I heard Ray Ferraro on Jim Rome this week, talking about the "angst" in Canada over the possibility that Team Canada won't win gold. The gist of it was (maybe an exact quote, but I'm going from memory), "anything less than gold is a catastrophe for Canada." I get what he's saying, and certainly we've all heard it in various forms a million times over the last few months. Canadians care more about hockey, they expect more from their hockey program, they expect to be better than everyone else and they will feel horrible about themselves and/or Canadian hockey if they aren't constantly validated as the absolute best in every way into perpetuity in all the universe amen.
I love Canadian hockey. I'm from Michigan, which may as well be Canada. There wouldn't be hockey in the US without Canadian hockey. Before the US gold in 1980, I don't think there were more than 20 Americans playing in the NHL. I remember trying to count them in the back of The Hockey News, and coming up with something like seventeen. There weren't even very many playing in college. That's how my home town in Michigan found hockey in the first place. It was a college town and Canadian kids came to play for the college team, set down roots, raised little American kids and coached the local youth league teams. Some of those kids I grew up with went on to play college (unheard of), then the US Olympic team (insane) and finally played long careers in the NHL. As an American hockey-playing kid growing up in the 70s, thinking you could grow up to play in the NHL was only slightly more practical than thinking you could grow up to be a Jedi.
I'm sure you can trace every decent U.S. youth hockey program back to a college program or pro team that imported Canadians to play at a time when basically nobody cared. Which is to say, basically U.S. hockey is Canadian hockey.
It's just that the U.S. population is not the Canadian population. And the U.S. population doesn't care as much about hockey. So what? It doesn't make any sense to try to engage a person who doesn't like hockey in a conversation about hockey. Why bother? If you love Radiohead, do you have to browbeat every person on earth with the greatness of Radiohead? If you saw U2 when they played in bars, do you have to lord that over the casual fans who couldn't tell you which album (I still call them albums) is which, despite calling themselves fans and having bought every record (I still call them records, too).
I've done that. Many times. I especially did it when I was 12. I just don't understand doing it as an adult. Except I do it. I do it but I don't know why. It might be because it's fun to be 12. And being a sports fan is one of the two quickest routes to the 12-year-old part of our brains.
I love that the love of hockey is a self-identified part of Canada's national character. It's even okay with me that Canadians think they're simply better at it than everyone else. I suppose the American version of that is the (embarrassing, if you ask me) idea that Americans are simply better at everything, and also, if we're not better at it, it's not really worth doing. This would be why both countries in their respective communities are seen as arrogant by the rest of the world. In Canada's case, it's the hockey world. In America's case, it's the world.
(How to help Canadians understand Americans better: Just take the way you feel about hockey, and extend that to everything else. Voila. You're an American.)
However, I don't think Canada's congenital love of hockey entitles them essentially to demand victory from Team Canada. (Behind the Net has a great rundown on the odds for any of the top five teams winning gold; short answer: 20%.) It's a bit like the mean parent of a kid on your sports team who yells at the kid to [fill in the blank] "or else". National pride in not only excellence but absolute superiority puts the team in an impossible position, because it is literally impossible to do anything other than fail or provisionally stave-off eventual failure. The best you can hope for is to maintain the status quo.
And, if you're Canada, stuck with that queasy, unsettling feeling that your fundamental principles are about to be put to the test, the solution is a wall of self-validating, circular logic.
For example: in 2006, Canada did not win gold. What's the reason? I have heard it over and over. They iced the wrong team. Ah. So, there were better players, but they were not selected, and had they been selected, they would have won. Therefore, the reason Canada lost in 2006 is...that wasn't really Canada. Not the best of Canada. Only if they had won, would they have been worthy of being called Team Canada (but, see "Only the true Messiah denies his divinity").
Every player in the Big Game feels pressure. There's pressure in the Super Bowl, or the World Series. But in those situations, most of the spectators (in the U.S. say, in the case of baseball or American football) are not all that rabid about who wins or loses. Maniacal Colts or Saints fans are a tiny percentage of viewers of the Super Bowl. Meanwhile, tens of millions will watch and enjoy it no matter what happens; people pick up a preference for whichever team, frequently influenced by the "narrative" the media has chosen to push. Sort of like the way I watch every other sport in the Olympics.
But if you're a player on Team Canada, you know that 35,000,000 of your neighbors and family are looking right at you and they all want the same thing and they all want it the same amount. It's a nonsensical, unworkable amount of pressure.
Pick the best hitter in the history of baseball. Now attempt to prove his superiority by (hold your complaints till the end, please) randomly selecting any at-bat in his career. Hit=validation; out=failure. Now, the best hitter in the history of baseball is only getting a hit 40% of the time. So with each at-bat you are likely to disprove his greatness.
Of course, nobody would use that as a yardstick. Because it's wrong and stupid. Yet Team Canada's odds (along with basically everyone else's) are 20%, half as good as the odds of the best batter in baseball getting a hit.
Hockey is a sport in which, as coaches say, "it's the second mistake that will kill you." The first mistake is corrected by the system; the second mistake, well, it's in your net. I like that. I like that human fallibility is built into the game, allowed for, accepted by coaches as a fact that you ignore at your own peril. Compare this to, say, figure skating, where the gold goes to the skater who does the best job of not screwing up. You catch an edge, you fall; sorry, you suck. Hockey, meanwhile, is full of screw ups. I am tempted to add, "like life."
As Ferraro pointed out on Rome last week, after the prelims, one loss and you're out. You face Ryan Miller and he's hot, too bad. You're out. That's the way it goes. They weren't even really a team before last week, thrown together for two weeks with insane expectations and a high degree of probability that they will fail (see mc79hockey's excellent post on the relatively high degree of randomness in hockey results), pitted against players from all over the world, who, taken one at a time, we all know are every bit as good as the Canadians. Not to say better. But really, why should any sane person expect the Canadians to beat a Russian team with Ovechkin, Kovalchuk, et al, or the Americans, or the Slovaks, or the Swedes, who people seem to have forgotten are the defending champions. The Canadians beat the Swiss, and the Slovaks beat the Russians, both in shoot-outs. Yet, the outcome of shoot-outs has been shown to be effectively random, settling nothing.
Sports (fan) psychology is not rational. I know it. But it's like the whole country self-identifies as one big sports nut, the crazy [fill in the blank] supporter dude we all know -- who we like, but know to ignore -- because he's just like that about the [fill in the blanks]. David Puddy from Seinfeld, the crazed face-painter who says he's "gotta support the team."