Let’s just say the timing could have been better…
In mid-September, the Canadian team lost in the final round of hockey’s inaugural World Cup. Even worse, the loss came in Montreal, the sport’s mecca. Worst of all, the victor was the much-despised, underdog American squad. Citizens of the Great White North, who’ve always regarded hockey as their game, have taken the Yanks’ conquest like a cold slapshot in the face. The Letters to the Editor section of Hockey News, a Quebec-based weekly that hockey aficionados regard in biblical terms, is now loaded up with letters of the “How could you let us down like that?” variety from indigenes, and probably will be for the foreseeable future. Add in the fact that it came after a Canuck-free Stanley Cup, which would have been unthinkable before the NHL started wandering around America in search of TV markets, and you’ve got a cultural disaster.
Now, in the midst of Canada’s national malaise, comes “They Shoot…They Score!” This touring multimedia exhibition of hockey history and puck-centric artwork opens up this week at the Canucks’ embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue. Described by embassy officials as a “display of Canada’s gift to the world,” this will be the largest cultural exhibit they’ve ever had here, in the capital of the country that just handed their goalie masks to them.
Originally, the opening was set to coincide with the start of the 1996-97 National Hockey League season (the Washington Capitals open up against the Chicago Blackhawks Saturday night at USAir Arena). But given the Americans’ shocking World Cup dominance, the whole thing comes off like a Chinese delegation setting up shop in Rome to pontificate about pasta.
“Yes, losing was a very hard pill for us to swallow, it sure was,” sighed Pam Chappell, spokesperson for the Canadian Embassy. “Nobody likes to get beaten at their own game.”
Former NHL superstar Frank Mahovlich was asked by the sponsors to serve as his sport’s ambassador for the exhibition. During a 17-year career with Toronto, Detroit, and Montreal, the Hall of Famer was tagged as one of the best skaters and stick handlers hockey had ever known. He also garnered a reputation for being as gentle and amiable off-ice as he was tough on it. Mahovlich is a puckhead, through and through, who regards safety-friendly changes like mandatory helmets and dislodgeable nets as a blight on the game. He cites the day he lost his teeth to a goalpost as one of his “proudest” days as an athlete: “I knew Gordie Howe didn’t have any teeth, so at least in one way I had caught up with him.”
Mahovlich was part of the Team Canada all-star squad—the original Dream Team of professional sports—that vanquished the mighty Russians in a 1972 series held amid incredible Cold War hype. So with the not-so-cheery subtext the current exhibition holds for his countrymen, Mahovlich could have some trouble keeping that nasty on-ice persona suppressed throughout his embassy gig.
“Oh yeah, I watched the games, and yeah, I rooted for Canada,” the 58-year-old Timmins, Ontario, native fairly huffed to me last week when asked about the World Cup. “It sure seemed to me like we had the better of the play. We outplayed the Americans, certainly, and I still believe we had the much better team.”
Frank, Frank baby, I’m thinking: Go back and check the newspapers! Canada didn’t win! The Americans did! Nanny-nanny-boo-boo! You lost! We won! (Since my interview with Mahovlich was conducted by telephone, and therefore well out of reach of his Big Right Hand, my boldness didn’t put me at risk of bodily injury.)
Got any excuses, Mr. Sore Loser? Bring ’em on…
“Well, things just weren’t clicking for us,” Mahovlich continued. “And from what I hear, the scheduling of the games was in the Americans’ favor. And anyway, it came out that eight of those guys on the American team were born in Canada, anyway.”
By the end of this brief but spirited one-man whine festival, Mahovlich let on that his ex post facto rationalizations weren’t all that heartfelt, after all. “Using Canada’s guys on their team…How typical of Americans, eh?” he said, punctuating the statement with a laugh as powerful as his slapshot used to be.
Then, Mahovlich seemed to recall his role as the genteel elder statesman of hockey and suggested that the embassy’s presentation might still teach Americans a thing or two.
“I think that what we’d like Americans to take away from our exhibition is a better appreciation of Canadians and hockey, of where the origins of the game are, and how much it really, really means to us,” he said. “Canada is a country where young boys from big and small cities and small towns start skating on frozen ponds and rinks at a very young age, and then spend half their lives or more playing the game of hockey, and idolizing the stars of the National Hockey League.
“That’s what we try to capture in this exhibition. Now there are professional hockey teams in places like Arizona and Florida…which is an amazing thing to think about. But when you think about where it all started, it was in Canada.”
And what’s more, embassy officials would like Americans to take the fact that the show is going on despite the recent turmoil as a signal that although their northerly neighbors are down now, they’re not out. And in the meantime, they’ve adopted a battle cry: Remember the Toronto Blue Jays!
“We won some pennants from you a few years ago? We know we’ll be back. We know it, eh?” Chappell swaggered, accentuating that last, profoundly Canadian utterance to an admirably annoying degree.
“They Shoot…They Score!” runs from Oct. 3–Jan. 31, 1997, at the Canadian Embassy. Admission is free.