Sochi... By Couch – Thursday, February 13

One morning in Stockholm last spring, I awoke to find hundreds of people – and hundreds more – dressed in bonnets and embroidered vests, carrying little satchels and purses; also embroidered. They might even have been wearing clogs on their feet, I’m not sure. They were everywhere I looked: in cafes, on street corners and on trams.

Finally, after asking myself whether the properties infused in the (many) Swedish lagers I’d had the night before were reeking a certain psychedelic havoc, I approached one of the embroidered persons and enquired about their appearance. Smiling a proud smile, a large and beatific woman told me that it was Norwegian Heritage Day – their Canada Day, basically – and that it was routine to celebrate by dressing as the Norse would have years ago. I reminded her that we were in Stockholm, not Oslo, but she told me: “Well, there are many Norse here. It is like a second home for us.”

If the Norse and the Swedes are culturally bound like so many sparkling buttons sewn together, this is also true of the nature of their hockey, reflected in today’s Canada-Norway hockey game, the first of what internationals call “the preliminary round” (i.e “the round that, in fact, matters not”). What Team Canada encountered was a kind of little Team Sweden – Team Sweden Lite – one whose pluck and effort and general defensiveness mirrored that which they will likely – nay, possibly – encounter in the later rounds.

Like the Swedes – and, in general, the Europeans – their players formed a leathery shell around their erstwhile and stubborn goaltender; chipped pucks in, then retreated; and worked opportunistically, as opposed to driving and driving ahead, which is more North American in style. The Norse played tough and, relatively speaking, limited Canada’s chances. Some people have viewed this as a kind of subtle dominance – if not dominance, then suffocation – of Canada’s attack, but, viewed through a cultural prism, it may have not been the worst thing.

The game allowed Canada to get its feet wet in Europe without being fully measured against the Steens and Karlssons of greater Scandinavia. It was a primer, a small test; never a bad thing in a tournament where the trick is to build from small to big, and then win when you have to.

I remember interviewing the former Leaf Darcy Tucker back in the early 2000s, and remarking how, despite the team’s early exit in the playoffs, a kind of harmony seemed to exist within the team (this after rumours of cabals and a divisive dressing room). I told him that the players appeared to co-exist smoothly, to which he replied, “Ya, a little too smoothly.” It was an instructive thought because, while every team would always like to win 75-0, sometimes being sandpapered isn’t the worst thing.

Had Canada beaten Norway by double digits, coaches would have learned less than what they learned today. With Norway playing it close over the first 40 minutes, they got a chance to better evaluate their team, and a few penalty kills were valuable, too, even the one in which it gave up a significant goal (pulling Norway to within one of tying the game).

As always, there will be fans bemoaning the fact that Canada didn’t run roughshod over its weaker opponent, but international hockey isn’t what it used to be – it’s much, much better – and while the U.S. will surely be encouraged by its drubbing of the Slovaks – and the Slovaks equally concerned – it only stands to reason that close calls keep a team more focused and on song. This isn’t an excuse for shots missing the net – this happened often – or scrums lost in the goal crease – this happened more than often – but the Olympics are about the journey as much as the result. The trick comes in matching the two: a difficult course leading to a treasured destination.

But, in this case, throw out the result. As starts go, this is less bad than an anxious nation may have perceived.

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