René Fasel is a small, brusque man whose greatest virtue—candour—is also his greatest flaw. The head of the International Ice Hockey Federation has more than once gotten himself into trouble by blurting out unwelcome thoughts on, say, fighting in hockey, or the parsimony of National Hockey League owners. But seldom has Fasel risked his own well-being so recklessly as he did after the second period of the gold medal hockey game between Canada and the United States at the Vancouver Olympics, when, with Canada leading 2-1, he turned to the man sitting next him.
“All we need now,” said Fasel gleefully, “is another American goal.” The man was John Furlong, and he was not so much offended as thunderstruck. As the Games’ chief organizer, Furlong knew better than anyone the gravity of the moment for the 22 million Canadians tuned in to the game. His country stood on the cusp of the greatest moment in its sporting history, he recalls in a forthcoming book Patriot Hearts: Inside the Olympics that Changed a Country—a gold medal win, on home soil, in the sport it gave the world. Yet here was Fasel, a sports bureaucrat from Switzerland, thinking about—what?—the impact of overtime on international television ratings?
So when Zach Parise, a gritty and talented American forward, obliged and tied the game with 24 seconds left, the normally placid Furlong gave Fasel a glimpse of his inner goon. “René,” he recalls saying in a half-joking way, “I’m just telling you that if the U.S. scores in overtime I’m going to stab you in the heart with my pen. I am, René. I am going to do that.” For emphasis, he then took his pen out of his pocket and held it over Fasel’s head.
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Great story, but in the afterglow of an overtime goal heard round the world, even Furlong would have to admit that Fasel was right. Without that U.S. equalizer, there would be no overtime, no sudden-death winner for Canada, no Sidney Crosby throwing his gloves in the air. The brilliant, blindingly quick goal that sent this country into a paroxysm of joy was only sweeter for its degree of difficulty—just ask the player who scored it. “Everyone on our bench was sick to his stomach when they saw that puck go in with less than 30 seconds left, and I’m sure the rest of the country felt the same way,” Crosby told Maclean’s during a recent stop in Buffalo, where he was travelling with his Pittsburgh Penguins. “But it really added to the dramatics. With hockey being such a focal point for Canada, with all the excitement surrounding it, it made for an amazing finish.”
It was, without overstating, the goal that defined the Games themselves, so vivid is its memory, and so deep its impression on the national psyche. As challenging as 2010 has been—with its wars, natural disasters and political upheavals—“the Goal” resides on a higher plane, dwarfing among other things Crosby’s other achievements, which include a Stanley Cup and a host of personal awards. Never one to dwell on his own accomplishments, the 23-year-old centre has given this particular goal some reflection, weighing its meaning and considering its magnitude. “This was by far the best hockey I’ve ever seen, and to be in Canada, with a chance to win the gold medal, that’s a dream,” he says. “I’ve never wondered why me, or anything like that, but it’s strange. I hadn’t scored in a few games leading up to the final, even though I was playing well and I’d gotten some chances. I’m just really happy that puck went in.”
How does a split second on ice assume monumental significance? It helps for it to be attached to a monumental event. And love or hate them, the Olympics are as big as it gets. With an 1.8 billion-strong worldwide TV audience and 10,000 accredited media members, the 2010 Winter Games represented both a debut for Vancouver and Whistler, and a chance for Canada to take its place in the upper tier of sporting nations. But debuts are fraught affairs, and this one threatened at first to go horribly wrong. The death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili hours before the Games’ opening ceremony hung like a fog over the festivities, which themselves were marred by a technical glitch that prevented one of the giant, hydraulic pillars on the indoor cauldron from rising. Organizers were further embarrassed by logistical foul-ups on Cypress Mountain, where spectators lined up for hours for food and drink.
The turning point came on day three, when the young mogul skier Alexandre Bilodeau tore down the mountain in a stunning display of athleticism, then leapt into the arms of his brother Frédéric as his name appeared at the top of the points board. Bilodeau’s gold medal was the first won by a Canadian on home turf. But as moving as his win was the bond the 22-year-old from Rosemère, Que., so clearly shared with his brother, who has cerebral palsy. Bilodeau, it turned out, had put aside his own dream of hockey glory as a youngster after his mother asked that he take up a family sport that could include his older sibling. Today, Frédéric remains Alexandre’s greatest source of inspiration, and his greatest fan. “Frédéric gets stopped everywhere on the street,” he says. “And he loves it.”
Furlong remembers Bilodeau’s win as a game-changer, setting the course toward what he always believed was the only possible outcome of the entire event: a Canadian victory in the hockey final. He was among the estimated 6.8 million Canadians who watched Bilodeau’s run on television, in his case in a side room off BC Place while awaiting the start of the silver medal presentation for mogul skier Jennifer Heil. He recalls the room turning silent as Bilodeau twisted through the air on his final jump, then a tumultuous roar as he nailed his landing. “It was a little bit like the laws of natural justice were taking over,” he now says.
