By Chris Koentges
You want a quick, dirty glimpse into a nation's psyche, watch the ads that air during its biggest competitions. The World Cup. Eurovision. Election debates. The Olympics. You'll see what a society fears most and, more importantly, what it aspires to become.
The rebirth of Detroit is prematurely dangled during a break in the Super Bowl one year. The next, Coca-Cola shows that America's not quite ready to sing about its beauty in more than one language. (The best ads are a little too hopeful.)
Four years ago, during a break in the Opening Ceremonies, Canadians met an African man, preparing to reunite with his family at the airport. It's the dead of winter and his wife looks uncertain, stepping through the arrival gate with their two children. We've watched this man meticulously put together all the things you need to be Canadian. He's procured toques and mittens and warm jackets. He's got a steaming cup of Tim Hortons. The wife doesn't yet understand these gestures.
But a knowing look breaks across the husband's face. Soon she'll see how easy it is to join the big family that is Canada. Work hard, drink some double doubles and go to the places where they watch this crazy sport called hockey. "Welcome home," the man tells his wife and kids, as they step out into this miserable blizzard, giddy to show her all he has discovered in this northern land.
The 2010 Olympics used hockey to tie together all the divergent threads of the Canadian experience, from our inferiority complex to the vain little hopes embedded in our great multicultural experiment. It reached a singular incredible climax on the final day of competition, when Jarome Iginla, the son of a lawyer from Nigeria, found Sidney Crosby streaking toward the net in sudden-death overtime. A pride, which had been bubbling beneath the country's surface for so many years, suddenly erupted. On the streets that stretched for miles each way from the arena, celebratory street hockey games broke out. Impromptu beer gardens and an endless procession of high fives. Whether you'd been in Canada a week or went back generations, that was your welcome home to Canada day.
It was a once in a generation day.
It was the day that we became outwardly smug. It was the day we began to reinvent ourselves as a nation of entitled pricks.
* * *
If the 2010 Olympic ads anticipated that magical moment our country was about to reach, the crop of ads this past month fixated not on the journey nor any real vision of what our nation might become next, but on the stale climax that followed Crosby's goal. A climax that could never be repeated. And yet it was repeated for 30 seconds during every other commercial break. Thousands of times this month.
The most obnoxious one of these ads, about prematurely cheering for a goal that "woke up the country," doesn't even make sequential sense.
The concept for these ads made two audacious presumptions: (1) Canada's in the gold medal game; (2) Canada wins the game the same way it did in Vancouver. Budweiser gives this concept the most lavish treatment. There are a series of dark shots of unsavory looking northern Europeans gazing in shock at a hockey game on TV. Their souls have been broken by what they see. The earth spins through nine, 10, 11, 12 different time zones to this insane celebration. A gigantic red Budweiser zeppelin hangs above our land, suggesting a deity to be thanked for victory.
I'm curious to know how a red-blooded American drinks Budweiser after watching this.
The fact that these ads didn't just put us in the gold-medal game, but showed us celebrating victory before the Olympics even began, seemed to openly taunt the hockey gods. And let me stress, we do still believe in the hockey gods here. The way we believe, though, has begun to change.
We believe in them not as the powers that circulate some mysterious karma through the hockey universe, righting the bounces over time. We now believe in them like ancient civilizations believed in their gods -- as entities to be invoked like the apparition of some gigantic zeppelin -- on our side in war.
The subtext of this year's hockey tournament was that the world had caught up to Canadian hockey. We'd fallen behind in goaltending. Our offensive firepower had been matched. Our men weren't referred to as "the favorite," but "a favorite." They responded with the most dominant performance since NHLers entered the Olympics. They didn't trail once in any game. They played the kind of hockey that you write a textbook about.
Our women, on the other hand, played a game for the poets.
The American puck that dribbled down the slow Sochi ice toward an empty net with time running out, skipping into the post, failing to seal American victory. Down 2-0, just before that, with less than four minutes to play, nobody I know anywhere in Canada believed we wouldn't come back. We vibrated with excitement. The ritualization of coming the closest ever to death was proof that the hockey gods favored our land.
In Canada, our hockey certainty has become a double-edged blade. Some of us want to dominate -- to write textbooks. Some of us just want to get off in the most intensely poetic way possible.
Both scenarios imply a certainty that Canadians once found rather distasteful. And I believe most of us still do.
* * *
Am I overstating the influence of hockey on Canadian identity? Consider that the Canada/U.S. gold medal game in Vancouver was watched by 80 percent of the country. Consider also that 92 percent of Canadian parents believe every child should be provided with the opportunity to learn to skate.
Consider our starting goalie Carey Price, who grew up in a remote community in British Columbia's alpine country. His dad drove him 200 miles each way for practice. This happened several times a week, before he got himself a pilot's license and bought an airplane to make the commute. Consider Price's mom was then chief of the Ulkatcho First Nation. Consider that we take such families for granted here.
