. But you can also do it with the most authentic admiration if you like a story of a land and people once lightly ridiculed but now triumphant and almost numb and giddy in the fullness of their deliverance. Consider the odyssey. Less than two weeks ago, the Canadians groaned in their familiar anguish and martyrdom. Their figure-skating pair failed to land the gold and the maple leaf drooped again. But it turned out the Canadians were jobbed. A sympathetic world mourned, "Oh, Canada."

So did the International Olympic Committee. A new gold medal was minted on the spot, and the Canadian pair became the sweethearts of humanity, of international TV, and of the product endorsements. The pendulum of redemption swung full force, and Canada was everywhere. Shoppers lined up to buy Canadian wares at a store in the middle of Salt Lake. Half weren't Canadians.

And overnight, Canada was winging. Their hockey team, filled with some of the best players in the world, had been blundering early in the Olympics. But Wayne Gretzky, the executive manager and Hall of Fame icon, made a speech hammering the Canadian press and hammering the world for ganging up on Canada. He might have been the hockey-puck version of Moses. In the last three days of the Olympics, the Canadians won golds in women's hockey and short-track speedskating (two at the Americans' expense), plus medals in curling for both genders. Then came Sunday.

"Hockey is part of the lifeblood of Canada," Gretzky had said. "We haven't won the Olympic gold since 1952. We didn't have our best players most of the time, because they were in the National Hockey League." But now all of the great players were in the Olympics - from Canada to Finland. So it was a fair fight.

Fair, but Sunday the Canadians were the best with yards of ice to spare. Forward Joe Sakic lit the torch. He played with a controlled obsession, committed to a purpose that Gretzky had made unmistakable. This had gone so far - 50 years - and no more. If you're better players, he said, let's see it. The world saw it. And the Americans lost on home ice for the first time since the Depression. There wasn't much more the Canadians could have taken, but officials might want to check the southern half of Lake Superior. That may not be safe, either.

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