A lesson from the Olympic Games
Posted by Dean Holden at February 8th, 2014
by Jack Blatherwick, 6 February 2014
The Nordic skier (cross-country) wasn’t near the lead, but like many Olympians, his goal was a personal best time. Like everyone else in the race, he was grinding through the pain of continued effort after the body was pleading, “Let’s just relax a little. Slow down.”
But, there’s no slow-down in these competitors. After all it’s the Olympics, and he had trained a lifetime for the opportunity to compete here … even though he knew there were others who, for reasons he could not control, were going to win the medals.
Suddenly, he fell awkwardly, getting tangled up in his skis and buried in deep snow. The competitor behind him (from a different country), stopped and stepped off the track, allowing others to pass. After helping the fallen competitor get back on his feet and moving, the opponent took his rightful place, trailing the man he had just assisted.
Don’t look for that kind of sportsmanship in a hockey game anytime soon – not in the Olympics, not in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, not even in a PeeWee game. No, I am not suggesting that the next time you bodycheck an opponent, you stop to see if there’s anything you can do to help him up.
But we adults have taught some lessons about competition that just don’t fit with the word ‘sport.’ To quote Vince Lombardi, one of the greatest coaches in history, “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing.” Hmmm. At best, this is a gross overstatement, perhaps to motivate players for an upcoming game.
Lombardi himself – like every coach – found many more things about coaching and football that turned him on. He might have been miserable for a few days after a losing season, but he enjoyed the teaching, the practices, the shared experience with his teams, the adrenaline rush before competition. That’s obvious in many of his biographical excerpts.
But his quote has endured, sometimes on locker room posters, sometimes in pre-game speeches, and way too often in the minds of some parents who help their child lace up the skates to experience ‘sport.’ Of course, when a beginner who has trouble standing up while manipulating a puck with an overly-long stick, no one would say, “The only thing that matters is whether or not your Mite team wins this game.”
However, in youth sports at every age, children learn that they should feel terrible after a loss, and they should feel good after a win – even if the win came because our goalie made a miraculous save at the end and 47 saves before that. Actually, there is no more fickle game than hockey; that is, team A can do many more things right than team B, but the score might not show it.
So, if your team loses, you’re supposed to feel bad for an undisclosed length of time? Wait a second. How about the great pass play you made with your friend? It was a classic give-and-go-and-return pass that left the defensemen stunned and the goalie flat as a pancake on the ice. You did precisely the right thing lifting the puck over the outstretched goalie, but your shot hit the crossbar, and the scoreboard said the opponents won by a goal.
Disappointment? Yes, of course. But hanging the head in shame is a ridiculous part of sports, a tradition that is taught by adults who forgot (or never knew) how much fun that pass play was. We’ve even undersold the fun of skating, itself. I remember a portion of Gopher practice without pucks, when Paul Ostby (goalie coach) stood next to me while we served our duty as cones. The players were doing one of many figure-8’s, and Tom Chorske came flying around us at warp speed. We could hear his skates cutting the ice, and you could feel the wind gust. Ostby said, “Just once, I’d like to feel what Chorske feels when he skates around a corner that fast.”
Or … how about the sensation of a magical deke like Pavel Datsyuk, a shot like Ovechkin, a body check like Brooks Orpik or a deceptive pass like Sydney Crosby? Anyone who experiences these things could easily say, “It’s the only thing that matters.”
The intrinsic things in hockey are incredible. In fact, there is no game that compares in this respect. Scrimmaging on the pond for hours with friends or playing in the Olympic Games, there is nothing that compares to the speed, deception and instantaneous read-react decisions of ice hockey.
In Sochi we will see our game played at the highest speed, and by the most creative competitors in the world. The Stanley Cup games are wonderful for their intensity, and they are fun to watch for many reasons. However, the Olympic Games, on big ice, and with officials who enforce the rules, will be the ultimate expression of the intrinsic skills of ice hockey. And, even though TV talking heads will rant about winning and losing, it will be obvious to everyone there is much more to hockey than that.