What the World Cup of Hockey means for Canada’s game

Mario Lemieux, Wayne Gretzky and Larry Murphy celebrate the winning goal during Game 2 of the 1987 Canada Cup

It has long been a comforting thought, especially for those who worry that the world is shifting all around them in unsettling ways, that this one thing never changes.

Canada is a hockey country. The sport and national identity are inextricably linked. When you boil it all down, eventually you wind up with ice and skates and a stick. That’s just the way it has always been.

There are dates on the calendar every year when we come together to watch the national game—the Stanley Cup Final, the Winter Classic, and any time players skate out wearing a red maple leaf on their chests. The vast majority of our seminal sporting moments involve pucks, and most anyone of a certain age can recite them from memory, beginning with the events of 1972 when it felt like Everything Was On The Line.

But even as the not-so-dulcet tones of Foster Hewitt echo in memory, another voice creeps in, one that wonders if, in this first quarter of the 21st century, it’s actually true anymore that hockey is “our” sport. How much of that idea is a function of baby boomers, the last generation that actually remembers what it was to gather ’round the television on Saturday to watch the only game available, to be force-fed the heroics of the Habs and Leafs.

Flag-waving? Yep, we still love that part, as does just about every other self-defined tribe on the planet. There was a time when Canadians pretended that overt displays of patriotism were a touch vulgar—or at least a touch American—but that notion went out the window a long time ago, and was smashed to pieces in Vancouver in 2010.

Still, those moments of overt pride are certainly not exclusive to hockey. It could be inspired by a women’s soccer team at the Olympic Games or by fellows (but for two) from other places wearing the uniform of the Toronto Blue Jays.

In fact, it would seem that the most important part isn’t the game, but the winning. Two American teams playing for the Stanley Cup aren’t ever going to inspire spontaneous street celebrations in Canada (nor will the day when the Canucks or Flames or Jets or Oilers or Habs or Sens or—right before those four horsemen ride over the hill—Leafs hoist the trophy necessarily inspire warm thoughts among the fans of their bitter rivals). Even the World Junior Championship, which by virtue of its holiday timing, the ever-refreshed supply of fuzzy-cheeked stars, and the sense of manifest destiny inspired during the stretches between 1993 and 1997, and 2005 and 2009, when it seemed like gold was guaranteed, doesn’t serve as national glue when it’s Finland and Russia playing in the final.

Which brings us to the return of the World Cup of Hockey in September of this year.

The tournament has an odd, herky-jerky history, growing out of the Canada Cup, which was created as a vehicle to carry on and exploit the joyous feelings of ’72 for commercial gain. It worked, by and large, because there were just enough times when it seemed like the Yanks or the Russians or the Swedes were about to push us off the top of the mountain that the familiar Us vs. The World narrative took hold.

The Canada/World Cup has certainly had its signature moments, ones that almost reached the level of Paul Henderson’s goal in Moscow or Sidney Crosby’s in Vancouver—Gretzky to Lemieux at Copps Coliseum for starters—and you could argue that it has showcased the finest hockey ever played.

But the National Hockey League players’ appearance in the Olympic Games diluted the patriotic fervor, and the irregular scheduling—playing in the shadow of labour stoppages—got in the way of establishing the World Cup as something akin to its soccer equivalent, the sporting event to which all others aspire.

Now it returns, played exclusively on home ice, distilled to its essence, with a couple of new gimmicks added—the Young Stars and the Rest of Europe squads—that seem to have real potential.

But because it’s hockey, because it’s Canada, the bar is set very high. It’s got to be more than just an exhibition of skill and science. It’s got to reach a place in the national psyche that may not be quite so available anymore.

Let’s see what happens when the puck drops. It won’t take long to know.

This story originally appeared in Sportsnet magazine. Subscribe here.