Past-Blasting: The Climate, 2007

This piece from February of 2007 was called “Citizenship, Climate Change…and Hockey?” It’s an orphan piece that never found a publication to call home, so now I offer it here. My nearly six-foot tall teen was then only seven, and merely bilingual. The NHL was struggling to recapture fan interest outside of Canada after losing an entire season to labour squabbles. Canada was still part of the Kyoto Accord. (We bow our head in shame, and remember when Canada deserved its reputation for internationalism.) I was not long removed from writing for Canada’s Governor General, Adrienne Clarkson, who had been succeeded in that office by Michaelle Jean.

We hadn’t imagined coming to China at all, and now we’re wrapping up five years on the edge of the Middle Kingdom. Look back. Waaayy back…

Last week saw a series of events that, after a whirl in the cerebral blender, yields a thoughtful stew on citizenship. It’s a bit like the musical “mash-up”, but without that unpleasant ringing in your ears. Here are some not-quite-random reflections on the meaning of the modern Canuck.

Two years ago last Friday, the National Hockey League finally suspended the 2004-2005 season. Canadian men (and a few women) grew more gloomy and resentful. No major sporting league had ever ditched an entire schedule, and the North American cultural divide widened. Canadian lovers of other sports hoped for a silver lining to the lockout, but were dismayed to find that hockey still dominated jock talk and writing. Meanwhile, American sports media – and the great majority of fans – barely noticed its absence.

And the citizenship connection? Well, you might have missed this surprising bit of civic mindfulness, but several NHL players declared the February 16 anniversary as “Save Hockey Day” – not so much to recall the lockout as to pay attention to the Kyoto Accord on climate change. ‘Bout time!

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70,000 Slapshots from Sochi

It was a groggy, foggy Cambodian morning. The sun over Battambang shone blinding and hot, but the grumpy shades were drawn on me and my companions. Our son had researched, using his Infernal Little Blue Machine, and was sure that the Sochi Winter Olympics opening ceremonies would begin at 11:30 our time Friday night. (All I’d really known, to that point, was my boy’s eager reporting of bad water and poorly built accommodations in Sochi. And listen: aren’t we stunningly tolerant about Olympic corruption? It appears that (some) Russians are winning gold in this event.) Since we had an 8 a.m. taxi ride to the Thailand border planned (which, as we jostled and bumped our way out of Battambang in a right-hand-drive ’95 Toyota Camry, had become a 9 o’clock exit), we planned to be packed and sleeping  by 8:30 p.m., for which we were also an hour late with nobody to blame, which sort of made it worse, I guess.

Identifying the Spoiled Canadian, No. 98 (b): This species can become very cranky and indignant when deprived of their “Mother Corp”, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation which treats hockey as a sacred weekly ritual

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Better Read Than Never: “Rudy Kong” & Dragons, Donkeys, Dust

Faithful readers may have been expecting a different BRTN, the third part of the series of summaries I’m doing on John Ralston Saul’s The Unconscious Civilization. Today’s review is of a decidedly less weighty book, a borrowed one that I finished a while back and have to return to my friend Ladon, who lived parts of it. JRS will return soon.

Dragons, Donkeys and Dust: Memoirs from a decade in China

by Rudy Kong (Bing Long Books, 2010)

Teacher Conradi had a story to tell, actually ten years worth of them, the tales of a foreigner spending an unexpected decade in China. Not only China, by the way, but my very own neighbourhood, the modest and reputedly lovely small city of six million where I’ve spent a half decade of my own: Dalian, the number-two burg in Liaoning province. Conradi is a Canuck, too, and spent his time teaching in the Canadian-based high school that I at one point thought would be my professional home and visa-provider. He left town not long after we came, but he left behind a book and a few mutual friends. I’m glad to know him.

