Friday, February 26, 2010

Hockey is Canada's Game

At least that is what the guy draped in an Olympic flag with the revolving red light on his helmet wants you to believe. There is a sign he occasionally holds up that says it, just to be sure.

I don't know his name. Exiled to the upper press decks of BC Place Stadium for the Women's Olympic gold medal match between Team USA and Canada, I can't get close enough to ask him.

Perhaps his name isn't important. Let's just call him Red Light Helmet Guy.

While the headline to this entry might draw scorn from the dedicated Team USA hockey fans around the globe, I would tend to agree with Red Light Helmet Guy.

In a crowd of about 15,000, Red Light Helmet Guy sticks out, but is not alone.

As I find my seat to prepare for the 60 minutes of intense action between two rivals, it is unmistakable who has the home ice advantage here in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

Hundreds of red Maple Leaf flags, and thousands of red and white hockey jerseys (most representing number 87 - Sidney Crosby on the men's team) filled the seats for a sold out game that represented Canada's first opportunity to win a gold medal, at home, in its national sport. Talk about pressure.

As the final minutes of the pre-game activities were winding down, I glanced at Red Light Helmet Guy to watch him prepare. With light flashing, he unwrapped what must have been fifty Canadian flags on wooden poles and distributed them throughout his section of the arena.

As the puck dropped and the game got underway, the energized Canadians cheered and hushed as the action ebbed and flowed.

A mostly respectful crowd was glued to it seats for much of the game, with only a few leaving for concessions or the bathroom. I don't think I've ever been to a professional sports game with so much audience focus.

There were several attempts to get the U-S-A cheer going by the dozen or so fans in the audience who managed to get a ticket and were brave enough to attend. Those attempts were quickly drowned out by thousands more who interrupted with CAN - A - DA. This included hockey great Wayne Gretzky, actor Donald Sutherland, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, all seated near us in the press section.

As a reporter, I had an interest in the U.S. Women's team. I have followed these ladies since September, when most of the prominent members of the team like Jenny Potter, Angela Ruggeiro, Hillary Knight, Jesse Vetter, and dozens more came to Chicago for the U.S. Olympic Team Media Summit. I had interviewed many of them, and traveled to St. Paul, Minnesota to record their match with Canada on December 31. They lost that game 2-1.

In those conversations during the media summit and again in St. Paul, it was clear that if the gold medal game came down to the USA and Canada, it was the home team that had the most to lose.

And that's how the Canadian women played… with their national honor and reputation on the line.

So it came as a big relief to Red Light Helmet Guy when Canadian Marie-Philip Poulin scored the only goals of the game - two of them less than three minutes apart - in the first period of play.

The crowd set off in a frenzy both times, waving the Maple Leaf in a sea of red and white.

If you can feel pride, if you can feel victory, if you can feel accomplishment, then every Canadian at Hockey Place felt it when the time ran out and the victory landed squarely in the win column for Team Canada.

Red Light Helmet Guy got into the spirit of the moment with a new sign made for the occasion… "GOLD, CANADA, GOLD."

But that excitement would be tempered by the errors of the victors.

In a celebration pile at the Canadian goal followed by a team picture, most of the women seemed to forget there was another team still on the ice, still waiting for the game to officially end with a classic, and classy, exchange of handshakes by each team.

Team USA, composed and professional, waited almost ten minutes for Team Canada to participate in the honors.

Humbled by the loss, but silver medal winners nevertheless, Team USA looked defeated as they plodded through the official medal ceremony following the game.

Soon after the medals were on their necks, and the crowds in the stadium thinned out, Team Canada relaxed.

With cigars in hand, and Canadian Molson beer and champagne flowing, the women of the moment began to party like champions.

But the International Olympic Committee tends to frown upon such behavior at this world-class sporting event.

Now, as the celebration is under investigation, Canadians across the country are coming to the defense of their new national heroes.

Maybe that's how they party here in Canada. Like Red Light Helmet Guy's sign declares, "Hockey is Canada's Game."

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Less Rain More Shine in Vancouver

The grey skies over Vancouver for much of the start of the XXI Winter Olympic Games reflected the mood among the people and athletes who have come to Canada from around the world.

The death of the Georgian Luge Slider Nodar Kumaritashvili was the dominant news story for much of the first two days of Olympic competition. Just hours before the opening ceremony, the 21-year-old athlete lost control of his sled at the Whistler Sliding Center while practicing at the facility about 90 miles north of Vancouver. He died from injuries he sustained after flying off the track and striking a metal beam.

A death during Olympic competition is a rare event, but when it happens, almost everyone - athlete and spectator alike - is affected by the loss.

The Opening Ceremonies were a bittersweet occasion, with Canada trying to balance the elaborate celebration with the shock of Kumaritashvili’s death still fresh on the hearts and minds of fellow athletes. The Georgian Olympic Team wore black armbands in honor of their teammate, and organizers quickly made changes to dedicate the event to Kumaritashvili.

In a press conference the following day, teammate Otar Japaridze explained why the Georgian contingent would stay in the competition.

“This is the lowest but at the same the highest point of our careers because of the compassion and solidarity that we felt from everyone around,” Japaridze somberly told reporters. “Despite this tragic event, our team will carry on the with the dream of Nodar and carry on in his honor.”

Luge competition started a day after the accident, with a lower starting position for the athletes and a newly constructed wall in front of the metal beams at the final turn of the course.

As the Olympians try to focus on competing, the other story in Vancouver is the weather. Noticeably absent is the presence of any snow in the city, and weather continues to play havoc on the ski courses at Whistler, forcing some events to be postponed.

Street vendor Dave Koret says he isn’t bothered by the seemingly incessant rain that fell throughout the city through most of the first days of the Olympics.

“Definitely a lot warmer here,” Koret says. He’s originally from the colder climate in Calgary, Alberta, home to the 1988 Winter Olympics. “They’ve been trucking in snow from a lot of places to get the snowbird venues ready. So it’s a little bit different Canadian winter for me, but nonetheless still Canadian.”

“The weather is fairly normal,” explains Vancouver native Gerald Arksey. He was selected as one of the hundreds of honored torchbearers to carry the Olympic flame on an emotional journey throughout Canada. “I still choke up when I talk about it. It was amazing.”

The end of the flame’s journey in Canada is now a major attraction. The Olympic Flame burns atop a huge torch situated near the harbor in Vancouver.

The first hint of sunshine on Valentine’s Day brought tens of thousands of people into the streets near the attraction, which will continue to burn until February 28th, when the closing ceremonies at BC Place stadium mark the end of the XXI Winter Olympiad.

OLYMPICS COVERAGE: Investigation Continues into Death of Georgian Luge Slider