David-and-Goliath military match - on the ice and off

What was envisioned as an annual hockey game to foster goodwill between the US and Canada has become a bitter battle for patriotic pride.

It started out as a neighborly hockey match nearly 75 years ago. There were tea dances and church parades to celebrate the annual competition that was supposed to foster goodwill between Canada's Royal Military College (RMC) and the US Military Academy.

But times have changed. The gentleman's game is no more.

The grudge match last weekend at RMC, in which West Point's Black Knights defeated RMC's Paladins 3-2, saw more than its share of dustups.

"This competition is not for the faint of heart," declares William Oliver, sports scout at RMC in Kingston, Ontario. "It's warrior-like hockey. When the game's over, there's been the odd fist known to fly."

There's much at stake. For both teams, it's a matter of patriotic pride. And that's where the similarities end. In fact, to compare the locker rooms of these bitter rivals is to understand the role the military plays in each country's society.

Privately, the RMC team whispers that it's a battle of David and Goliath proportions. Paltry budgets, fewer coaches, and a smaller recruitment base make it difficult to win the ice war, the Canadians say.

It's much the same story writ large on the national stage. In 2004, for example, the United States is budgeting $399.1 billion for defense while Canada will spend $7.6 billion - its lowest figure as a percentage of GDP since before World War II.

Canada's relatively diminutive defense budget has sparked a chorus of criticism both at home and internationally. NATO has recently begun to exert pressure on Canada to increase its defense spending - and Prime Minister Paul Martin appears to be listening. Since taking office in November, he has promised more money for the military.

There were no such promises at the arena last weekend. Only to do better next year. RMC coach Kelly Nobes admits it won't be easy. "It's always a tougher game when we're at West Point," he says.

Originally, US Army Gen. Douglas MacArthur, then West Point's superintendent, envisioned the hockey competition as a friendly contest between like-minded gentlemen. He saw it as rivalry that would instill perseverance and team spirit in its players - the qualities of future military leaders.

For the Canadians, where hockey is more than just another sport, this has become one of the biggest games of the year. For the Americans, the affair is as hot-blooded as the annual Army-Navy football game.

The Canadians ruled the game until 1939 when, after 16 years, West Point scored its first win. With last weekend's victory, West Point boasts 37 wins, to RMC's 28. The teams have tied six times.

Hockey has always been the centerpiece of the event, but the competition has grown to include other events, such as judo and debating. This year's debate topic? "A policy of expanding democracy would save the cause of peace."

But the debate was postponed due to bad weather, so those who did the most to promote peace were the on-ice officials working the hockey game. Even after the final buzzer, RMC and West Point players continued to throw sticks and elbows.

"It's the type of game we always get from RMC," said an exuberant West Point coach Robert Riley, following the match. "A close game, a hard-fought game."

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