There is a tide in the affairs of men,
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune



Pre Blog: Canada v. Czech 2002

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Originally an email from President's Day, 2002:

On a beautiful February Northern California morning, I threw on my Team Canada jersey, popped the sunroof, turned up the radio and went to pick up my good friend Ace. We had with us a Canadian flag, face paint, and two tickets to one of the greatest hockey tournaments of all time.

I threw her into gear and raced down 280 to SFO while the Canadian band Rush came lilting over the airwaves. Today, we would fly one thousand four hundred miles round-trip to watch twelve men use long, slender sticks to bat at a three-inch disc of frozen, vulcanized rubber on a slippery sheet of ice. And it would be one of the greatest days of our young lives.

“When are you guys gonna show up?” the man in line at the airport newsstand asked me. “Good question,” I replied, shaking my head. Thus far, Team Canada had been embarrassed by the Swedes 2-5 and had squeaked by the lowly Germans, 2-1. Our vaunted squad of hardened professionals had played indifferent, mediocre hockey. Our star player and leader, Mario Lemieux, had looked out of place on the wider European ice in the first game and had missed the second game due to injury.

Still, we were all smiles and optimism as we bounded aboard Delta 1014 to Salt Lake City. Our takeoff was on schedule, and when the stewardess came by offering drinks, Ace spontaneously broke out with his inimitable rendition of our favourite ski-lift song, “Allouette, Gentille Allouette”. Later he overheard the stewardesses talking excitedly about the loony Canadians: “I think he was singing in French!”

On my way to my seat, a distinguished looking gentleman asked me where in Canada I was from. When informed, he replied “Ottawa – I just built a golf course there for Terry Matthews.” Turns out he was a golf course architect.

“What is your name?” I inquired, casually.

“Robert Trent Jones,” he replied with a smile.

I was impressed. Robert Trent Jones, Jr. is one of the top two golf course designers in the world. In fact, he designed a course that I had helped finance earlier on in my career. I gave him a short list of the courses I had been involved with, and he pulled out his business card and shook my hand. He was the first of several famous people I would meet that day.

The atmosphere in Salt Lake City was electric, and the excitement was evident in people’s faces the moment we stepped off the plane. The guides at the airport were incredibly helpful and the general organization was impeccable. As a result, we arrived at the E Center in less than ten minutes. I had been warned that traffic was so tortuous that a Canadian athlete had missed her medal ceremony. Clearly this woman was incompetent.

As we approached the E Center, we instructed our cabbie to pull over at a restaurant. Crossing the street, we immediately started chatting with a Canadian TV crew. They wanted an interview with some fans, and we were delighted to oblige.

“Aren’t you worried about Hasek?”

“He’ll be a non-factor!” boasted Ace in his cockiest voice.

“Who will score the game-winning goal?”

“I’ve been a Quebec Nordiques fan for many years,” began Ace in his best Don Cherry voice, “and so I have to go with my man Joey Sakic, number 91.”

“And you?”

“Well, I think it’s gonna be good ol’ Stevie Yzerman from my hometown of Nepean, Ontario,” I replied. “And a good Canadian boy he is!” I added, by way of footnote.

After the interview, we entered a cavernous drinking establishment known as The Puck. We expected to see some fans, but were quite unprepared for the sea of red and white jerseys that lay within. We had managed to stumble upon Team Canada’s unofficial headquarters for its hockey supporters. Immediately, we were welcomed with handshakes and backslaps.

There were guys with bright red wigs, innumerable fans with painted faces, guys wearing helmets, carrying flags – a real group of fanatics. Ace had the flag draped around his neck like some sort of Maple Leaf superhero. Within a few minutes, we had a couple of steins of Labatt’s Blue in front of us and were trading hockey stories with the other fans.

“I was at the McSorley illegal stick game . . .”

“I saw Canada-Sweden at the ’96 World Cup.”

“I was at game 3 in Hamilton!”

“Game 3?” I asked, incredulous.

“Yup.”

Copps Coliseum, 1987. Tie game. Dale Hawerchuk takes the draw. “Lemieux ahead to Gretzky…Gretzky has Murphy on a two on one… to Lemieux… in on goal… he shoots, he scoooooooooooores! Mario Lemieux with one-twenty-six remaining!” I cannot even write these words without getting goosebumps.

