When Team Canada takes the ice in Toronto Monday night for the gold medal final of the IIHF World Junior Championship, virtually the entire country will be watching. And whether they win or lose, there will be no shortage of Canadian jingoism from start to finish. My fellow countrymen will be told by corporate advertisers, narrow-minded analysts and overzealous fans that hockey is “our” game, that our passion for the sport is what unites us as a nation and what makes us the game’s primary guardians.
Let’s forget the validity of some of those claims for a second, because I want to explore that sense of Canadian pride and unity, and how easily we pick it up and put it down, depending on the moment. I agree that hockey is what links all of Canada together, but why does it only happen for a few weeks each year? Celebrations will erupt across the country if Canada beats Russia to win WJC gold for the first time since 2009, but once the last party fumes evaporate, what will we return to?
If history is any indication, some of us will return to stereotyping regions of Canada to make ourselves feel better about our preferred region of Canada.
For much of the country, this means hating Toronto at all costs and painting the nation’s biggest city as a jerk magnet and impersonal concrete jungle filled with the self-obsessed and boring worker drones. For others, it means characterizing Quebeckers as language-obsessed whiners unconcerned with anything outside that province’s borders. For others, it means seeing Alberta as Canada’s Texas, an epicenter of conservatism with oil bubbling under the ground and rednecks babbling above it; as Vancouver as a home for flakes and the terminally chill; as Ottawa as a soulless enclave of bureaucrats; as Atlantic Canadians as a bunch of booze-soaked cod-kissers.
It doesn’t matter where you live in Canada – as long as you do, you can rest assured another part of Canada dislikes you. We’re no different in this regard than in any other country; provincial squabbles rise to the surface everywhere, and that’s probably just human nature. But none of it is true. Toronto is a vibrant, multicultural metropolis teeming with creative and passionate Canadians. The people of Quebec have sent dozens of hugely successful athletes wearing a red maple leaf across their chests to world stages and done us proud each time. The people of Calgary elected arguably Canada's best and most caring mayor. Vancouver is simply one of the most beautiful cities on earth and is home to a slew of thriving cultural communities. Residents of the East Coast know what a jewel they have in their neck of the woods, which is probably why their stereotype of being good-natured is the lone stereotype that's deserved.
So guess what, guys? It might sound cool to put down one part of it or another, but the reality is, all of Canada is pretty damned phenomenal.
And when we look at Team Canada’s 2015 WJC team, we see a roster comprised of young men from every part of this country. Although none of the players on this year’s squad were born on the East Coast, goalie Zach Fucale played in Halifax; all Canadians have some link to, or emotional investment in, one or more of the players. They've all passed through our towns to play in our rinks, and their stories are more or less the same. However, if Canada weren’t so vast and diverse – if we listened to crusted-over myopians and encouraged Quebeckers to separate and form their own country – there’s no way we’d enjoy the degree of dominance we do on the ice. We are better and stronger together, more similar than we care to admit, and we have a shared love of the greatest game on earth. "Fortunate" doesn't begin to describe us.
That’s the key takeaway whether Canada wins or not Monday against the Russians. We’re good at hockey, we’ve been good at it and will continue to be. And we don’t need to rub that in the faces of other countries to pump our own tires. Rather, we need to recognize what really makes this WJC tournament (and international hockey in general) so special to Canadians: it allows us to come together and be happier in the bigger group, to forget which part of Canada we're from and just huddle together in the bitter winter cold to thrive as one.
That’s what hockey gives us. That's what should be celebrated beyond any Canadian gold or silver medal.
Hockey isn’t ever going to save the world, but we’d be better off as Canadians if we accepted its central lesson and acknowledged that putting aside petty differences in the pursuit of a common goal isn’t just an exercise that takes place on ice surfaces and in dressing rooms. By ensuring that united attitude defines us long after the winning team’s national anthem is played, we'll pay tribute to Team Canada's players more profoundly than any standing ovation ever could.