Canada's Permanent Victory

Harry How

Canada's women's hockey team put on a show for the ages, and that deserves to be remembered.

The Canada - United States women's hockey gold medal match was, perhaps, the most exciting hockey game I've seen since the Oilers ran to the Stanley Cup final. Yes, I remember the men winning in overtime in Vancouver in 2010, and that was plenty dramatic, but the women's game had the intensity, the fire, the clutch play, the end-to-end competitiveness, and the drama of a classic for eternity, something the players involved should have mentioned every time they walk into a crowded room for the rest of their lives. "You see her? That's Marie-Philip Poulin... yeah!" If she doesn't quite rank with Paul Henderson she's only a cut below.

I won't insult you by recapping the game, one of the best advertisements for hockey I've seen in a long time. Nor will I insult the women responsible by praising Canadian "heart" or "grit". The Americans had heart in abundance: the barrage they fired on Shannon Szabados in the first minutes of overtime after the gold medal had been snatched from their hands proves that. Enormous spirit on both teams is what it takes to make a game like that, but also not a little bit of skill.

And it's so easy to condescend about women's hockey, isn't it? As the nay-sayers point out, the best women's national teams in the world are competitive with men's high bantam. Most watch the Canadian women every four years, skim the round robin, get excited for the medal round, and shut down the economy when we almost-inevitably face the Americans in the final. The result is typical Olympic narrative: a lot of heartwarming stories about how these ladies had to work so hard and sacrifice so much and now here they are on top of the world, commence heartstring-tugging. You wouldn't think that we were a hockey country, sometimes: I bet most Canadian sports fans would pick every member of the Jennifer Jones rink out of a lineup before they recognized a women's hockey player not named Wickenheiser.

Now most of us — and I say "us" for a reason — will wait another four years for the next time, perhaps raising our heads briefly over the parapet for a World Championship (especially if we win) or maybe a home Four Nations Tournament. Kind of a silly name, that: Canada has won gold or silver at the Three/Four Nations every year it's been held, and the Americans have won gold or silver every year they participated but one. It's the Two Nations, Plus Some Other Women. No, we probably won't get too excited for that one.

Farewell and adieu to you fair Spanish ladies...

This is not a segue into whining "why don't you support these women between Olympics?" because I know why. Sitting in my Vancouver apartment, the nearest Canadian Women's Hockey League team to me is in Calgary. And the CWHL, God bless them, is a little amateurish, with their 28-game seasons and their weekend doubleheaders and a level of play low enough that many top players prefer to stay in NCAA (fair enough, since none of them are paid). Why, unless to support women's sport for its own sake, would someone like me follow those games when I have an entire league of junior "A" teams playing higher-level hockey more frequently closer to home?

And internationally, when Canada plays any country but the Americans we're in for either a whitewash or a disappointing upset, and when the United States is in town we are worn down by the familiarity of an old foe without the intensity of high stakes. When we last hosted the Women's World Championships in 2013 attendances for the home team were good, with even minnows Switzerland (so we thought then!) and Russia drawing respectable crowds; that was our high water mark on home ice since Vancouver 2010.

But there has to be something to do, hasn't there? Any group of athletes capable of putting on a show like that before the world's awestruck eyes deserves all the attention a grateful nation can give them and we can't host the Worlds every year; nor would we be long amused if we did.

Farewell, and adieu, you fair ladies of Spain...

This is traditionally the point in the program where the blogger lays out his "just do this, stupid" to make women's hockey in Canada as big as it deserves to be. But I don't think there is an easy solution, and smarter people than me have tried to find one. Women's club soccer in Canada can draw thousands for what is, relatively speaking, a lower level of competition, but there's a lot less high-level soccer in this country to compete with. In hockey, you've got a great local game around every corner.

I don't know. There's a problem here, we all know it, skill and guts capable of producing moments of such communal celebration as we witnessed yesterday morning is rotting on the vine three and a half years out of every four. Who can call themselves a hockey fan and say they're satisfied with that?

Perhaps all we can do is hold on to that amazing memory, of Poulin engraving her name among the immortals, of Szabados going full 1998 Dominik Hasek and entrenching herself as the greatest female goalie of all time. We can take that from the men, sometimes. The 1997 Edmonton Oilers weren't very good but whisper those words to an Edmontonian of my generation and we will reply "Marchant" with an expression of distant wonder. It's moments like that which live in the hearts of hockey fans long after debates of where the Norris winner fits in the lineup have faded to ash. Maybe it doesn't sound like much, probably it isn't, but that Marchant goal helped turn around an NHL team that was worth watching a lot less often than one year in four, and when we're bouncing our grandchildren on our knees and telling them about what Poulin did to the Americans, they'll understand.

I'm sorry if that seems trite. Immortality often is.

For we're under orders to sail for old England,
And we may never see you fair ladies again.

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