All this discussion would periodically be interrupted by spontaneous anthem-singing or cries of “We Want The Gold!”; “It’s Our Game!”; or simply “Ca – Na – Da!” All day long I had been humming the tune to “Hockey Night in Canada”, the theme song of my childhood, and presently Ace and I gave our full-blown rendition.

Suddenly, the crowd erupted in a chant of what sounded like “Ed-die, Ed-die!”

“Is Belfour here?” I asked someone. Making my way to the front of the bar, I was stunned to see a red-haired, handlebar-mustached gentleman coolly signing autographs. The most famous mustache in hockey. Immediately, I started to join to the chant: “Lan-ny, Lan-ny!” This was Lanny Macdonald, captain of the 1989 Cup-winning Calgary Flames who beat my beloved Montreal Canadiens in the final. He was also a coach of Team Canada’s at last year’s World Championships and consultant to the present Olympic team. Ace had Lanny sign his jersey while the crowd cheered “Go Flames Go” and I looked on in disbelief. Lanny frickin Macdonald!

Now it was time to prepare for the game. Corey, from Brampton, Ont., expertly painted our faces with large, red maple leafs. He told me that his wife was friends with Doug Weight and Bill Guerin of the US team. Some Americans (“Yankee chick”, I called her) ordered us all shots. We drank to Wayne Gretzky.

Periodically, a squad of noisy Czech Republic partisans would march through the bar beating drums and cheering. This unwelcome cacophony would be met with yells of “We Don’t Take Checks!” A group of aging good old boys kept making plans for mounting a retaliatory foray to the Czech House. Every few minutes, one of them would stand up and rally his compatriots with the cry “To The Czech House!” Then, invariably, he would sit back down and continue chatting with his friends. This charade went on for at least forty-five minutes. They roped me into agreeing to join them, and occasionally I would hear a snippet of conversation regarding a possible expedition to the Czech House. Of course, upon hearing this, I would immediately raise my glass and yell, “To The Czech Houuuuse!” and a dozen people would take up the cry, then continue about their business. Eventually, two semi-credible people announced that they were actually leaving for the Czech House in five minutes. One must understand that when I use the term semi-credible, it should be taken in appropriate context. One of them, Goalie, wore a goaltender’s mask and the other, Puckhead, wore a helmet with a puck glued to the front.

“Alright, Puckhead, I’m with you!” I declared, not knowing what I was in for.

There we marched in the cheerful Utah sun, a motley dozen of us, clad in red and white, waving flags and bellowing the national anthem at the top of our lungs. A few Czechs gave us directions, but it soon became clear that these old farts we were following had no clue where they were going.

Ace and I abandoned the expedition and headed instead to the E Center. In the security line we entertained ourselves by patting kids on their heads, having our pictures taken with excited middle-aged ladies and generally being as rowdy as possible.
The organization was once again impeccable and we were through security in mere minutes.

“You’re doing a fine job,” I said to a National Guardsman, slapping him on the back.

“Go Canada!” he replied.

We found our seats just to the right of the goaltender, in the loudest, craziest section of the building. In front of us were nine guys dressed identically in 1972 Summit Series jerseys, with CANADA emblazoned in red letters across their backs. Behind us was a row of face-painted loonies. To Ace’s right was a fellow with a sign saying “LIST: 2 tickets; 2 jerseys; 1 flag; 1 big can of whoop-ass!”

We had arrived in the midst of the pre-game warm-up and marveled at seeing so many of our favourite players up close. I had spent the last eighteen months speculating as to who would make the team and following each development assiduously. It was wonderful to finally see the boys all together wearing the red maple leaf.

Ace and I were momentarily silent, mile-wide grins on our faces, eyes yawning in sheer, distilled excitement. We started calling out the players’ names, cheering madly.
Martin Brodeur was the surprise starter in goal, and we chanted his name, yelling encouragement in French.

There was another half hour before the game was to start, and below us, Don Cherry and Ron Maclean, icons of Canadian broadcasting, interviewed a septuagenarian member of the Edmonton Mercuries, who had won Canada’s last hockey gold medal fifty long years ago. Our entire section started chanting “Cher-ry! Cher-ry!” and we were acknowledged with a panning shot by the CBC cameraman.