The first story of Dragons, Donkeys and Dust is told in Conradi’s pen name, Rudy Kong. Much as Chinese young people usually choose, often with startling or laughable results, an English version of their name, “RK” is the anglicized version of the Chinese name that this Canadian ex-patriate was given by local friends. Conradi begat Kong Ruidi begat Rudy Kong. (This strikes me as a mild and fairly sane version of an Internet game that has replaced the old “Telephone” fun of seeing how much a message changes with repeated re-telling — put a phrase into Google Translate, and watch what happens to it after sloshes through a few languages. My son loves this.) I’m guessing at how his pseudonym came about,

And away he goes! He spent ten years in China, and all he got was three kids, a million memories, one book (so far) and this cool portrait.

but Mr. Kong has dozens of tales, and he is an engaging and appealing story-teller. He’s a foreigner who genuinely lived in China. He wasn’t here to score a quick million, or view a changing China from the safety of his chauffeured SUV, or to cure his chronic bachelorhood with a compliant (or financially or geographically ambitious) local woman.

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Shinny Dreams, or: What Exactly is a Corvair?

One morning last week, I awoke as usual to the early morning sounds of Dalian, China: the loudspeakers outside the daycare playing random happy tunes (“We Wish You a Merry Christmas” is good to go at any time), the dook dook of high heels on concrete, the air horns of the endless dump trucks that move the remains of mountains to help build chic residential addresses where before there was only sea. I woke up, though, thinking about the Caledonia Corvairs.

It must have been the accidental browse through my down-home weekly newspaper’s on-line presence the previous day. The Corvairs are the Junior hockey club in that small southern Ontario town, and they are celebrating their fiftieth year. That was evidently more than enough to send me into a nostalgic spin.

In my childhood winters, Friday nights were the Corvairs for me.

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World Series Baseball: Game ON

8:16 p.m.

What a great television! Thanks, Wendy and Bernie!

It’s the 103rd “World Series” of baseball, named not for its global reach — though the game is getting more international — but because it was initially sponsored by a long-defunct newspaper called the New York Globe. (You could look it up, and I hope you will. Going Google-free tonight.)

The participating teams are proving that baseball is a sport that is the least reliable of all the North American major sports in having its “best team” win. After all, baseball is a marathon 162-game schedule, and the playoff series can end in a shorter period than an individual engagement with another team in-season. So here we are, with the Red Sox having come from behind in the American League championship series to win. No surprise here, really. Boston is a big-money team and dominated their division most of this season. However, Colorado had to win 14 out of their last 15 games just to qualify for a tie-breaker, and they have now won eight straight post-season games to take the National League title. Whoever is hottest at the end seems to be the team to watch…

8:24 p.m.

Who gets the National Anthem for Game One of the World Series? “The Pride of Boston, and the epitome of our culture, Maestro John Williams…” At the time when he first won an Oscar for the score to Indiana Jones, he was the conductor of the Boston Pops orchestra. So we had brass in the outfield instead of some brassy blonde. I approve.

Pre-game introductions highlighted by one of baseball’s specialties, a close-up shot of Boston manager Terry Francona launching a brown spurt of tobacco juice for the edification of all. Spitting is the thing. Country ball.

Actually, no. The true highlight, and no sarcasm here, is having Boston Red Sox icon Carl Yastrzemski throw out the ceremonial first pitch. (He bounced it to the plate. But he’s still a hero from my youth. I changed my batting stance as a 10-year-old in homage to his high-held bat. The last winner of the Triple Crown, in 1967.) Quite splendiferously cool to see the visiting Rockies lined up along their dugout’s top step to watch the great Hall of Famer demonstrate his old-man arm. And he’s so central to the Red Sox team’s painful mystique, as all his greatness and all those seasons never brought him to the Series championship. They didn’t break the so-called “Curse of the Babe” — they traded Babe Ruth to the Yankees in 1492 or so and had never won the big one since until the 2004 exorcism.

8:44 p.m.

Wow, this Josh Beckett is all I’ve heard. The starting pitcher for the BoSox just threw bullets, nothing but fastballs in the high 90s to strike out three straight Rockies. Yikes. (That was 90 as in miles per hour. This may be the World Series, but we are in the Excited States of Anti-Metric Measurement.) But here comes the pride of Canada, the first Canuck to start as the pitcher of a Series game since Reggie Cleveland did in the mid-70s. Jeff Francis, a big left-hander with stuff and style.

8:50 p.m.

Wow. Runty little second baseman hits it out. Dustin Pedroia hit a big home run in the ALCS, too. Second batter Kevin Youkilis lines a double. David “Big Papi” (this reference to him is already getting annoying) Ortiz moves the runner over, and Manny Ramirez drills the first runner home. Not a good start for the Canadian.

