Ever since hockey found its way into the Olympics in Antwerp in 1920, Canadians have enjoyed the glory of winning gold medals. Easy enough at first — Canadian teams went 16-0-1 at the first four Games, scoring 209 goals while conceding just 7 — it got harder and harder as other countries got better and better. After winning six of first seven tournaments, Canada lost the plot in 1956, when the Soviet Union took over as the dominant force in Olympic hockey.
We did our best in those years, with only minimal grumbling that they weren’t as amateur as they said they were, before skipping the 1972 and 1976 Olympics altogether. It took us a while, once we came back in 1980, to win the thing again: it was 2002, in Salt Lake City, before Canadians wore gold again on Olympic ice.
The home-ice victory of 2010 remains fresh in Canadian memories. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy in Sochi for Mike Babcock’s 2014 team. The coaches and players will have their own ideas about how best to win the tournament that gets underway on February 8. We’ll leave the on-ice plan to them. Chances are their preparations won’t include more than a cursory review of hockey’s literature, and maybe that’s where we can help. As our Crosbys and Tavareses, our Toewses and Luongos get ready for Russia, we’ll do the bibliographic heavy lifting with a look at literary answers to the old question of how best to bring home Olympic hockey gold. Off the shelf today: broadcaster Foster Hewitt’s third book, the 1950 novel Hello Canada! and Hockey Fans in the United States.
Your dad reads in the paper that Canada is probably never again going to win another Olympic hockey title. That’s how it starts. What you do is you say, what, are you kidding me, why, dad, why?
This is before the professionals started going to the Olympics, and that’s really the whole problem — as your dad sees it, anyway. Hockey, he explains to his son, it belongs to us, we invented it, and we’re the ones who taught the world to play. Not that we don’t love that the rest of the other countries like it, too, and have improved, it’s just that our best players all turn pro and we don’t have any outstanding amateur teams, so things are getting a little close for comfort, especially when you consider how good those Czecholsovaks are getting.
You: But why is it so nationally important for us to win the Olympics?
Your dad: We don’t have a big population in Canada. How do we make ourselves look big powerful in the eyes of other people? How? In wartime, our soldiers did it for us; when all we’ve got is peace, hockey has to do the job.
Your dad: Maybe some countries can afford to let the world think they’re losing their vigor and courage but we’re not one of them.
You: Hey, dad, why don’t you get a team together.
Your dad: No, son, sorry, that’s just not how the world works.
Except that it does. He does get a team together. Like Foster Hewitt’s own dad, W.A., who had a hand in organizing three Canadian Olympic hockey teams, 1920 through ’28, as well as (just for the record) refereeing the very first Olympic game in Antwerp in 1920 — your dad, in the story, is a well-connected hockey man who comes up with a four-year plan to build a team of stout young men to defend our national pride.
So he does that: talks his town, the mythical Gloster, into sponsoring the team that’s going to restore local pride even as it saves the nation’s honour. You and your dad will eventually fade out of Hewitt’s narrative, but not before your dad recruits Bill Bailey to coach, good guy, patient, great teacher, and then you go looking for players, remembering that size doesn’t matter so much as, quote, the stuff inside: fight, gameness, will-to-win.
Good boys, who won’t become hockey tramps and loaf in pool halls and on corners, are what you want, apparently, when you’re building an Olympic team: guys like Joe Griffin, who has the look of a champion, the alert air of another Dit Clapper.
You can call your team anything you want, I guess: in the book, it’s the Gloster Greys, and even if your first game is a bit of a disaster, a 6-3 licking, never mind, keep going, even if the whole first season turns into a trainwreck, such that other teams start to taunt your guys, and the townsfolk start to laugh at you, and the writers mock you.
Because, guess what? What you do the next year, you start recruiting players from far and yon, for example, Jack Horton from Port Arthur. Then you get a goalie, too, and then an Indian lad. His name is Tom Whitecap, so I’m guessing he’s Aboriginal rather than Bombay-born. Either way, word is he can control a puck like Max Bentley, and he skates, quote, like Stanowski when Wally was at his flying best.
Piece by piece, you build a team. You get Crasher Kelly and Butch Batting and Slim Webber and Buff Jones — “the colored boy.” You bring them to Gloster to play, get them to buy into to the whole Olympic dream, commit. Then what you do, next, is you give them a little lecture about how they also need to be working a job when they’re not on the ice, that or they’re going to be at school, no hockey tramps will be tolerated here, which means they have to be keeping themselves neat and well-dressed and, just to be clear, no swearing.
And if they don’t know the rules? That’s a little bit of a concern, I have to say, a bit of a hitch, for me, with Foster Hewitt’s whole scenario. Bill Bailey’s explanation when the boys start taking too many penalties is that half of them have never read the rules, and so we’re treated to a little Q-and-A with the team gathered round their coach, What’s charging? they say, and I still don’t understand the business of illegal checking.
Onward, upward. Easy to say, but what about when, next, the team starts to lose and the injuries pile up and the fans, so fickle, start to carp? Keep going. Stay the course. Fuck ’em, is how I’d be tempted to put it, except that this is Foster Hewitt’s gig, a novel published for young readers in 1950, so that’s probably out of order.
They almost win the Memorial Cup. Tough luck that they don’t. The next challenge the boys face is they have to resist the onslaught of pro scouts who come prowling around, offering dreams and cash, and they do that — resist — though they don’t all seem entirely happy about sticking to their commitment to do the country proud.
They keep working. Skate, skate, skate. Never mind distractions, such as is the Indian lad too old to be playing junior (turns out no, he’s okay) or why he mysteriously undergoes a change of name, from Tom to Charlie.
Make sure you win the Dominion championship, despite losing your goalie to a puck in the eye. That’s the net thing. Then, take an ocean liner to Europe, where the Olympics are being played in Switzerland, being careful not to eat too much on the way over.
Make sure you know about the dangers of playing in Europe, which include the natural ice, the inferior boards, local refs who don’t necessarily understand the right (i.e. Canadian) way to play the game. At the same time, be nice. It’s important to win, sure: we also want to make the people in other countries like us.
Play Poland. Beat them 15-0, but do it politely, sharing lemons and tea at the intermissions. Beat Britain, followed by Switzerland. Don’t let the atrocious refereeing get to you. Overcome. Beat the U.S., Holland, Belgium, Austria, France. What about the Soviets? No mention of them, here, yet, it’s Czechoslovakia that’s the big threat, and who the boys from Gloster end up meeting in the gold-medal game.
And if the Swiss ice is soft because the sun has been shining on it all day? And if the Czechs turn out to be really determined? Doesn’t matter. Not a problem.
Put up with the boos of the locals who don’t understand that vigorous checks are perfectly proper. Stoutly protest when the referee gives you a two-minute penalty. Get too close to him; see the penalty increased to five minutes.
Hang in there.
Withstand the furious Czech powerplay until they get the puck almost to the goal line but not over. Watch the referee call it a goal anyway.
Be outraged and dismayed.
Poke the puck to Coop Clayton with next to no time remaining in the game and barely five paragraphs to go in the novel. Make sure he amazingly backhands the tying goal. Listen to the coach when he yells, “Give ’em the works!” Send out the Indian lad. Wait 20 seconds. Watch him slide on one knee and scoop the puck through a six-inch gap to win the game.
Line up, get your gold medals. Hear a fanfare of trumpets split the mountain air.
Simple. Any questions?
Hello Canada! and Hockey Fans in the United States
by Foster Hewitt
(Toronto: Thomas Allen, 1950)
(Photo: Library and Archives Canada)