Written by A. Selway Ryan
This is my favorite goal.
In a set-up so perfect there were not-so-quietly-kept rumors it was rigged, Canada squared off with the U. S. for the Olympic gold medal – in hockey. All-star teams from both sides converged to make a definitive cultural statement, like Bobby Fischer playing Boris Spassky.
At least, that’s how Canadians saw it. I’m not sure it registered much on the American consciousness – considering the fact that, in the U.S., hockey is watched less than college football, college basketball, and golf.
But Canadians are used to our private little moments, those inside jokes and secret triumphs that make us the fiercely proud, passive aggressive people that we are.
The point is: we wanted to win that game. And a handful of guys had to go out and do it for us.
As soon as he drifted out onto the ice that night, it seemed that Mario Lemieux (his last name means ‘the best’), one of the greatest to ever play the game, was…well, getting on a bit. He wasn’t old – this was a decade ago, and he’s still only 46. But hockey’s a pretty rough game, and they seem to make them stronger and younger every year. When you’re stopping on a dime and fist-fighting’s allowed, you don’t tend to age too well.
Yet, in the same way that Bob Dylan tried to sound old when he was young, Lemieux had always made a virtue of his laziness. As a person who enjoys doing nothing as much as anyone does, this is the kind of talent that makes me shiver.
Over the course of his long career, Mario Lemieux was almost never a properly conditioned professional athlete. He drank; he smoked; he spent his free time playing video games. He had a history of failing minimum health requirement tests for team eligibility. He had many severe chronic health ailments, including back pain so crippling another person had to tie his skates for him.
And most dude-like of all, he didn’t really seem to give a damn about any of it.
Sometimes it’s hard to figure out why he’s so mysteriously good at this game; why he’s a three-time Hart Trophy winner; why Bobby Orr called him ‘the most talented player I’ve ever seen’; why he’s the only person to have won a Stanley Cup as both owner and player.
But that night it became crystal-clear.
The game was tight. The fact is, hockey is our game, but there are plenty of Americans who play it – millions of them. And truth be told, their best guys are very much a match for our best guys. Hockey is a chaotic game – beautifully so – and nothing can be taken for granted. A bad team can easily beat a good one on a hot night; a very good one can certainly beat a great one.
Authentically end-to-end action meant spectacular defensive plays, brilliant goal-tending, and a tensely low-scoring game, where every moment mattered. Soon, someone would make a mistake, a play would go one team’s way, and the tide would turn.
Lemieux was the captain, and he was on the offensive line when the opportunity came. A sudden reversal had led to a 3-on-1 breakaway, with Lemieux bearing down on the defensemen in the centre of the ice. As they closed in on the goal, the wingman on his right swept over a gorgeous pass.
It was one of those great sports moments of harmony-in-motion, as three speeding figures coordinated with a gliding projectile that crossed the ice, passed through skates and sticks, and arrived on the blade of Lemieux’s descending stick.
Except that it didn’t. Lemieux didn’t receive the pass. He pretended to, and lifted his stick at the last moment. All the goalie had was the time to turn his head and watch the puck continue gliding past Lemieux entirely – and on to the left wingman, who flicked it into the open net. Tie broken. Gold medal Canada.
That’s the kind of moment that makes a great player, and it’s the kind of moment that defines Mario Lemieux. Really – why would he exercise? Or quit smoking, or drink less, or quit playing video games? He’s the best. He wins. That’s all you need.
Lemieux doesn’t play anymore, of course. He’s now the wildly successful owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, a franchise he nurtured back to health after buying the team out of bankruptcy in 1999. They won the cup ten years later.
There’s something essential about Lemieux that speaks to our identity as Canadians. We’re not always the most vocal patriots in the world, and Mario Lemieux is not the most showboating player in history of the game. When he had the chance to grab glory, with the whole world watching, he quite literally let it slip by. You know why? He’s the best. He wins. And he doesn’t give a damn about the rest.
Never felt prouder to be under the banner of the old red-and-white. Because you know what? That’s all you need.