8:58 p.m.

The black and purple/blue of the Rockies’ uniforms remind me of the cover to Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality album. Those little armless vests don’t work for me at all, especially with the guys showing off their guns with polyester long-sleeved undershirts. 3-0 at the end of one inning, and the Rockies would love for the rain to turn into a monsoon. One of the many things that make baseball a distinct game: it’s outdoors, and you can’t play it properly in anything more than the lightest of rains.

9:07 p.m.

The Rockies are going to need a second time through the order, after their eight days off, to catch up with Beckett. Four straight Ks now. Whoa! Why bother throwing the curveball? It results in a double that nearly went over the massive Green Monster, the left-field wall in Boston’s Fenway Park. Nice to see a park like Fenway in the World Series, not just a boutique field designed to evoke nostalgia for the days when baseball truly was the National Pastime.

Hey, and there’s my new shortstop hero, Troy Tulowitzki, ripping a double to get the Rockies on the board. (I was a fan, still am, of Khalil Greene of the San Diego Padres, though I haven’t seen him much; but hey, he belongs to the Baha’i Faith, and the minority religionists have to stick together.) Some of his teammates have been waving fairly helplessly, but two doubles in the bottom of the first may have broken the Beckett mystique, just a little. Baseball is, perhaps more than any other team sport, such a mental exercise. You most often can’t overcome poor play with hustle, effort, all that “old college try”. In true baseball-speak, you gotta try EASIER.  

9:37 p.m.

Lots of car commercials, of course. Boy toy night at the television. There was one that had, though, more than just jolting music and chaotic camera angles. There was actually an appeal to ideals and ethics, a frontal attack on our tendency to materialist impatience. But I can’t remember what the product was. Ah. I’m sure I’ll have another chance at it. It played, after all, twice in the first half-hour of the broadcast. And it’s raining hard now in Boston. Oh, oh…

9:51 p.m.

It’s the top of the fourth inning, less than halfway through the regulation ballgame, and all the young baseball fans in North America, at least in the Eastern Time Zone, should be long gone to dreamland. And this is one of many reasons that baseball is dying out in large parts of the continent. I used to race home from school to catch the end of Series games that started in the afternoon. Money, money, money. Seven Ks for Beckett in four innings. Nice. (“K” is the baseball scorebook symbol for a strikeout. Boston fans have been provided with “K” placards by a local radio station. This being the Series, they may not require JumboTron appeals to “Make noise” and “Clap your hands!” I am ever an optimist.)

10:12 p.m.

Canada’s Pitcher just escaped the fourth inning, but there’s another crooked number on the Red Sox scoreboard. (The occasional one run doesn’t always hurt, but those bent numerals…) Francis may be done for the night, in which case he will continue one of the odd little facts that litter, even more than they always have in baseball, this number-crazy game: no Canadian has ever been the winning pitcher in a Series game. A nice little piece of conversation about Francis a couple of innings ago: born in Vancouver, named for a legendary Montreal Canadiens star (Jeff for Geoffrion, nicknamed “Boom Boom” as the hard-shooting Hab also was). And never learned to skate. So the American broadcast duo has a little fun with that, but I’m thinking What? You name AND nickname your kid after a hockey star and never let a good little athlete play the game? Not that every Canadian boy has to be a hockey head — none of my four have, although the youngest gets outdoor hockey in Canada’s cold capital’s outdoor rinks — but there’s a parental oddity there that I’d like to know more about.  

The rain has eased, and now the necessary five innings to make the game official are in the book. All Red Sox. More of those little ballcaps with the old-fashioned ‘B’ on them will be adorning male heads all over the continent.

10:40 p.m.

And my attention is wandering. Past my bedtime. But I can watch Manny Ramirez, one of the oddest-looking great athletes ever, hit. Three hits tonight. Everybody knows a hitter has to keep his head down on the ball, but he’s perfect. Wow. A flaky dude, a chaotic and sometimes even incompetent outfielder, but what a hitter. (Okay, perfect? Sorry. My error. Had he been a left-hand hitter, now then he’d be perfect.) Just detected another Howden error: Red Sox captain Jason Varitek does indeed wear the traditional knee-high knickers and tall red stockings. (I lost it in the sun.)