Furlong walked back from the stadium that night, barely making headway against the jubilant throngs in the streets and around the Olympic cauldron. “That was the night I realized that the people of the country were taking the Games over,” he said. “To me it was the ultimate validation of everything we had hoped for.” Certainly the athletes took heart. Canada would land a whopping 12 more golds in the run-up to that all-important hockey game, producing moments that ranged from sublime (Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir’s flawless ice dance) to comedic (skeleton racer Jon Montgomery swilling from a pitcher of beer in victory) to courageous (Joannie Rochette’s bronze medal skate just days after the death of her mother).
As for the men’s hockey players, they too got a bump from the overall improvement of the public mood. They’d been tense during the round-robin portion of their tournament, eking out a shootout win against Switzerland and losing to the surprisingly strong Americans. But as the Games wore on, they began to loosen up. Freed from their hermetically sealed world of jets, luxury SUVs and five-star hotels, the players walked back to the athletes’ village from their games at Canada Hockey Place, high-fiving fans, chatting up the stars of other sports. The idea, says Mike Babcock, the team’s coach, was to remind them that, as big as hockey is to Canadians, they were part of something bigger still. “Every night, late, we’d go down to the cafeteria at the village just to listen to the different athletes from the different countries,” he recalls. “It was a way to feel the energy of the Olympics. Being around that village, around those people—to me that is what it was all about.”
It worked. An enormous 7-3 quarter-final win against Russia would follow, along with a hard-fought victory in the semis over Slovakia, whose third-period comeback bid reminded a Canadian team packed with NHL stars that they could take nothing for granted. By the day of the gold medal game, Vancouver was bursting with anticipation, not least due to some anti-Canadian barbs uttered by U.S. forward Ryan Kesler, who in his non-Olympic life plays for the Vancouver Canucks. Adding to the drama was news that Canada’s next gold medal would set a Winter Games record of 14, a potential cherry on top of an Olympics whose early troubles were suddenly a distant memory.
The weight of expectation was crushing, recalls Troy Crosby, Sidney’s father. So great, in fact, that he took the unaccustomed step of checking up on his preternaturally confident child. The response, he recalls, was reassuring. “He seemed really calm and focused, just like he’s always been,” Troy says, adding with a chuckle: “I think the parents of the players were more anxious than the players themselves.”
Crosby and company were certainly ready when the puck dropped on Feb. 28. Goals by Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry put Canada up 2-0 before the midpoint of the game, and the dream looked well within reach. It was Kesler, of all people, who put the Americans on the board at 12:44 of the second, setting the table for the Parise goal, which was scored with U.S. netminder Ryan Miller on the bench for the extra attacker. The fans were stricken. Babcock recalls a subdued dressing room during the subsequent intermission, but no sense of fear. “I told them that there was too much talent on the ice, that this thing was going to be over fast,” he recalls. “I told them that, within the next seven minutes, one of you is going to be a hero for the rest of his life.”
He was off by 40 seconds. With 12:20 left in the first overtime, the attacking duo of Crosby and Jarome Iginla forced the puck deep into the U.S. zone, where Iginla gathered it up in the corner. The Calgary Flames winger reversed the current of play as Crosby bolted for the net, shouting “IGGY!” so loudly that TV viewers could hear it at home. What happened next was quintessential Crosby: Iginla delivered a pass, and in two touches, No. 87 pulled the puck from behind him to the shooting position and fired it between Miller’s feet.
It’s hard to imagine a sporting moment for which more people could feel greater ownership. For decades, Canadians had watched teams from the Soviet Union and other countries skate away with Olympic gold. They salved their pride with the knowledge that Canada’s best players were excluded due to Olympic rules preventing professionals from competing. But by the time IOC rule changes allowed NHL stars to compete, other countries had mastered the frozen game. Disappointing outings in 1998 in Japan, and in 2006 in Italy, bookended Canada’s gold medal performance in 2002 in Salt Lake City.
While the 5-2 victory over the U.S. in the final at Salt Lake City was enormous, it did not match the drama of Feb. 28, 2010. More than a storybook ending, Crosby’s goal seemed to spring from the combined will of the fans in the building, the millions of Canadians watching on TV and—not insignificantly—the other Canadian athletes (in late June, Crosby ran into Bilodeau at a Hockey Canada gala in Edmonton, and told the skier that Bilodeau’s gold medal run had inspired him and his teammates for the rest of the tournament).
That, at least, is how Furlong sees it. The CEO of the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee has been sorting through his memories and emotions for his book, to be published on the anniversary of the start of the Games, Feb. 12. Like Crosby, he stands in awe of Canada’s response to the great moment, and permitted himself some modest flights of fancy. The goal resonates, he says, because so many Canadians believe “they got a touch on that puck,” that they played some part in pushing it past Miller, the best goaltender in the tournament. “By the time Sidney Crosby took that shot,” he says, “the entire country was on the ice.”
That might not be what Fasel intended when he wished us a touch of misfortune. But you won’t find a Canadian now who would have it any other way.