As Canadian hockey fans go, I’m barely an amateur. I don’t gamble on sport, I don’t even have a ‘team’ I support or know much about. But I do appreciate the game itself. The pace and skill at the highest level is astonishing. I like being impressed. I don't care if it is individal genius, or brilliant team work - I just like seeing impressive sport.
But the most impressive thing about hockey (like any other of the world’s top sports played at the highest level) is not the tremendously high sustained skill level - it is the occasional rare ‘moment’ that surpasses all expectation - a moment that borders on magic, and stays in your thoughts for weeks, or months, or a lifetime. These moments require pressure. International contests fit the bill because they come with the pressure generated by the weight of entire nations - millions of passionate people. I think human beings feel a natural admiration, and appreciation for ‘excellence under such pressure’ just as we do about ‘courage under fire’. It is a deep appreciation. These rare moments are the reason that sport holds such a prominent place in our world – why the World Cup, the Superbowl, the Olympics draw more interest from humanity than so many more ‘serious’ things. It's not just a game. Sport can tug on a deep, deep, nerve and dish out a sense of joy and satisfaction unlike any other entertainment that I know of. And for someone who lives only briefly, and just once, like you, or me, these moments beat the heck out of math class.
Here's one such moment that you already know about:
Yesterday, team USA was a few heartbeats away from all but certain defeat with twenty-something seconds remaining in the Olympic gold medal men’s hockey final when they scored to tie the game at 2:2. Already this had been one of the fastest paced, most exciting hockey games in anyone’s memory – it would soon become the most memorable game ever witnessed by an entire generation of Canadians. A tied score meant an extra 20 minutes of overtime played four-on-four. That’s two fewer bodies in play than normal – ‘freedom on ice’ – making defence more difficult and a goal more likely.
About seven thrilling ‘hockey minutes’ later – a 22 year old Canadian kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia brought the puck into the US zone squeezing a stick between two American defencemen, flicking the puck to his left and following it into the side boards. This kid, Sidney Crosby, had no way of knowing just then that he was only few short breaths away from becoming a Legend. He was already famous, recognized by many even as the best player in the world today, a Stanley Cup winner a just a few months earlier – but not a Legend – not yet - not for a few more seconds.
Along the boards, Crosby flicked the puck to his right, into the corner for Jerome Iginla who was followed in to the corner by an American skater. Then Crosby, free of the puck, turned to his right, and for the slightest split second he shot a calm glance at the US defenceman in front of him. This is what it looked like:
The red-dressed fans behind the glass, inches from Crosby, had no way to see what was coming so soon. They were just seconds from being the happiest members of a nation overwhelmed with joy. For the remainder of their lives, these eye witnesses will recall with great emotion the story of their fortunate proximity to the moment that was about to occur.
With a sudden burst of acceleration, Crosby was gone – just like that - headed for the net.
I’m not a hockey coach but ‘pass the puck and head for the net’ sounds like something that Sidney Crosby probably learned long before he learned much else. It was a lesson that now put him alone, and free, in front of the US net in Olympic Gold Medal overtime. Now he just needed that puck back. And Jerome Iginla, in the corner fighting for the puck (and certainly no stranger to this role in the time-tested give-and-go) did not disappoint. Despite the best efforts of two US players, the puck was delivered – back onto Crosby’s stick.
And there it was... a heartbeat, a shot, a brief moment forever stamped onto Canadian culture.
For Sidney Crosby, it was probably fast and natural - and not what he expected becoming a ‘Legend’ might feel like. Later he would say that it didn’t feel real. I suspect that might be the way these things usually go down. Reality is overwhelming; paralysing. But talent makes these moments ‘instinctive’. Crosby was skilled and strong enough ‘not to feel it’ and not to be overwhelmed by the significance of the whole thing before the job was done.
The fans behind the glass in that picture could see the moment materializing right in front of them too. With them, a anxious nation of red-dressed television viewers, along with a good chunk of the rest of the industrialized world all suddenly become aware too - all together, all at once. Canadians in Brisbane Australia saw it live: Crosby, puck, net... a breath held for an instant, and it was over.
The puck slipped under the pads of superstar goalkeeper Ryan Miller - and we were Olympic Champions.
An instant later, with Crosby rounding net, the moment was behind us – gone. And as good as the memories, pictures, replays are - it will never feel the same again. It will never have the pressure and the uncertainty of the real thing. But it was special enough to warrant one heck of a celebration.
After his goal, Crosby tossed his stick and jumped in the air and an entire country jumped with him. NBC should sell a poster of this jump - from this angle - with his stick flying through the air. This image is not really about Sidney Crosby anymore - his job was finished a second or two earlier - this image is about the sea of red behind the glass, the nation represented.
My mother told me on the phone today that in the 25 years since she immigrated to Canada from Poland she had never, ever, seen Canadians act so united and openly happy, on television, in the streets, at work, everybody, everywhere. A lid had been flipped off the top of a calm and reserved nation – we had briefly become Brazilian-like.
And here come two of his gold-medal winning team mates. Thanks Crosby – you’re a legend.
Canada now stands alone with 8 Olympic men’s hockey gold medals, one more than the second best Soviet Union. We also totalled 14 gold medals in Vancouver, the most of any nation in Winter Olympics history. Not bad eh?
As for these images – yes I obviously pinched them from NBC video, with appreciation if not permission, and I hope that because I won’t make any money from them and NBC is getting free advertising, it's all good. In fact, 'thank you', and 'you’re welcome' NBC.