10:56 p.m.

12-1. Fifth inning. Another Colorado relief pitcher. I need a relief bloggist.

11:02 p.m.

The Red Sox are still up, now 13-1, and they’ve finally gotten the 3rd out of a 5th inning that seemed to have started yesterday. Cameras just caught a shot of writer Stephen King in a rain poncho, reading a magazine. You may have heard of his novel The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Okay, I haven’t read it either, but Gordon was a Red Sox pitcher with a fine curveball, as I recall. Naturally, he was called “Flash”. And here’s another one of those things about baseball: no sport has been written about better. There are lots of short stories, a few fine novels and tonnes of creative documentary writing about the game. It’s the only game, I used to joke — and I love baseball — that’s more interesting to talk about than to play. Almost true.

Macho guitars and turbo-charged video about a minivan from Toyota; at the end is slipped in the printed fact that it has the best fuel efficiency among grocery-getters. Not hard to see that peak oil hasn’t entirely penetrated North American consciousness. And then comes the ad for recreational gas-guzzling, the Polaris ATV.

11:26 p.m.

Wendy and Bernie just got home. They’re the guys with the three televisions, any one of which is at my disposal when my lust for sport cannot be sated by radio or on-line reports the next morning.

Just when I thought there was nothing more to say, here comes Ashanti singing “God Bless America” as the since-9-11 7th inning stretch song of choice. No more taking anybody out to the ballgame. Patriotism. Bowed heads. (An echo, of course, of the U.S. Air Force fly-by to punctuate “The Star-Spangled Banner”. Bowed heads and blood lust. Ooh. Did I just say that?) The extreme patriotism of Americans has always been an irritant to me, Canada having traditionally been a little quieter about our national pride (except certain hockey blowhards). We’re getting a little more vociferous, in our reserved Scottish way, and I wince about it sometimes. Our pride is not mainly based on military might, so I feel less compromised about our occasional chest-thumping. But the attachment of national glory to every single athletic contest? I mean the solemnity of l’hymne nationale before each game beyond high school. Surely this is a tradition that, if it weren’t so deep and patriotism such an American article of faith, would have long outlived its usefulness. And to add the alternative national anthem for a mid-game bit of national self-importance is sickly sweet icing upon a cake that’s past its best-before date. I wanted to paste my favourite little bumper sticker over Wendy and Bernie’s TV: God Bless ALL The Nations.

And on in relief for the Red Sox is Mike Timlin. Mike Timlin? He’s still living? He was relieving for the Blue Jays last millennium, for goodness’ sake. And speaking of great relievers, the other Canadian chucker won’t likely get off the bench for the Red Sox. Whither the Eric Gagné of old, he of the unhittable Dodgers closeouts? Hard not to be a bit suspicious about how he fuelled his earlier exploits, but maybe he’s just old. I know that feeling.

12:02 a.m.

Sheesh. Error number three for the typist. Gagné is in, but this IS, after all, a twelve-run ballgame. We’re finally in the ninth inning. We’ll soon be home. And my current favourite name just made the catch for the Sox in centre field: yes, friends, Coco Crisp is in the game as a defensive replacement.

12:07 a.m.

Big Eric closes the game with a strikeout. Yawn. Zoom, zoom, zoom. More car sales. Time to jump into my car.

Blaming the Yanks: Our National Sport?

There are lots of arguments made to justify the continued existence of nearly consequence-free fighting in the NHL and its Canadian junior hockey feeder system. The first, and most prominently used, is the “safety valve” defence, which says that hockey is a fast and violent sport and that the occasional furious dust-up is an essential way to blow off steam. (Meanwhile, of course, the ferocious collisions and trench warfare of American football have never led the NFL or any league to permit fighting. Curious.)

The second rationalization is a bit more slippery and more difficult to refute, at least in Canada. It’s also dishonest. Fans of Our Game have long indulged in a national pastime to explain why hockey, alone among major sports (more on this “major” business later), allows players who scrap to serve a brief term in the “sin bin” – usually at no competitive disadvantage to their teams – and then return to the fray. The explanation runs as follows. Canadians are sophisticated fans who’ve played the game and understand its nuances, skills and graces. Heck, they can even follow the movement of the puck on TV without any technical trickery. (Friggin’ Americans and their glowing puck! What a joke, we snort merrily and pat each other on the back.) Fighting? Well, we can take it or leave it, but the NHL needs to keep it, eh, because that’s all the Americans want to see and we gotta market the game to people who don’t really get it. Get it?

