The one Winter Olympic gold Canada cannot lose: men's ice hockey

The Winter Olympic sport that Canada cares about most – men's ice hockey – began today with Canada defeating Norway, 8-0. The nation is desperate for its men's team to win gold on home ice after many years of disappointment.

By , Staff writer

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    The Canadian men's ice hockey team celebrates a goal during their preliminary round win over Norway, 8-0, at Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver, British Columbia Tuesday.
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There have been some strange rumors swirling around Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver. Word is that some peculiar winter carnival is passing through town, in which people have been known to skate on ice without hockey sticks and race across the snow even when no bear was chasing them.

Thankfully, men’s hockey arrived today to put an end any of that funny business.

Yes, Vancouver is holding an Olympic Games, but to many Canadians, cross-country and alpine skiing and snowboarding are just the appetizer for the main course – men’s hockey – which began Tuesday at Canada Hockey Place.

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Canada’s plan to “Own the Podium” is popular enough, and moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau winning Canada’s first-ever gold on home soil Sunday was a true moment of national pride. But at Canada’s core, where feel-good stories dissolve, leaving only matters of the heart, the sole gold that Canada cares about deeply is men’s hockey.

“We’re all sports fans,” says Markus Bill, who came to Canada Hockey Place to see Canada’s first match, against Norway. “But this is our passion.”

Canada a gracious host – till now

To this point, Canada has been the most gracious of hosts.

American moguls skier Hannah Kearney beats Canadian Jennifer Heil on the last run? No worries, we’ll get ’em next time.

American Seth Wescott pips Canadian Mike Robertson for a sensational snowboardcross gold? Well done, Seth.

But when the Jumbotron merely showed the half-dozen Norwegian fans in attendance at Tuesday’s hockey match, a chorus of boos shook the building.

If the United States happens to beat Canada when they meet Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper will muster the Mounties for an immediate strike on North Dakota.

On the streets of Vancouver, the truth is as obvious as a board-rattling body check: Hockey is not in the Olympics, it is the Olympics – and Canada Hockey Place is The Place to be.

Matthew van der Lee estimates that his father paid $2,500 to be here. Bill notes that he bought his tickets with his credit card two years ago – and has been paying them off ever since.

Excitement – or panic?

The sense of excitement before the Norway game (which Canada won, 8-0), was barely distinguishable from a sense of utter panic.

A Coca-Cola commercial here boasts: “Let’s make sure the world knows whose game they’re playing.” Problem is, Canada has rarely done that at the Olympics in recent years.

Since 1952, though, Canada has won only one men’s gold medal, at Salt Lake – an achievement voted the greatest moment in Canadian Winter Olympic history in a poll by a Canadian TV channel.

Four years later in Turin, the Canadian men turned in their worst Olympic performance in history.

“These Olympics really started immediately following Turin,” says Chuck van der Lee, provider of the $2,500 tickets. “There are incredibly high expectations.”

There is more truth than nationalist bravado in his statement that Canada has so much hockey talent that it “could put together three teams, and all three would be competitive.”

The more important question, however, is whether Canada can build one team that can win gold. “The Russians scare me,” says Colin Smith, as he heads to his upper deck seats.

The Russians scare Jeff Fournier, too. But so do the Americans and the Swedes, says the Canadian as he polishes off a pre-game hot dog.

For Fournier and the rest of Canada, though, it is a good fear, because it means that, at last, men’s hockey is here. “It’s everything,” he says.

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Mark has been covering the Olympics since 2002, making this his fifth Olympic Games. Follow our Winter Olympics Twitter feed.

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