When Paul Henderson reminisces about the greatest goal scored in the history of Canada’s greatest game he can hardly get a word in edgewise.
Whether it’s on the street, at a speaking event or at a party, Canadians line up not so much to ask him but to tell him about Sept. 28, 1972.
That’s when Henderson tucked home the rebound to put the exclamation point on a Canada-Russia hockey summit for the ages.
It was a shared experience when millions of Canadians literally stood as one, around TVs and radios in restaurants and classrooms, to watch Team Canada come back against heavy odds to defeat the Soviets in the eight-game series.
“They want to tell me what they were doing, where they were, who they were with, how they felt. They remember it so vividly,” Henderson says.
“That’s why I love it. There’s no negativity.”
In the last 45 years how many of those stories has he heard?
“Millions,” he says. “It’s got to be millions.”
Unpack what hockey means to Canada on the country’s sesquicentennial and you are immediately shin guard-deep in cultural touchstones: A Wayne Gretzky rookie card, a Starr skate, Roch Carrier’s story “The Hockey Sweater,” Jacques Plante’s trailblazing fiberglass mask, the lucky loonie buried in centre ice at the 2002 Olympics, a hockey stick wrapped in rainbow pride tape, a sledge hockey gold medal from the 2006 Turin Paralympics.
While the origins of the game remain a hotly debated cold case, the coming out party was at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal on March 3, 1875.
Fittingly, it was also the site of hockey’s first brawl when the free skaters, demanding back their ice sheet, donnybrooked with the stick-wielding interlopers.
A brief timeline of hockey's history.
The game exploded in popularity and as the 19th century ticked over to the 20th, order, rules, leagues and hierarchies arrived.
Gov. Gen. Freddy Stanley fell in love with the game and in 1892 donated the iconic cup that now bears his surname.
By 1908, Canada began paying its players rather than watching its best and brightest flee to the first pro league that had opened four years earlier in the United States.
Rules were tweezed and tweaked over the decades, primarily to open up the offence -- more forward passing, six players instead of seven. Referees went from ringing bells to blowing whistles.
The modern pro game was born out of a back alley shiv on Nov. 26, 1917.
The owners of the National Hockey Association dissolved their business and created a new league, the National Hockey League, as a last-ditch legal end-around to expel unpopular, irascible Toronto team owner Eddie Livingstone.
The NHL turns 100 this year and it has delivered to Canada the indelible images defining the game across generations: Howie Morenz’s coffin at centre ice at the Montreal Forum, the Gordie Howe hat trick, Mario Lemieux’s 1987 glove-side high Canada Cup winning goal, Gretzky’s tears over his 1988 trade, Sidney Crosby’s golden goal in the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
There are sounds as well as sights: Roger Doucet’s sonorous bilingual version of national anthem at the Montreal Forum, broadcaster Foster Hewitt’s signature “Hello Canada and hockey fans in the United States and Newfoundland,” the ubiquitous duh-duh-ta-duh-duh opening to Dolores Claman’s “Hockey Night in Canada” theme song.
It has touched culture and politics.
The 1955 riot in Montreal over the suspension of Canadiens star Maurice Richard is viewed by some as the spark that lit the fire of Quebec’s nationalist movement.
When Maple Leaf Bill Barilko’s plane disappeared in the northern Ontario bush in 1951 it sparked the greatest search to date in Canadian history and later a hit song by the Tragically Hip.
The iconography conflates with religion.
The Stanley Cup is the Holy Grail, the Montreal Forum a shrine. Edmonton fans wear T-shirts with a bearded Connor McJesus, his head bathed in a nimbus glow.
Ken Dryden, Canada’s pre-eminent hockey player-author-scholar, wrote about watching “Hockey Night in Canada” as a child.
“Everything about it was special,” Dryden wrote. “It was Saturday night. It was staying up late. It was the family all together.
“It was seeing adults get more excited than you ever saw them at other times ... saying and doing things as impolite as things you thought only you did.”
But the love of the game in Canada goes well beyond the pros.
Minor hockey eventually became organized and stratified, growing after the Second World War, spurred by the construction of more indoor arenas.
Women’s hockey followed in fits and starts, highlighted by famous teams like Hilda Ranscombe’s Preston Rivulettes of the 1930s, with trailblazers like Abigail Hoffman and Justine Blainey challenging the system to put women’s ice hockey on the level with men.
In 1990, the first Women’s Worlds Hockey Championship was held in Ottawa. Women’s hockey became a medal sport at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano.
Since then, Canadian women’s teams have won four consecutive Olympic golds. Stars like Cassie Campbell, Manon Rheaume and Hayley Wickenheiser have become household names.
Wickenheiser says the sport endures because, at its core, it’s still as much art as craft.
“I loved the fact that it was never the same thing twice,” Wickenheiser says. “Every time you step out on the ice you have the opportunity to do something different. There’s a lot of repetition but a lot of creativity within the game and that’s what appealed to me.”
The game grew as Canada grew.
Today, it’s a sophisticated big money year-round machine wrapped in a maple leaf, promising big dreams, but also broken hearts, mythologizing its roots to carnival bark for pick-up trucks, banks and beer.
Canadians still play in great numbers -- 640,000 by International Ice Hockey Federation estimates. Girls continue to flock to the game, but overall minor hockey participation has been flatlining in recent years.
Money makes this world go round, with parents sacrificing to pay for year-round camps, composite sticks, Kevlar pads, development leagues, skills coaches and high-end tournaments swarmed by scouts.
Playing hockey is not an inexpensive endeavour. How much does it cost to outfit one child to play? Use our paper doll to find out.