Well, last night’s game between the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres turned into a Rodney Dangerfield joke: Hey, I went to the Gardens to watch some boxing last night…and a HOCKEY game broke out! A thundering (and legal) bodycheck injured a Sabre, so the Sabres sent in the clowns. When all the gloves and sticks had been picked up, three players had been kicked out (unusual in hockey) including the Senators’ star goalkeeper. Today’s Ottawa sports conversation is dominated by gushing admiration for “Sugar” Ray Emery, a goalie who loves to fight, and the snobbery of Argument the Second is punctured. It’s US that digs the fisticuffs, not the U.S.

This game — no, not the game, the low-skill boxing — was the number one story in Ottawa today, and likely superseded, in every Canucklehead hockey conversation, the lengthy roster of important late-season games played last night . And boy, it’s gonna be a doozy tomorrow night when the Sabres come back to our barn! They’ll dress McGrattan for sure! (Brian McGrattan is a minor-league hockey player with big-league fists, and is Ottawa’s official “enforcer”. Though he rarely dresses, and plays little when he does, he is among the most popular players. He gets advertising gigs for car dealers, while the Sens captain Daniel Alfredsson, a highly skilled Swede, doesn’t.) I heard the replays of the radio call, and gleeful giddiness just oozes from the commentators. Ray Emery has been a surprise with his fine play this year, when he was expected to be Ottawa’s number two keeper, but he is now officially a Legend in this city. The fawning comments of the callers-in, and the extent to which this story shelved all others – that is, totally – were telling indicators. We can’t blame the Yanks for the existence of fighting in hockey.

In fact, American kids with competitive aspirations play in a school-based system in which fighting is not allowed; drop ‘em and you’re out of the game and suspended further, just as in the European developmental hotbeds for most of hockey’s best playmakers. I don’t doubt that there are young American fans who get their motors running for the toe-to-toe stuff. It’s a pretty wild rush of adrenaline, and I dug it as a kid, too. But in the wider context of the American sports universe, the continued existence of fighting in hockey lumps the NHL in with roller derby or ultimate fighting (or “slamball”, the made-for-TV, full-contact combination of basketball and aggravated assault). It’s just not a sport to be taken entirely seriously, Canadian goonery and machismo notwithstanding.

Cold and Bright

We woke up to minus 30 degree temperatures in Ottawa this morning, and ever since local warming ended on about January 15, it’s been crackling cold here. (We were sorry to have missed two weeks of skating and skiiing, but Guadeloupe had its compensations. More on that warm adventure is still to come.)

And because of a small obsession of mine, our Tiny Perfect Backyard Rink™ was ready this morning, and my frisky critter spent nearly an hour wheeling and falling and apple-cheeking before I dragged him in for breakfast and we ran for the school bus. Sam doesn’t know much about hockey, but he loves it. He is six. Everything is amazing except WAITING. (So should it be for all of us.)

I had a great long walk in the chill, bright sunshine, finishing my second reading of The War of Art before returning it to the library. Great stuff, and more on that to come, as well. (It will further my backsliding “don’t buy it ’til you’ve read it” resolution.) After milk and cookies with Wendy, I came home to read about another fine prairie woman, Pamela Wallin. She was Canada’s Consul-General in New York for several years, and I was struck by her assessment of Canada/U.S. relations and why we get so prickly:

We are obsessed with the Americans, and they are not obsessed with us.”

Ah. Right. There was more, but I found that pithy and complete.

Ice Dreams

I grew up in a little Canadian town where we played ball near cornfields or in leafy squares, and got the hockey sticks out in late September. For reasons that I still can’t entirely explain, I became a hoops hostage in my mid-teens. I officially became a Basketball Guy, I think, during the UCLA Bruins’ astounding 88-game winning streak. I was a fan of Bill Walton and his Gang (and, later, of their coach, the legendary John Wooden), who were by early 1974 pursuing their third straight undefeated championship season. I remember my anguished disbelief when Notre Dame knocked off the Bruins in February to end the streak – it was a big enough game to actually be on television – and again two months later, when NC State (and the gloriously soaring David Thompson) beat them in the NCAA finals. (Or was that the semis?)

