Although there are important sports in Canada -- our own football, lacrosse -- nothing does compete with hockey. It's on a different plane, to the extent where, rightly or wrongly, people see these sports as deeply reflective of the character of the nation [and] certainly deeply reflective of the sports culture of the nation. And sports culture is an important part of any nation. You can say soccer in many countries [is] just as important but ... nobody has a national claim to soccer the way Canada has a national claim to hockey or the United States has a national claim to baseball. They define the country in a unique way.
The other thing I should mention about hockey is this: From the fairly early days, [it was] culturally cross-cutting as well. It's English and French. It's pretty well all regions of the country. Ethnic communities. One of the first things you see [is] immigrants start to belong to Canadian society when their kids start to come to the hockey rink. Then the parents start to integrate with the other parents. It crosses social class lines. So it's a great common denominator. It really is.
I remember the debates at the time: The issue wasn't whether Canada was going to win the series or win every game. The issue was whether the Soviets were going to score a goal. And all of a sudden, we were blown out in the first game [in Montreal]. So the second game was really about whether Canada would be competitive. So it was do or die. And the national psyche was at stake here, I think, in a much different way than the gold-medal game.
I don't want to de-emphasize it. [It's] certainly one of the two or three most important games on Canadian ice, no doubt about it. But that said, we know now that we're facing other good teams. It's a different situation ... the Canada-Soviet series had an overarching reality of Cold War confrontation as well, which really nothing today can replicate.
But it makes it apparent that the rage and the excitement with which this new sport -- and you have to remind people that it was new, from about 1875 on -- [that] swept the country was really a phenomenon. And ... although it is rarely overtly political, you definitely see the development of a national consciousness that did not exist before.
People forget that in 1867, Canada's national consciousness was very fragmentary. There was a strong set of regional identities because these had been separate colonies. And of course there was a wider attachment to the British Empire for many Canadians, especially English Canadians, the ultimate locus of their greater loyalty. The development of hockey is not, by any means the only [factor], but it is an important part of the development of a uniquely Canadian identity and a uniquely Canadian sense of belonging in a community across the country.