Then, as the minutes ticked toward the puck drop, we began to lead the stadium in an impromptu chorus of the national anthem. I later read in a newspaper interview that the players in the locker room could hear us singing.

Finally, the puck dropped and our brains began to split in function – half our consciousness was suspended in unrestrained giddy awe, the other half coolly analyzing the strategy, execution and line combinations. Coach Quinn had shuffled his lines from the last game so that Sakic was now playing on what I called the “speed line” with youngsters Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagné on the wings. Stevie Y, my hometown boy, was moved to right wing on the top line, with Mario back at his natural centre and Paul Kariya at left.

Initially, Canada came out hitting, with Owen Nolan and big Eric Lindros setting a thundering tone. I was particularly impressed with defenseman Scott Niedermayer, who is Canada’s fastest skater and was flying from the get-go. Nine minutes into the game, Niedermayer sent a long, beautiful feed to Lemieux, who with one regal swat buried the puck behind the Dominator. As the fans jumped from their seats, I turned to Ace, who stood there, face painted, arms apart, mouth wide open, trying to cheer but mute with emotion.

We were simply elated. Finally, our team was coming together as a unit.

Then, in the dying minutes of the period, Chris Pronger, who had looked lost on the big ice for the last couple of games, turned the puck over and the Czechs scored. Turns out the scorer was twenty year old Martin Havlat, of the Ottawa Senators. “That kid is younger than my baby sister!” I yelled, flabbergasted.

It was a tense intermission, and I was glad to see play resume with Dominik Hasek in our end. We hurled abuse at this hated enemy of our nation.

Three minutes into the period, young Havlat found himself alone against Brodeur and scored the go-ahead goal. Disaster. We were losing. We had dominated the game territorially and we were still losing. This was Canada’s nightmare scenario: a match where we would take command of every aspect of the game while Dominik Hasek got into the heads of our snipers and stole it away.

For fifteen long minutes, Canada pressed the attack, with no goals to show for the effort. Theo Fleury hit the crossbar. Rob Blake shot at an open net, and he shot wide! The excruciating tension marked our faces beneath the patriotic coating of red and white paint.

The crowd valiantly rallied our boys. “Go Canada Go! Go Canada Go!” Then, I saw Stevie Y streaking towards me at center ice. He fed a crisp pass to the player at his left, and in the next few seconds we witnessed a treat that left every soul in the building breathless. Amazingly, as soon as this player received the puck, the whole play seemed to slow down. As he crossed into the Czech zone, the Canadian forward seemed to have enough time to check his voicemail, return a few phone calls and have a coffee before finally rocketing the puck at the net. Hasek got a piece of it, but he was pushed across the line.

Only one player in the world has the ability to slow the game to such an extent – Mario. This was the first time I had ever seen him do it live, and it was breathtaking, magnificent. The goal, however, had to be reviewed by the officials, to our consternation.

“Et Le But!” we screamed. When the ref eventually pointed to centre ice, signaling goal, the whole of section 108 erupted in mad, raucous, exuberant approval. Take that Hasek!

The third period was tense as the Czechs finally came out skating, but Brodeur held. The action was furious as both teams jockeyed for physical position, sensing that the next goal would probably be the game winner. Suddenly, a Czech winger came in on Brodeur, who skated to his right to challenge the shooter. He made the initial save, but the puck bounced right back to the Czech forward. Jan Hrdina now had an open net – my grandmother could make this goal. Hrdina shot, and as Brodeur, on his back, lunged to his left, I hunched my shoulders in disappointment, knowing that this would put them ahead. The crowd howled their loudest approval of the night, cheering madly.

“Why are they cheering?” I asked Ace, beginning to think I had had one beer too many, “The Czechs scored.”

“HE MADE THE SAVE!” screamed Ace, half to me and half to the heavens above.
I looked back at Brodeur with sheer disbelief. I had seen that scoring chance with my own eyes. That puck was surely in! Somehow, in frank contradiction to all known laws of physics, the hockey gods had smiled on Martin Brodeur and he had made one of the most incredible saves ever. This was Ken Dryden against Valeri Kharlamov in 1972. This was the caliber of save that turns around the game, even turns around the tournament.

If the crowd was loud before, it was simply deafening in the minutes after that save. The whole Canadian bench was energized, slamming bodies and cycling the puck in the offensive zone. Alas, thirteen minutes into the period the Czechs scored, deflating our section and inspiring the Czech minority.