I had played the game for about a year and half by then. I was a grade 11 and thought I was getting good, but Haldimand County clay didn’t exactly ooze with hardwood competition. Or hardwood, for that matter: I played mainly on tile and that sort of parquet floor where the fingers of wood are always coming loose. I’ll bet there weren’t more than ten people in my town who even watched the Final Four that year, and most of them were the oddballs on my team whose skates were dusty, who believed that playing basketball was The Thing.

But before all that – with my Red River cereal and Riverview Dairy milk (home delivered!) – I ate and drank other sports: Hamilton Tiger Cat (and four-boy) football, Montreal Expos baseball (and endless games of “scrub” on the town square) and, especially, hockey (every kind, everywhere). I worshipped Gordie Howe from afar and the impossibly big and fast young men of the Junior D Caledonia Corvairs from as close as I could get. (I’d stick my nose right through the iron fencing that ran around the end boards.) The Sutherland Street Hockey League was fabulous in those days, and the games never stopped for long.

I don’t watch a lot of hockey in the regular season anymore, though I still pay attention. (I know the Ducks are no longer Mighty, and that Alexander the Great plays wing for the Washington Capitals.) But when CBC ran its annual Hockey Day in Canada last Saturday, I had cranked our coal-fired television up to watch. The Canadian hockey Goliath has often been something I wanted to take my slingshot to, but there’s still so much to love about the sport. I saw parts of all three games, but what grabs me by the heartstrings is what comes in between on Hockey Day: the grateful words of NHL players remembering their roots, the interview with that grinning guy who kept outdoor hockey alive in his Quebec town for 40 years, the rink that is the best hope of a struggling northern Saskatchewan community. I eat it up. It moves me to my sports-loving core. Gosh, I even got misty over the Tim Horton’s ad — yes, I insist on the comma! — with Sidney Crosby laughing and stickhandling with all the little fellas. I used to be one of those wee sprouts on skates, before Timbits or full facemasks had even been invented. And now, at an age where I should perhaps have outgrown these things, this ol’ basketball coach still has occasional hockey dreams: all that speed, the cool wind on my face, maybe one more great glove save from my goalie days…

Back in my hometown, there is a new twin-pad arena complex that has the town pretty excited. (Somebody had the smarts to get a new library built in the bargain. Come on, boys, you can read, too! ) I hope kids smile when they play, that they’re taught the speed and skill of that wonderful game, not just systems and corner grit. I hope the parents have some perspective. (I often had too lofty ambtions for my basketball coaching back in what folks always insisted was a hockey town, but there was one benefit: nobody thought their kid was going to the NBA.) The great Canuck poet Al Purdy described professional hockey as “this combination of ballet and murder”. True. But at its purest, and in the deepest caves of my memory, it’s a cool and an ever-gorgeous game. (And there are no goons, and no uptight, gum-chomping coaches. And I get to play forward whenever I want. And man, I can really fly out there…)

Sporting Equality

It’s not so easy to follow women’s soccer, but I’m inclined to try. The plucky Canuck women, about whom I wrote last Thursday, came achingly close to beating the mighty Americans – two-time World Cup champs, second-ranked team in the world – in the finals of the Gold Cup yesterday in California.

Both teams are headed for the 2007 World Cup, but this was another chance for the Canadian girls to break the domineering spell of Big Sister to the south. We’ve only ever beaten the Yanks three times in women’s play, compared to a long sheet of losses. Just a month or so ago, the States won 1-0 in the final of a Korean tournament, and yesterday was a 2-1 result decided by a penalty late in overtime. Canadian coach Even Pellerud had already been booted from the match in regulation time when Kristine Lilly hit the American winner in the final minute before going to penalty kicks.

