Relief, then joy: What winning at Olympic hockey means to Canada

Bruce Bennett

The tournament hasn't even started, but Canadians are already hand-wringing over the potential of not winning gold in men's hockey. Why does it matter so much?

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To the rest of the world, Canadian behaviour during international hockey tournaments is very odd, when a normally stereotypically passive people become intensely nationalistic. Hockey is more important to the average Canadian than almost anything. When the CBC conducted a national poll on the greatest Canadians of all time in 2004, 13 of the top 100 were hockey players or known for hockey, with Wayne Gretzky and Don Cherry cracking the top 10.

Hockey is intrinsically tied to Canada's national identity.

They don't give out Olympic medals for universal health care, ethnic tolerance, being nice, or progressive social values. -Jay Baruchel

Why is that? Well part of it is because we invented it, but mostly it's because we're good at it. Not just good, but historically the best in the world. There are very few things that Canada is better than everyone else at, and more importantly, better than the United States at.

Canadians don't like to admit it, but there is a large inferiority complex in our national identity when it comes to the USA. When you ask a Canadian what being a Canadian means, more often than not the reply will be some permutation of "We value ______, unlike America".

This isn't to say that Canadians don't like America or Americans -- we do, a lot. The relationship from Canada's perspective is not dissimilar from two brothers, the older being a star collegiate athlete and the younger having not yet hit their growth spurt. Everything the older brother touches turns to gold, keeping the younger brother squarely in his shadow. If there's one thing that the younger brother can beat the older brother at, no matter how hard he tries, it's going to become extremely important, even if afterwards the older brother messes up his hair and says he doesn't mind losing.

Like brothers would, Canada swells with pride when Americans say good things about us. During the Vancouver Olympics in 2010, Tom Brokaw broke down how important the relationship between the two countries is, and there was something about it that has stuck with me four years later.

Until Vancouver, hockey was Canada's great release. The one thing where we knew that, even if we don't win every time, we win most of the time. Some would argue that the Vancouver Olympics changed things, but I think most of us know that it was a one time event, and even with all the overall success at those Games for Canada, it wouldn't have meant as much if Sidney Crosby didn't score on Ryan Miller in overtime to secure the hockey gold.

Pressure

The pressure on Canada to win gold in men's ice hockey is one of a kind. Until Americans understand Canada's hesitance to be boisterous in its patriotism, they can't understand the pressure that's on the 25 players heading to Sochi to represent Canada in the men's hockey tournament.

Hockey is really the only time Canada lets it all out. Actor Jay Baruchel describes how Canada feels about winning hockey gold as follows.

It is important, bordering on necessary, because we pride ourselves on being a humble, middle class country, devoid of the crass competition of other countries. We are content, and without greedy desire. Or at least that's what we'd like to think.

However, as competition is an intrinsic part of human nature, we need some place to put it. We play defense against patriotism and ambition every day in this country, and so when an opportunity arises where we feel justified in wanting our tribe to be the best, the 50 foot tall maple leaves come out of the shed and everybody sees red and white. What I'm saying is, they don't give out Olympic medals for universal health care, ethnic tolerance, being nice, or progressive social values.

The things that Canada's most proud of are things you don't win; they're day-to-day things that make our lives better. Other countries value those things too, but our biggest and most important neighbours are loud and proud about everything they do, even the things they're awful at.

Hockey matters deeply to us because of the way it's adored and venerated in this country, so we treat it like a referendum on us. Even when it's not. -Bruce Arthur

Canada has just that one release that we truly care about, and as much as we will celebrate every medal in Sochi, one will always matter more than all the rest combined. Because of the importance placed on one event, we end investing more than just our emotions in regards to hockey. Struggling to find a way to put Canada's emotional connection to the sport into words, I asked Bruce Arthur of the National Post if he could explain why we place so much value on hockey. Even he agreed that's it's tough to explain:

It's hard to pinpoint, but the obvious dynamics are the notions that it's hockey, it's ours; we should win; just look at our team; we're Canada.

I mean, it's not ours anymore, and we shouldn't always win, but those are the deep currents that don't go away. Maybe it's that we now know that we don't always win, and when we do it's relief that we still can. Either way, when Canada plays Olympic hockey it's such a rare opportunity, and a lot of us seem to have made it the bar for the state of the game in this country, absurd as that might be.

It's the biggest measuring stick we have, and hockey matters deeply to us because of the way it's adored and venerated in this country, so we treat it like a referendum on us. Even when it's not.

Tempering expectations

When you are of the opinion that it's gold or bust, there really is no such thing as tempering expectations. Logically you would think that after winning the last Olympic Games, Canada would be entering Sochi with swagger, but after repeated failures at the World Juniors and the World Hockey Championships in the last four years, it seems like the feeling Bruce described is once again overwhelming.

Canadians don't accept the fact that even if you're dominant in a sport, you're sometimes going to lose in short tournaments. The expectation of always winning is unrealistic, as anyone would admit, so where does it come from? I asked James Mirtle from The Globe & Mail why we set these crazy expectations, and how unrealistic are they?

A big part of it is that hockey is one of the few things that Canada is truly dominant in. A lot of sports fans feel inferior / insignificant on the sporting landscape because of how little impact Canadians have in the sports they follow -- NFL, NBA, MLB etc. -- and even the Summer Olympics. Maybe this all comes back to the World Juniors, too, where Canada had that insane run of gold medals and really built expectations up to the point where the only way to meet expectations is to win gold five times in a row or some other unsustainable streak.

There's some logic to it, too: More than 50 percent of the NHL is Canadian. The Olympic team this year has a ridiculous amount of talent, with enough great players left off of it to put together another medal contender as a B Team. So they should be the favourite.

But what many miss is how little difference there is between winning and losing in a short tournament like this, and how random the results can be. Even if Team Canada has an overwhelming chance (let's say 70 percent) of winning each of the quarterfinal, semifinal and final, their chances of winning gold are close to 30 percent. And that's dominance.

And, coming into 2014, even if Canada loses, it will have won two of the five Olympic hockey tournaments [with NHL players], which is extremely good.

The slim chances of actually winning an Olympic hockey tournament, even if you do ice the best team every time, are not lost on Canadians. And for a country that ties its national pride to a sporting event that happens once every four years, it's extremely worrisome to Canadians that just a 30 percent success rate represents dominance.

Is it any wonder that the first emotion Canadians feel when wins do come is relief, then joy?

More on the Winter Olympics:

SB Nation's Winter Olympics medal tracker | Meet Team USA

Team Canada's beer fridge only opens with passport | #Lookit

What you need to know about curling | Bobsled, luge and skeleton

Miracle Put on Ice: 1984 US hockey team never had a chance

Hockey: Men’s schedule | All 12 men’s rosters | USA roster analysis

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