The weight of a nation

On Dec. 30 Hockey Canada announced the roster for the 2010 men’s Olympic hockey team. For weeks, months, even years before the official roster selection was made public fans have projected, pondered and prognosticated as to who might represent the country when the Olympics makes its way to Vancouver. Even as early as 2006, just days after the disappointing exit of the Canadian team from Torino, hockey experts have entertained the guessing game of who might be in and who might be out the next time Canada attempts to take home Olympic gold.

For the record, the roster is as follows: Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo and Marc-Andre Fleury in goal; on defense: Dan Boyle, Drew Doughty, Duncan Keith, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Brent Seabrook, Shea Weber; and at forward: Patrice Bergeron, Sidney Crosby, Ryan Getzlaf, Danny Heatley, Jarome Iginla, Patrick Marleau, Brenden Morrow, Rick Nash, Mike Richards, Corey Perry, Eric Staal, Joe Thornton and Jonathan Toews.

The production put on by executive director Steve Yzerman and company was itself quite a spectacle as media outlets from across the country crowded the Saskatoon auditorium in eager anticipation of the grand unveiling of Team Canada. And a grand unveiling it was, too; with each player named, an oversized banner of each individual athlete would appear behind the executive team, creating an enormous wall-to-wall image of the team. Each name called was met with a mix of cheers and applause as Canadian fans were finally able to visualize the team that would represent their nation. The roster announcement was broadcast live on 13 different networks, all partners with Canada’s Olympic Media Broadcast Consortium.

In Winnipeg those interested were able to watch the announcement as part of a two-hour program of coverage on TSN that ran the gamut of live feeds, interviews, commentaries, critiques and, of course, many fancy graphics. According to CTV, the owner and parent company of the Canadian sports network, as many as 2.34 million viewers tuned in across Canada to witness the conference. The amount of enthusiasm that surrounded the event was palpable and gave a clear sense of just how much hockey means to Canada in the Olympic picture — in a word: everything.

Consider, for example, the 2002 and 2006 winter Olympics. Turin 2006 was an event in which Canada performed quite well overall, ranking fifth amongst all countries, taking home a total of 24 medals (seven gold, 10 silver, seven bronze). Salt Lake City 2002, on the other hand, saw Canada perform decidedly worse at the podium, collecting seven less medals for a total of 17 (seven gold, three silver, seven bronze). The difference between the two outings is that if you ask any Canadian to describe their memories of either event it is more than likely that Salt Lake City will conjure images of success and victory while Turin will produce only failure and disappointment. In 2002 the men’s hockey team won the gold medal, whereas in 2006 the men’s team never seemed to find their identity and failed to place within the top three in competition.

Now that the Olympics are in Canada, the expectations could not possibly be higher. Not only must this Team Canada defend our country’s claim as the greatest hockey nation on Earth, they must also permanently erase the bitter taste of Olympic failure that has lingered for nearly four years. The games themselves are still a little more than a month away, but already the thought of a losing effort is something wholly unacceptable and incalculable within this culture where national pride and hockey skill are (at least once every four years) inseparable entities.

At the same press conference it was announced that Sidney Crosby, Jarome Iginla and Chris Pronger would all serve as assistant captains while 18-year NHL veteran defensemen Scott Niedermayer would lead the charge as captain of Team Canada. In his career Niedermayer has won four Stanley Cups and was a member of both the 2002 and 2006 Canadian national Olympic teams. As arguably the most seasoned member of the Vancouver team, Niedermayer will have to use his prior experience to help guide a relatively young Canadian team as they carry the collective expectations of an entire nation on their backs.

In case it wasn’t painfully obvious beforehand, hockey is a big deal in Canada. For better or worse the success of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics may in large part rest on the shoulders of one hockey team. While schools and business places alike don’t typically come to a screeching halt at news of the latest bobsled results, hockey always seems to move the needle.