The red and white are getting closer. “We produced more pressure than ever before,” Pellerud said. “They needed 120 minutes to beat us on a doubtful (penalty). I am very proud of what [we] did. It was fantastic.” With both teams advancing anyway, Canada obviously has more at stake in a game like this. Every time they play the Americans, it’s like a World Cup final, whereas the motivation of the dominators can’t be quite so great. Still, a revamped American team has managed to lengthen its record international undefeated streak to 32 games.

In women’s hockey, a similar dynamic is present but inverted, with Canada as Queens of the ice castle and a very good American squad ever ready to knock them off it. One big difference: nobody else in the world can really compete with the U.S. and Canada. Part of the greatness of the soccer rivalry is that it takes place in the context of world play which, though not yet as widely competitive as men’s football, still has at least five teams (maybe half a dozen, if you include the red ‘n’ white) that can realistically compete for a World Cup.

The greatest opportunities for sporting girls and women exist in North America, but the trend is spreading. (But how long will it be before African women’s sides can compete as their male counterparts are beginning to in world soccer? There are so many obstacles specific to women, and so much to be done in so many places before girls playing becomes possible, let alone a priority. But soccer is the game for the poor.) European sides are very strong, with the Germans and the Norwegians having won a Cup, the East Asian countries are rapidly improving, and the women’s soccer world can hear the South American women coming on. (But will they ever be as dominant as they are in beauty contests? Pardon me for noticing, but a Chilean woman just won the Miss Earth contest — beauty and environmental consciousness, apparently — and the Latinas rock the tiara world these days. Okay, back to the game.)

The growth of gender equality when it comes to giving girls “a sporting chance” is one of the good things the world has going for it. Kudos to the Canadians for helping to lead the way.

Houston: Canadian Hockey Heretic

So it was Sweden and Finland for the gold, the Czech Republic and Slovakia for the bronze. Those of us who think that Canada/Russia or Canada versus the Entertainment Empire are the great hockey rivalries need to think again. And yes, I’ll say it again: those who persist in thinking that Canada is “still the best” are just plain wrong. We love hockey, we play it proudly and well, but there’s something missing. I wrote about this in ’03, and called my rant “It’s About the Skills, Stupid!” (Click here to read it.)

One of the few media commentators not to be an apologist for The Canadian Way is The Globe and Mail’s columnist William Houston. Watching commentators fall over themselves to reassure a panicking nation, Houston observed in Friday’s Globe, “Still, the mythology lives on. Yes, unfortunate setbacks occur, but Canadian hockey remains the gold standard…. The Canadian hockey media, with some exceptions, are first into the bunker. To the battle stations, men and women, to defend our great game and the Canadian way…”

Houston must take a lot of heat for his views, which he has repeatedly stated. Pardon me for lengthy quotation, but I really think he has it right. Canadian pride is getting in the way of our athletes getting the best coaching. We refuse to learn, while the Europeans have not hesitated to learn from what our guys tend to do well. Here’s Houston on skill development:

Consider this: Who’s the most talented player in the world? It certainly isn’t a Canadian. Arguably, it’s a 20-year-old Russian, Alexander Ovechkin. If it isn’t Ovechkin, it is a 34-year-old Czech, Jaromir Jagr….Still, the excuse makers will talk about Canada’s wonderful accomplishments. They will recite the men’s record on the world scene — the gold medals won by the senior team, the juniors and under-18 team. But those achievements were the result of Canadian hockey capitalizing on its strengths: organization, commitment, preparation, excellent coaching, strong team play, a work ethic, defence, determination and aggressive play. Skill development?

There are two systems in which the game is taught: European and North American. The Europeans produce the game’s best skaters and stickhandlers. The players are creative with the puck and fast on their skates. That’s because Europeans spend more time practising skills than North Americans and receive better coaching. Bodychecking is kept out of the game until the junior level. That gives the little guys a comfort level in which they can do things with the puck without worrying about getting hammered.

In the Canadian volunteer system, kids at the top level will play more than 100 games a season, but will not receive enough practice time. Winning is paramount. Size is important. Defensive and physical play is stressed. Entrenched organizers and influential figures glorify toughness and fighting. They ridicule no-bodychecking rules.

That’s why Canada produces good players, excellent checkers and great fighters. And that’s also why, when a Canadian team goes to the Olympics and competes at the world’s highest level, it gets outskated and can’t score…

 Yup. He done tole the truth.