Choose either a or to get started. Drag and drop the gear onto the child and watch the costs add up. If you put the gear in the right place, it will snap on. There are two sets of gear: the less expensive on the left, the more expensive on the right. All gear and prices provided by ML Pro Sports in Mississauga, Ont.
It funds the dream of their child making it to the NHL, a feat akin to winning the lottery and decided primarily by the player’s natural talent.
Henderson says he sees it with starry-eyed parents urging him to see their child play and validate their fever.
“There are a lot of unrealistic expectations,” says Henderson.
And with those comes a new Canadian term, rink rage, denoting parents who abuse and berate coaches, players and referees.
In many minor hockey leagues parents have to take an online tutorial and pledge to be respectful before being allowed to sign up their child.
Wickenheiser says focus is critical, but so is perspective. She saw it playing in men’s leagues in Finland and Sweden.
“There’s a difference culturally,” she says. “Hockey is something that they do. It’s not who they are.
“We have to keep present that the reason why kids like and continue to play the game is that the game is fun for them.”
The disconnect between the love and the business of the game is sharpest at its pointiest peak -- the NHL, now a U.S-based entertainment conglomerate that Canada loves, but which has not always loved Canada back.
The league has shuttered teams in hockey-mad markets such as Quebec City and Hamilton, denied one in Saskatoon, and begrudgingly resurrected one in Winnipeg. In its never-ending quest for U.S. TV deals, it continually expands to palm tree outposts and desert locales where fans in the stands often resemble lonely archipelagos, thin strings of families and friends in a sea of empty seats.
Canada has not won the Stanley Cup since Montreal did in 1993.
As hockey moved from ponds to indoor rinks, rules and equipment innovations followed.
Globally, hockey initially embodied how we saw ourselves, then became a barometer of how we wished others to perceive us on the global stage: Canada the Good, but gap-toothed Visigoths if you try to split the defence.
When the Soviets blitzed Canada’s representative, the East York Lyndhurst, 7-2 to win the 1954 World Hockey Championship, it opened a wound on the national pride sutured only after the Penticton Vees tamed the Soviet bear at the same tournament a year later.
The 1972 Summit was designed as a best-on-best affair to settle once and for all who was No. 1. While Canada triumphed, the free-flowing Russian attack was applauded as their beautiful game compared with Canada’s brand of stay-in-your-lane, dump, chase and slobber-knock.
Today’s international game reflects Canada’s maturity as one of many hockey nations. But Canada is still the team to beat and when the country’s best lose at the Olympics, questions are still asked. Wickenheiser says the long running joke has been “Hockey Canada has a motto: We’re with you win or tie.”
As it evolves in a new century, the Canadian game is now coming to grips with the impacts of the violence that has been the yin to its yang from the time in 1905 when Alcide Laurin was clubbed over the head by Alvin Loney in a game in Maxville, Ont., and died.
Goonery evolved -- or devolved -- from an element of the game to a deliberate strategy in the crazy 1970s, when the Philadelphia Flyers high-elbowed and line-brawled their way to back-to-back Stanley Cups, making the popular 1977 movie “Slap Shot” resemble a documentary.
The Wild West fisticuffs have since disappeared with rule changes underwritten by increasing awareness of the medical consequences. Minor hockey is reviewing rules on hitting and concussion protocols are in place right up to the NHL.
Still, the tragic reality of brain trauma is only now being understood. In recent years a number of former NHL scrappers have died after bouts of depression. Autopsies on some revealed they had a degenerative brain wasting disease called CTE.
Culturally, hockey remains king, especially in advertising. Watch any game on TV, and you’ll see misty depictions of kids playing road hockey, bleary-eyed parents toting coffee cups, rims ready to be rolled up, as they shuttle young ones to early-morning practice, or devil-may-care 20-somethings toasting cold Rocky Mountain brewskis while cheering the game in a bar.
Mark Norman, who lectures at Ryerson University on the sociology of sport, says hockey remains a connector and keystone of Canadian identity. But he says its true popularity in an age of cultural and leisure diversity has been distorted.
“Whereas in the 1950s or ‘60s the rink was the community hub and hockey had this central place, there is now a broader array of leisure practices that young people can engage with,” says Norman, who also edits the website hockeyinsociety.com.
The game is changing from a fan participation standpoint, he adds.
Canadians are increasingly blogging about hockey, crunching numbers, drafting players for fantasy teams or shooting and scoring on video games.
“It’s changed the way people consume and engage in the game,” he says.
In popular culture, though, hockey players remain Canada’s heroes, their stories woven into the fabric of the nation: Young Bobby Orr learning to love the game on the frozen Seguin River, Gretzky practising in his family’s backyard, the percussive whump, whump of Crosby firing pucks at an open dryer.
And now it’s Connor McDavid, the newest Next One. The kid from Newmarket, Ont., growing up with a single-minded devotion to the game, hour after hour, on roller blades in the driveway, teaching himself how to stickhandle in traffic, deke and toe drag.
He is now the face of the game, bred for the glare of publicity and social media saturation it in the post-modern era where pro hockey is all about brand management.
Ask McDavid what hockey means to him and the swiftest skater in the game is caught flat-footed.
“I don’t even know how to explain what it means to me because it IS my life,” says McDavid, tucking a skate into an orange and blue team bag at his stall post-practice in Edmonton’s Rogers Centre.
“You just grow up and you’re loving the game. Most Canadian families, that’s how they grow up. They grow up watching hockey, playing hockey. Their lives revolve around hockey.
“You can’t explain it. It’s something that you want to do.
“It doesn’t feel like you’re working.
Around McDavid, team attendants scurry about, hauling bags of equipment onto a truck bound for the airport for a trip to Tennessee and a game against the Predators.
It’s getaway day and for Canada’s game the beat goes on, even if it is Hockey Night in Nashville.