It was really great to see eight members of this year's Montreal Canadiens chosen to play for their countries at the Sochi Olympics. The experience will add to their workloads and the amount of hockey they play this season, but it offers so many benefits for both them and their NHL team, the extra games really won't matter in the long run. As newly-minted Czech Olympic captain Tomas Plekanec said, "Hockey careers are short. You can rest when you retire." He and Peter Budaj, Max Pacioretty, Carey Price, Raphael Diaz, Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin will play with and against the best hockey players in the world. They'll experience glorious, open-ice, creative hockey that will hopefully inspire them to be better when they come back to Montreal.
With all the good news around the Olympic team selections, it was particularly heartening to see P.K.Subban's critics quietened by his addition to Team Canada. Subban, as anyone who watches him every night can tell you, is a supremely talented defenceman, and leaving him off the team, despite his tendency to gamble sometimes, would have been an egregious oversight. With Subban on the blueline and Price as a potential starting goalie, Habs players will surely contribute to Canada's attempt to defend its gold medal from Vancouver. If their dream comes true and they do win, the whole country will celebrate. If it doesn't and they return to the Canadiens with another medal, or none at all, they will be disappointed, but then they'll refocus on the job they're paid to do: win the Stanley Cup for Montreal. They'll always have another chance.
Lost amidst the tremendous (some would say pompously overwrought) hype of the countdown to naming Canada's team, however, were the athletes for whom Sochi is their only shot at glory. Canadian bobsledders and lugers, speedskaters and skiers have planned and trained and dreamed for their whole lives for their chance to put it all on the line. They will have a day or a few minutes, or mere seconds in some cases, to show the world it was all worth it, and to bask in the glory they might achieve. Some of them will win medals and we'll love them for a week or so, but have trouble remembering their names next year. Some will score personal bests or cope with deeply-felt disappointments and we won't even notice them at all.
Canada, as we all are taught to believe, is the world's hockey superpower. We sign our kids up for the sport before they start kindergarten. We are bombarded with hype on TV and online, and we are told anything less than a gold medal is a disaster for our national identity. So we tune in in our hundreds of thousands to hear Marcel Aubut threatening to stroke out with bombastic pleasure for the final twenty minutes leading up to the Big Reveal of the men's hockey roster. Meanwhile, the women's team was quietly named on December 23, with no big splash or live TV interviews with those who'd been "snubbed." This, by the way, is a team going for its fourth straight Olympic gold medal. In hockey. Our national obsession.
Today, Erik Guay, Manny Osborne-Paradis and Jan Hudec were revealed as Canada's male alpine ski team. They've been slogging it out on the World Cup stage, when they haven't been battling injuries, for the last four years. They have invested hours of dryland and gym training in the summers and spent winters away from their families as they pursue their dreams. They will have a total of about two minutes per race to make that all worthwhile in Sochi, but many of us will watch their moments in the sun with only a passing interest.
This is not to defend the right of all Canadian athletes to be promoted and hero-worshiped on the same scale as hockey players. Most amateur athletes will tell you if they were in it for glory or wealth, they would have left sport a long time ago. They're in it because they love it, pure and simple. They love their sports and they want to represent their countries in what might be their only chance to do so.
This is to say we, as hockey fans, miss something valuable if we concentrate only on hockey at a wonderful event like the Olympic Games. We miss the purity of motivation in athletes who do it to challenge themselves and, knowing they'll never get rich at it, for simple passion. We miss witnessing moments that will never come again...the athlete who has come soooo close in the past finally winning it, the great champion take one more medal while sharing the podium with his heir-apparent, the woman who's able to dig down and perform at her best when it really counts. These moments make us better fans because they give us an understanding of a world outside the narrow confines of a hockey rink. And, when we view that world, we see characters who aren't afraid to say what they think, or cry when they lose or kiss the ice when they win. We see inspiration.
To those of us jaded by watching millionaires chase a puck on nights when they really don't seem to care about the outcome, the Olympic Games give us an opportunity to re-discover the glory of sport in the other athletes who represent our countries. So, while it'll be great fun to watch Sidney Crosby, P.K.Subban and Carey Price skate out in Canadian colours, and witness Tomas Plekanec proudly wear the "C" for the Czech Republic, it'll be just as much fun to watch Hayley Wickenheiser go for her fourth Olympic gold medal and Erik Guay careen down a mountain in search of a podium finish.
Canadian sport means more than just hockey, even if we often forget that fact. We can love and obsess over our national game any time of the year, but the Olympics are special. For two weeks, we can be a country of skiers and skaters and sliders as well as one of hockey players, and we should make the most of it. Most importantly, the Games should not be named a success or a failure based on the performance of the men's hockey team. Some of the athletes wearing the maple leaf will go to Russia and pull off the best performances of their lives. We should be celebrating with them.