It won't surprise you that we write a lot about hockey and what it means. One notion I've always loved comes out of an essay (appropriately) titled "The Meaning of Hockey":
Hockey fuses an Aboriginal spirit with modern technology, reflecting the great Canadian dream of being at once totally modern and totally Aborignal, belonging to the whole world and to this place, at home in the city and in the wilderness.
Way before it was called hockey, people in this land played a game called Oochamkunutk. There was another game called "break-shins." There were lots of precursors with lots of names. All these varying games coalesced to become an organized sport that became this timid kind of spirituality before blowing up into something like religion, and now a cultural ethos that cannibalizes the nuances of our existing national identity. Hockey is the seam that ties together a vast geography and widely different cultures. You can no longer tell in Canada where hockey ends and our larger identity begins.
Caught up this past year in a series of escalating political scandals, Prime Minister Stephen Harper asked the Queen (of England) to prorogue parliament. (This is the equivalent of calling a timeout as you're falling out of bounds -- in a game of pickup -- then taking the ball, which happens to be yours, and going home, hoping that everyone forgets what the score was by the time you come back several weeks later.) For weeks, Harper refused to talk to Canadian media about his scandals. (Scandals more of the Watergate variety than anything salacious.)
When he did come back to finally talk, he wouldn't even acknowledge that there were scandals. He would talk openly about one topic: hockey.
Through three previous election cycles, Harper had used the specter of a forthcoming hockey book to prove his Canadianness, implying that his membership card in the Society For International Hockey Research could make up for what he uncharacteristically admitted to be a "conspicuous inability on the ice." (He is a photo-op obsessed politician, seldom seen on skates.)
Some of us had to doubt his book's existence. But damn if he didn't come back this past fall with an obscure history of hockey. Harper, who is an American-style conservative, used the origins of organized hockey in Toronto -- which he bills as a struggle for the soul of the sport -- to ask: "Was hockey to be a game of obsessed amateurs playing for the love of the sport, or was it a game for paid professionals who would give fans what they wanted?" (At the time, being paid to play hockey was morally tantamount to prostitution.) In Harper's narrative, professionalism triumphs over amateurism. An unregulated free market saves the day. He writes: "Even the Olympic movement -- by then an unholy alliance of European elitists and Soviet Communists, who were really marketing nationalism more than amateurism -- came to terms with the inevitabilities of paid sport."
While we take this sort of rhetoric for granted in Canada, The New York Times review of Harper's book couldn't overlook the context: "It is as if President Obama published a densely researched study of early basketball in Chicago."
Last week, Harper bet Obama a case of beer on both gold-medal hockey games. He later tweeted at him -- the most powerful leader in the world -- saying, "Like I said, #teamusa is good but #wearewinter. @BarackObama, I look forward to my two cases of beer. #CANvsUSA #Sochi2014." (Despite his quiet support for Rob Ford, our prime minister is also a self-professed teetotaler.)
It may seem all in good fun, but this petulance has crept into our foreign policy, into our national political dialogue and, yes, into our hockey. Despite the dominant Olympic performance, we're terrified that the world is catching up. Especially in goal. (There's a movement afoot, in fact, to ban foreign goalies from our junior leagues.)
This xenobophia has been the influence of one man, in particular: a former goon named Don Cherry. In four-minute sermons that took place between the first and second periods every Saturday night on a CBC program called Hockey Night in Canada -- the equivalent of Monday Night Football -- Cherry would dress up in garish blazers and yell the sort of inflammatory things about foreigners that weren't supposed to even be whispered on the CBC. For almost three decades, he honed a specific kind of jingoism, which became the country's Monday morning water-cooler conversation. And to many, a national identity.
Cherry became such an icon that CBC couldn't figure out how to fire him. (Which itself became a never-ending topic of water-cooler conversation.) In a 2004 CBC program, Cherry was voted the seventh-greatest Canadian of all time, somehow placing above both Wayne Gretzky and Alexander Graham Bell. Cherry advocated a violent, boring version of old time hockey. He built an angry narrative about the skilled European players who arrived in the NHL through the late 1980s and early 90s, and the innovations they brought with them. Cherry's talking points can be summed up: Despite their skill and style, Europeans were selfish and lazy, played with neither heart nor character, lacked toughness, choked in the clutch.
There were virtually no exceptions in Cherry's worldview. If you want to know why fighting still exists in hockey -- and why Rob Ford could still have any kind of approval rating in Toronto -- it's because of Don Cherry. (A Venn diagram of the terribly misunderstood Ford Nation and Cherry's own nation of acolytes would resemble a single hockey puck.)
Yet Cherry's xenophobia -- which preyed on our national inferiority complex -- remains a kind of gospel in both the NHL and Canadian culture. Although he's largely dismissed as senile by most of the population, at the height of Cherry's influence, we flirted with a dark decade of beer commercial jingoism, which culminated in a character called Joe Canadian giving an anti-American speech. This was at a time when Donovan Bailey called out Michael Johnson for being a chicken. We were still plucky underdogs and could get away with it. The Simpsons and South Park started needling us. We'd been noticed! This was the greatest time for us ever.
