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Monday, August 24, 2009
Pressure? There's no American equivalent to what Team Canada faces in 2010 Olympics


If there's a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol' 72.
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger
And all I remember was sitting beside you

That is the opening line of "Fireworks," a song by Canada's favorite rock band, The Tragically Hip. No need for The Hip to provide more details than it did in that opening line. Every living and breathing Canadian knows it refers to the 1972 Summit Series and Paul Henderson's game-winning goal, which beat the communists from the former Soviet Union.

You said you didn't give a f--- about hockey
And I never saw someone say that before
You held my hand and we walked home the long way
You were loosening my grip on Bobby Orr

I still get chills every time I hear that Bobby Orr line from lead singer Gord Downie. Somehow, right in that instant, Downie's unique voice captures Canada's obsession with the sport it invented and still clings desperate ownership to.

All of which should help underline to my American readers here at ESPN.com just what kind of pressure and hype await the host country in less than six months. When Canadian hockey fans stop me to chat Olympics these days, it's not to ask me who I think will win men's hockey gold in Vancouver, but rather which country I think will lose to Canada in the gold-medal game. Gulp.

It doesn't seem to matter that Russia is the two-time reigning IIHF world champion and Sweden is the defending Olympic champion. The perception is, "This is our sport and we're going to win on home ice. Case closed." Yikes.

I've asked colleagues in the business about this over and over in the past few months and nobody can come up with a concrete parallel in American sports. There's never been a single sporting event that anyone can remember in America's successful and glorious history that will compare to what hosting the Olympic hockey tournament north of the border will mean to Canadians.

The first Dream Team in basketball? Not even close. We're talking about a gold-medal game in Vancouver (if Canada makes it) that will be watched on TV by an entire country. Remember 1972? People who are old enough remember having the day off from school to watch Game 8 or at least have class stopped during the game so kids could watch it on TV in the gym. Canada stood still that day.

Canadians also watched in record numbers in February 2002, when a 50-year Olympic gold-medal drought was snapped in Salt Lake City. I was too busy writing about it in Utah, but to this day, I hear about the thousands of Canadians who took the streets in Montreal, Toronto and Vancouver to celebrate the historic win over the United States.

Now, imagine winning it all on home soil.

In hockey terms, the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980 was an amazing moment in American sports history (and, quite frankly, in my mind, the greatest hockey moment ever) and it certainly brought together the country at a time of political and economic duress. But seriously, was the whole country on pins and needles when the tournament started in Lake Placid? No, of course not. Interest in the game increased as the Americans hung in there with the favored Russians. It was a fantastic moment, but not one in which an entire country dialed in from the beginning of the tournament expecting a gold medal. That, of course, will be the case in 2010 for Canada.

The best I can think of for an American equivalent in terms of hype and focus is the Super Bowl, the most-watched sporting event in the world. But again, not everyone is cheering for the same team, and the outcome of the game doesn't matter so much to an entire nation. Perhaps there is no parallel because America is so darn good at so many sports; it doesn't channel its national identity through one single event.

You see, we're little ol' Canada. We scream for attention. We want to be recognized so badly. We want Americans to know we don't live in igloos, and we even have HBO. For a country that battles so hard to get international recognition in anything, hockey has always been our passport to the world. We're good at it. We produce the largest quantities of high-end players in the world. This is the one sport that routinely put us on the map and brings us together. And believe me, that's not an easy thing in Canada. We don't naturally rally behind the flag like our American neighbors. Around sporting events, mostly hockey, is when we do it.

Team Canada coach Mike Babcock said a Monday night news conference that people at his summer lake retreat in Saskatchewan were picking the team for him every day.

"How many people in Canada?," the Red Wings coach asked the large media contingent. When told 37 million [the last population count was actually 33 million], he added: "So 37 million people are going to tune into every game. I think that's awesome."

I guess if I had to find one close comparison to what it will mean to Canadians to host the Olympic hockey tournament, it would be England hosting and winning the World Cup. No need to explain that one to you.

You may remember Wayne Gretzky's famous rant during the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics. His Canadian hockey team was struggling out of the gates and his attention-seeking speech after a tie game with the Czech Republic cleverly meant to deflect pressure off his players. It worked. Now, imagine how much more intense that pressure will be on home soil.

I can't imagine what it's going to be like for Sidney Crosby & Co. in February, tying on their skates before the first game of the Olympics and feeling GM Place shake from the dressing room.

Win, and 23 players will be legends forever, just like the boys in 1972. Lose? Well, get used to answering questions from friends, family, the postman, the customs guard and every single Canadian for the rest of your lives.

Nah, no pressure.