Time was running out, and we needed a goal. I looked over at the bench and smiled. With all that talent, somebody would find a way to put it in. And then, with three minutes left in the game and the fourth line on the ice, Fleury threaded a pass to an open Joe Nieuwendyk who one-timed it past Hasek. He scores! Nieuwendyk has scored for Canada!

You’d think we had won the tournament the way we were celebrating. I spent the last three minutes of that game yelling myself hoarse, stomping my feet and waving Ace’s flag.

The game ended tied 3-3, but for Team Canada and the Canadian fans it was a moral victory. This was the best game they had played thus far and we had been encouraged by the team’s progress.

The media would later describe us fans as “anxious”, which was perfectly true. We desperately wanted to win. A fifty year drought and a public humiliation in Nagano had left us nervous and hungry. But Team Canada’s poise in this game showed in its emotional play and its overall control of the game’s tempo.

We spent the rest of the evening dissecting the minutiae at the bar. The level of conversation reflected a knowledgeable crowd. “Were there many blocked shots?” someone asked me. Everyone was talking about Mario’s resurgence after having taken the previous night off against Germany. There was also much excited commentary about Brodeur’s solid effort and the highlight-reel save which had cemented him as the starting goaltender for the rest of the tournament. I met one girl who used to work for the New York Islanders. When informed of this, I began yelling “Potvin Sucks!” in honour of my Rangers fan buddy Keith Weissman, a reference to Islander Denis Potvin’s brutal check on Ulf Nilsson in the 1979 playoffs. I asked her what she thought of the team, and she replied, “You guys had good speed and puck control, but I thought you could have been more physical.”

“Especially in the defensive zone,” I agreed, nodding. She told me she had been hanging out with Walter Gretzky the night before. Marooned in football-obsessed San Francisco, I hadn’t spoken to a real hockey chick in years. There we stood, fondly recalling the old Billy Smith / Grant Fuhr rivalry, basking in the enchanted conflicts of youth.

One of the “To the Czech House” guys recognized me, and, overflowing with emotion, draped me in maudlin embrace. Amid the singing and revelry, Ace took it upon himself to console the Czech girls by kissing them.

Islander Girl glanced meaningfully over her shoulder, pointing at a man elegantly clad in a pristine, dark suit. “See him?” she said, “Craig Patrick.”

I went over for a closer look. “Excuse me sir, but are you by any chance Craig Patrick?”

“Yes, I am,” he smiled.

This was the general manager of the US Olympic team, the architect of the Pittsburgh Penguin Cup winners of ‘91 and ’92, and an assistant coach on the 1980 Miracle On Ice team. His grandfather’s name was on the Lester B. Patrick award for Outstanding Contribution to US Hockey, which, coincidentally, he had won last year. His family name was also on the old Patrick division. Just a few months ago, he had been inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. He was the gifted, prodigal heir to US Hockey’s royal family.

“Mr. Patrick,” I began, shaking his hand, “congratulations on joining your grandfather, your father and your uncle in the Hall of Fame.” He beamed as he signed my ticket for my Penguins fan buddy Joe Mirza.

“Congratulations on building an excellent national team for the United States, a silver medal winning team. Of course, you understand the gold belongs to Wayne, Mario and my buddies.” He accepted this impetuous comment with grace and aplomb, and I left positively star struck.

Eventually, we had to bid a regretful goodbye to Puckhead, Goalie, Czech House Man, Islander Girl, et al. On the flight back to San Francisco, we were still flushed from the glow of our near-victory. Our dreams were filled with long neutral-zone passes, streaking wingers and lightning wrist shots. I had witnessed what I believed then was the greatest hockey experience of my life. Little did I know that for me it wouldn’t even be the greatest hockey experience of that week.


About me

  • I'm Sunset Shazz
  • Living the dream in Istanbul, Turkey
  • I grew up in the hardscrabble streets of suburban Ottawa, Ontario, committing petty crime, insulting the elderly - basically the classic misspent youth. When I was 19, I moved to West Philly, where I put myself through the Wharton School by dealing crack and hustling. After stints in Paris and London, I eventually graduated and moved to San Francisco, where I put in eight years hard labor working for The Man. But now I pop bottles with models, deciding cracked crab or lobster - who says mobsters don't prosper?
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