Since the Montreal Canadiens won the Stanley Cup in 1993, Canadian hockey fans have had to learn to appreciate losing teams.
The Toronto Maple Leafs of the early 1990s, the 1994 Vancouver Canucks, the 2004 Calgary Flames, and the 2006 Edmonton Oilers nearly tasted victory only to watch it slip away. But losing placed those teams in a time capsule. Subsequent incarnations of those rosters have been largely measured against those notable runners-up.
That makes transitioning from following a “ne’er-do-well” to a gold medal favorite a funny thing for Canadians. Suddenly, anything less than victory is cause for an identity crisis in the sport Canadians love above any other. A loss is rarely attributed to the virtues of another nation’s team and rather to a failure on the team in red.
Funny also that a country that loves hockey so much is reticent to share in other nations’ successes. Might not the goal be to spread hockey cheer across the world?
And so Canada enters another Olympic Games as a favorite to win despite concerns about the loss of Steven Stamkos and the doubts in goal. Yet other Canadian athletes have already competed and lost and can speak to the virtues of losing, however raw the emotions are today.
Cathal Kelly of the Toronto Star wrote last Sunday about Canadian skier Spencer O’Brien. ”We celebrate the victors here [Sochi Olympics], but they are never as compelling as the defeated,” he says. “Their stories are too complicated, whereas winning is simple.”
Complicated are the stories of 1998 and 2006 for the men’s hockey teams. It was through those disappointments that Canada was able to rebound in both 2002 and 2010. Though one would have to go back further in time to gain perspective on Canada’s greatest lost opportunity—the 1972 Summit Series.
Yes, Canada won the eight-game series against the Russians in an era-defining exchange of sport and culture. But it lost the opportunity for self-reflection when perhaps it needed it most.
They were embarrassed on home ice early on and had to plead with the public—as Phil Esposito did in a postgame interview—while stooping to violence in order to gain an edge—as Bobby Clarke did when he injured Valeri Kharlamov. As painful as it would have been to lose that series, it might have pushed Canadians to evolve their understanding of the game of hockey the way they have in the years since.
European and Russian influence is written large on the NHL today and it could have happened sooner. Opportunities to study the work of “father of Russian hockey” Anatoli Tarasov (as he is referred to in the Encyclopedia Britannica) and to appreciate the performances of Vladislav Tretiak and Kharlamov were lost, if only for a short time.
After 1972, Russian hockey teams continued to give North Americans fits when they would tour the NHL throughout the 1970s. And while the Philadelphia Flyers would win back-to-back Stanley Cups in the middle of that decade through intimidation, coach Fred Shero (recently inducted into he Hockey Hall of Fame) is often lauded for being the first to study and implement Soviet-style hockey in the world’s top professional league.
Tommy Boustedt, director of hockey development for the Swedish Ice Hockey Association, told Sportsnet Thursday that he fears the day when Canada will further encourage innovation: “In Sweden, we are always afraid [Canada] will step outside the box. Because the day Canada steps outside the box, it will be unbeatable on all levels, all day, every year.”
Canada has and likely always will be a leading ambassador for the sport. But, as Phil Jackson writes in his book, 11 Rings: The Soul Of Success, “Leadership is not about forcing your will on others. It’s about mastering the art of letting go.”
The Canadian Hockey League recently began phasing in a policy that would exclude foreign goaltenders from being selected in the import draft. This, on the heels of research that shows other nations, like Finland, have long been establishing goaltending schools for youth at a younger age than typically seen in Canada. To no one’s surprise, countries like Finland, Sweden, and the United States appear to hold a distinct advantage in the crease for the upcoming men’s tournament.
Canada is perfectly capable of winning this Olympic tournament. But perhaps more importantly, it is in losing where it needs to improve. You will see the conflict in all the white-knuckled Canadians as they sweat their way through the 2014 Games. It is imperative, however, that they accept defeat if it comes because losing stays with you longer even than does winning.
Kelly writes, “[Winning is] a feeling that won’t last, but we enjoy the illusion that it does.”