Sunday, February 19, 2006

A Better Storyline: Hooray for the Swiss!

After the Canadian hockey team fell to the nigh anonymous Swiss yesterday, the rah-rah commentators of the CBC quickly adjusted, rolling out the predictable "wake-up call" metaphor, as if our multi-millionaire squad's conquest by the Helvetians was just an obligatory chapter in the Bildungsroman of inevitable Canadian Olympic Gold. We Canucks so often point fingers at the American media coverage of international sports for its indubitably jingoistic flair. But this kind of post hoc rationalization in defeat - something we are rather good at through long practice - is just as bad, as our journalists neglect the better Cinderella storyline of the Swiss who have beaten two historic hockey powers in succession. This narrative is all the more intriguing in light of the fact that the most lopsided game in international history was Canada's drubbing of the same diminutive nation 33-0 way back in 1924. Surely the long and winding road from that ancient humiliation at Chamonix is a better plot than cliches about wake-up calls to spoiled pros! But for Canada the narrative of should-have-beens is pretty well-grooved.

Mine own awakening to the Olympics generally and the Canadian thema of rationalizing unexpected but almost inevitable defeat was in 1960 when world-record holding Harry Jerome pulled up lame in the gold medal final of the prestigious 100 metres. Shucks, I said, a word that I so often repeated until 1980 - when the Yanks had shown that true grit could beat out the Russians in hockey after all our own country's efforts had so long proven inexplicably fruitless. At that point, jubilant as I was with our great southern neighbour's triumph, I did some long overdue soul-searching and in good internationlist spirit, concluded that there was no valid reason at all to root primarily for athletes with whom I merely shared the accident of geographically proximate nativity.
(To be honest I had begun a curmudgeonish resistance to hometown fidelity long before that, growing up on Montreal's south shore and cheering on the Detroit Red Wings and the man who is still the greatest of them all, a case for which I shall make on, and you can look forward to until, his upcoming 78th birthday, March 31st).

Since that reflective revelation, I have always pulled for the underdog, which brings me back to my exquisite delight with yesterday's Swiss miracle. Getting blanked by unknowns couldn't have happened to a more deserving self-important assemblage than Team Canada and, especially to their Executive Director - whatever that is - the hockey personality for whom centerstage and limelight have become nothing short of an addiction. I refer of course to the man who despite his much-trumpeted epithet and scoring records, is about the 5th or 6th greatest player at best, in NHL history and who has managed to get his famously grinning visage centerstage whenever Team Canada wins, despite doing little other than making obvious picks for who is to play. Oh yes, he inspires if the Olympic circumstance should not be enough for seasoned professional hockey players.

As the distinct possibility, I am hopeful, looms of no gold, perhaps even no medal, my mind casts back to late in the 1995-96 season when Gretzky whined himself into a trade from the lowly Los Angeles Kings to the more prospective St. Louis Blues quite openly stating that he wanted to play for a "real contender". Odd: other great players in pro sports have usually assumed that one's superb talents are supposed to be applied on the ice or field to making your team a contender, rather than fussing until you can be once again surrounded, as Gretzky was in his most triumphant Oiler days, with a champion-level mix of stars to help you and bullies to clear your path.

Well, who knows? Wayne's absence from the glare of defeat Saturday may not have been just a hangover from the Tocchet gambling affair or his lifelong situational shyness when his team has just taken a shit-kicking. Perhaps he was off trying to cage a deal to join up with the unbeaten Slovaks or Finns...or maybe even this year's "miracle on ice" little Switzerland. After all "the Great One" likes to be with real contenders.