Never, ever, ever again.
At one point during the third period of Canada’s quarter-final versus Latvia, my wife turned to me sitting – no, squatting – on my chair in front of the television and said: “You’re actually, like, not going to have a heart attack are you?” I scoffed: “No.” But just in case, I put my hand to my chest. My heart was beating like Thumper’s foot. During the next commercial break, I poured a tall glass of water because I heard that sort of thing was good for you. Two face-offs later, I kicked over the glass. The water remains there as I sit – still squatting – writing this piece.
Because Canadian hockey fans – boiled in game culture and every level of the sport from birth – are, probably, the most erudite of any group, we were all aware of the game’s potential narrative as it unfolded: an unheralded side whose heart has grown five times larger riding an impossibly lucky – and impossibly good, if for one day – goaltender past a surprised giant that wakes up too late to find its cupboards ransacked, soup can by soup can. The game was like reading a novel and suddenly asking yourself whether you’d heard about the ending somewhere else: Belarus vs. Sweden in 2002, the U.S. vs. Soviet Union in 1980. For long stretches, it was a terrifying, sickening and exhausting experience. “You’re not having a heart attack are you?” I can’t say what might have happened had Latvia surged ahead.
But they did not. Still, the red and white fought, scrummed, skated and blocked shots. And their coach – the remarkable, and remarkably resilient, Ted Nolan, from Garden River, Ont. – was very nearly responsible for the most incredible coaching trick of all-time, one that produced Latvia’s stunning first goal: a forward at the front of the bench hopping on the ice for a defenceman at the end, and that forward surprising the entire Canadian team by taking a breakaway pass through the middle of the ice for a goal. Alas, the trick was successful only once (although it was tried a second time), and, in the end, the bottled lightning of the Latvian goaltender, Kristers Gudlevskis, wasn’t enough to produce possibly the greatest hockey upset of all-time. At the buzzer, the pain was in their heart, not mine.
So, now what? Now, there is a semifinal. After the quarter final, the questions asked by Canadians of the skies, sun and moon was how come so many wonderful goal-scoring forwards had scored so few goals, and what it would take for them to bust loose, as the kids used to say. But it may not take that, for this tournament – or at least the games involving Canada – have been low scoring, and, despite the team’s firepower, it’s been “defence-first” and “covering the gaps” and “owning the wall” that has shaped Canada’s mindset. Try to think of the last time any team had any sustained pressure in the Canadian zone. It may have happened here and there, but only that this is the horse Canada rides as it heads into its next do-or-die game. Whether the strategy will work is a question only the universe can answer.
If we – or others like us who aren’t Canadian – might view Friday’s semifinal as the Great White North against the Great White North’s little brother, we’d be in the story’s neighbourhood, if not in its sitting room. Still, if Canada-United States has always been about backyard wrasslin’ and familial jabs and leg-holds on the living room carpet, you get a sense that, this time, both brothers are in their thirties with families and a dog and two cars in the driveway. There’s very little to choose between them. Unlike the European teams, there will be no KHL or Swedish Elite League outliers (or goaltenders named Kristers) for Canada and the U.S. to figure out. Both teams already know each other, and both teams’ fans live in the others’ realm. A Canadian can look at Zach Parise and see the son of a Team Canada ‘72 star, Jean-Paul, while America must summon itself to cheer against Jonathan Toews, perhaps the greatest captain on the greatest U.S.-based NHL team. Roommate will challenge roommate –Doughty vs. Quick; Crosby vs. Orpik/Martin – and all of those American border town kids – Kane, Kessel, Kesler – who worshipped Gretzky, Lemieux, Sakic and Yzerman will be trying to steal the dreams of their countrymen. What happens when a mirror stares at a mirror? Pour yourself a tall glass of water and try answering that one.