* * *
Canadian sports columnists prophesized that Vancouver's Games revealed a new Canada, one that cares less about being nice, more about "kicking butt." And that this was a good thing.
We're still suitably flattered by the poutine and maple syrup jokes, by the haters' guides, half-hearted as they seem. More than anything, we're relieved that's who you think we are. Because the truth is, we no longer stitch Maple Leafs flags onto our backpacks when we go abroad. The rest of the world is no longer so fond of Canadians.
Our petulance is catching up with us. We've withdrawn from international pacts. While we were once the darling of the United Nations, we're now repeatedly criticized -- unable to even garner a seat on the Security Council. We've gone out of our way to antagonize most of the Middle East.
While individual Americans abroad know the reputation that precedes them, you've been beaten into a kind of submission, which manifests itself in charm and the sort of self-deprecating humor that was once our specialty. Canadians use their Teflon reputation as an aegis to act like dicks. I've traveled all over, forever seeking an ugly American. They don't exist. You've put every ugly American on TV and radio.
I don't say this to suck up. Really, this is a very roundabout way of trying to say, we really like the way you play hockey. If the timbre of our 2018 Olympic ads contain any sincerity, that sincerity would express the new way we cherish our rivalry with you on the ice.
* * *
The thing that quietly zipped through Canadian social media after the men's semifinal wasn't a meme about the loser keeping Bieber or the letter the captains of our women's team left for Canadian men on the locker room door. It was a simple line from Dan Bylsma's press conference: "That was as fast a game as I've ever been a part of." This was our spine-tingling moment of the Olympics.
The last time we saw such hockey was for 67 minutes and 40 seconds, four years earlier at the 2010 Winter Olympics. It was all suddenly about to end again. And I won't lie, there was a moment when I stopped cheering for Canada, and let myself be awed by the speed. It wouldn't be so bad if Kane put one past Price. Others later confessed the same sick hope: It didn't matter if we lost in overtime, just that we got a few more minutes of such hockey. (These Canadian versus America hockey games have come to feel like those perfect encounters Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke rekindle every few years.)
Playing Sweden without its captain and only one Sedin felt anti-climactic. It was you we wanted Sunday morning at 4 a.m.
You've coaxed the best out of us. Sochi showed that it was North Americans who could play hockey beautifully on big ice. Sochi showed us that you knew our secret language.
But we were just as excited about the fact that this was the Olympics you discovered Scott Thompson, our national comedic treasure who reported from Sochi as Buddy Cole for The Colbert Report.
We wish you'd have somehow caught onto the Tragically Hip too. The most Canadian line in the most Canadian song is this: "You said you didn't give a f--- about hockey and I never heard anyone say that before." Gord Downie's voice evokes such genuine bemusement, having met the love of his life.
* * *
A few years ago, Malcolm Gladwell and Adam Gopnik (both Canadian ex-pats) took part in a forum about Canadian identity, which began with all the ideas about healthcare and multiculturalism and sparsely populated geography, but was slowly -- inevitably -- winnowed to hockey. Gopnik explained:
"What, when I think about Canada, are the first two images that come to mind? One is hearing the CBC, that wonderful fount of talk and music and conversation. That is an invented, abstract, procedural institution of a liberal community that knows it needs to tax its citizens in order to have those kinds of connecting institutions. And what's the other? I think instantly and always of hockey, and of the Montreal Canadiens. They offer a model of a distinctly procedural, liberal, goal-oriented and yet multi-ethnic commonality, French and English working toward a common goal without being able to eliminate or deny the very real differences in background history that shaped them. And now with Belarusians and Czechs and Slovaks and French-Canadians and Anglophones-and Americans from Long Island-all working together in that way. That is my Canadian identity, that's why I wear my Montreal Canadiens sweatshirt down the streets of New York. Canadianness is always rooted not in an ethnic imprinting in a single tradition, but exactly in our collective identity, the melding together of many different and mutually tolerant traditions."
This is the Canada that's slipping away. That's becoming a Ford Nation, which pits the rainbow flag against a Maple Leaf in front of city hall; Jews against Arabs in the Middle East; hockey as an expression of dominance and not a way to communicate with the countries that share our values.
Our foreign minister sent a surprising tweet before the gold-medal game, reminding Canadians of the great bilateral relationship we share with Sweden. This is likely the last year Don Cherry will be on Hockey Night in Canada too. Harper's approval rating is at a historic low. And while most of us who lined up outside of bars in the snow at 4 a.m. on Sunday morning wouldn't make such a commitment to voting, there is a realization that we can express pride without being petulant. That we don't have to emulate the version of ourselves we see in beer ads.
Chris Koentges lives in Vancouver -- the smuggest of all Canadian cities. His story about the rise of Finnish goaltending is in this month's The Atlantic magazine. Annotations can be found at VeryEthnic.com. Twitter: @cskoentges.