Maybe you don’t feel it, but it’s coming. Soon, you’ll be pushed into it; swallowed by it; and even though the layers of complications run deeper and deeper in our varied world of penetrating opinions and issues viewed from every possible angle, clarity is not hard to embrace because this is one thing, one event, one moment in time staged in one place: the Olympics.
In the past, Canada walked into the host stadium like an uncertain and awkwardly dressed boy or girl, but the waistcoats and bonnets have been tossed aside. Instead, we stride with the traditional giants of the Games – the Germans, Russians and Americans – after a new epoch was established at Salt Lake City, and seen to full bloom in Vancouver in 2010.
This is even more the case with our hockey team, neglected through the ‘70s, bridesmaided through the ‘80s and ‘90s, and victorious in two of the last four Olympics. It is a giant inside the giant, a defining colossus against which – respect to the lugers and ice dancers – every other competition and competitor will be measured. Winning the overall Olympics as a nation could be something, but whether anyone will notice this if Team (Hockey) Canada finishes ninth is another matter entirely.
Still, in victory and defeat, that feeling before the first puck drops remains the same; a feeling that something great and important – good or bad; it depends on your politics and perspective – will descend upon us. Already, we’ve scribbled over our daytimers and pads: Norway first, Finland later, and then, the playoffs. Notes have been sent to friends – “Where are we watching this?” – and occasions rebooked. Would-be grooms have been chided – “You had to get married now, right?” – and permission has already been granted for bars to open early, or, in the case of British Columbia, way early. This year, Newfoundland and Labrador gets it good – most games will be aired at 1:30 in the afternoon – and already you can imagine the streets: men and women swinging from lampposts should Canada see their way to a triumphant final.
But first things first. Despite the likely result of easy games early in the schedule, Canadians will be riveted to the screen, coffee and beer and pop in hands, stomachs tightened, throats dry. Close games mean a more neglected economy, but we are willing to pay this price.
Canada enters a powerhouse side, lousy with skilled forwards and elite defencemen. Depth, depth, depth. Russia waits defiantly at home, having learned, they say, from the embarassment of Vancouver. The Swedes are comparably skilled to Canada, and the Finns boast Tuukka Rask, sublime in net. The Americans’ brotherhood is steadfast, their game intelligent, and the Czechs are very good in Europe.
Going into every Olympics, we think we have a sense of who will prevail (“Canada, of course!”) but no one knows, another reason why the Olympics – lacking a season by which to seed teams – is fascinating viewing. Every game is exactly that. Every play informs the next. Shots are as precious as diamonds and goals as good as gold. We breathe during commercials, and even then.
Last Olympics, my kids heard their grandfather swear for the first time. During Nagano, I watched at a friend’s house, and then, after the exhaustion of Olympics, we rarely saw each other (he’s since moved away, so that was that). During the Salt Lake City gold medal game, my two-year-old daughter – a joyful and ambiable child – cowered in her mother’s arms, unsettled by the awful tension of the adult world. During Turin, we watched in a crowded friend’s bar. The bar is long gone, but my friend now owns Junction Craft Brewery in Toronto, so next week, pray for my liver. This is to say nothing of Games contested when amateur hockey teams did Canada’s bidding; teams with players like Burke and Sherven and Harvey.
In Calgary in ‘88, we tried coaxing a miracle out of a side who, a few weeks before, had defeated the Russians in Russia at the Izvestia tournament, but it was not to be. In Albertville and Lillehammer, there were close calls – very close calls – but never more. Still, because of what had happened when and where, time was suspended, routines changed. We were held captive by sport, which, as far as captors go, is one of the best.
A most enduring image of Team Canada in Nagano came after the players arrived in the small Japanese city by train. Cameras waited at the platform as they emerged from the doors, toques plugged on their heads and duffle bags pulled over their shoulders like kids on a gap year. A frenzy of lenses pushed towards them as they stared wide-eyed at the strange tableau of life in another land, bewildered, it seemed, at what was happening, and uncertain of what lay ahead. Another lasting image came later: Gretzky sitting on the bench, passed over in the shootout. But let’s not speak of that. Let’s speak of arriving, of getting there, of starting before everything becomes so silly with nerves and drama that expression is useless, words absurd.
Any day now.