WASHINGTON – There was cheering not far from the White House on Friday as a boisterous crowd celebrated the elimination of the U.S. men’s Olympic hockey team.
That burst of revelry, in the heart of the American capital, was coming from the Canadian embassy.
Just down Pennsylvania Avenue, Canadian diplomats hosted hockey-watching parties two days in a row for their American contacts.
And for two straight days it was the hosts who celebrated, as Canada swept a women’s/men’s hockey double-header. For the second straight day, the guests offered polite congratulations on their way out the door.
A visibly delighted ambassador Gary Doer said guests were welcome to return Sunday for pancakes, maple syrup and the men’s final against Sweden.
“You’re all invited back to the embassy for breakfast and a gold medal,” the ambassador said.
The Americans, meanwhile, were stoic in defeat.
News of the Canadian goal emerged Friday during the daily White House press briefing.
One reporter joked that two cases of beer would have to be sent north after President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Stephen Harper made bets for each game.
“You’re reading from your BlackBerry; is that breaking news?” Obama spokesman Jay Carney asked the reporter.
When informed the Canadians were indeed up 1-0, he offered a sportsmanlike response.
“That is a shame,” Carney replied.
“I did watch yesterday’s (women’s) game, which was just exhilarating and heartbreaking, but what I caught of this game seemed just as stressful for fans to watch.
“But congratulations to Canada. They certainly know their way around a hockey rink.”
It was two hockey worlds colliding this week.
In one country, it’s a relatively popular niche sport. It has a passionate following and might occasionally elicit a good-natured joke from a public official.
In the other, it’s an identity-shaping national obsession. It’s not only been depicted on the $5 bill, but is also the subject of a serious historical tome written by the current prime minister.
One American website expressed amusement over hockey’s ability to bring the neighbouring country to a standstill.
After the women’s final it ran a series of videos under the headline: “Canadians Freaking Out Over Winning Hockey Gold Is Just Fantastic.”
That Deadspin post said: “People spend their whole lives looking for something to love like Canadians love hockey. So what happens when you throw in a sudden death win for a gold medal?”
It even showed images of the Canadian politician perhaps best known in America—Rob Ford. Next to an image of Ford joyously bouncing up and down, the site expressed concern about the toll being taken on the Toronto mayor’s knees.
Pennsylvania Avenue’s most famous resident didn’t make it to either party at the Canadian embassy.
But Obama did wager cases of beer, despite the historical odds being against him.
Canada beat the U.S. in the first Olympic hockey final in 1920. It won the last two times they faced each other in a final, in 2002 and 2010. And there were a number of shellackings in between.
The U.S. did win at Squaw Valley in 1960, and at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.
When it comes to obsessing over the game, though, it’s no contest.
A Harris poll last month suggested hockey was the favourite sport of five per cent of Americans.
This placed it sixth, after NFL football (35 per cent), Major League Baseball (14 per cent), college football (11 per cent), auto racing (7 per cent), and pro basketball (6 per cent).
About one in 600 Americans were registered to play hockey last year, or 0.0016 per cent.
That’s compared to 1 in 55 Canadians, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.
Still, the Americans are catching up in raw numbers.
There were 510,279 Americans registered to play last year according to the IIHF, compared to 625,152 in Canada. The numbers actually flattened out last year in the U.S., after significant increases.
That growing enrolment is already reflected in the NHL, where more than one-fifth of the players are now American compared to the minuscule numbers of generations past.
So maybe the basketball-loving U.S. president isn’t quite a hockey fanatic, and maybe there’s no evidence that Obama even watched the games he’d wagered beer on.
But some Americans clearly do care.
Just ask Madeleine Albright. The former secretary of state tweeted her congratulations to the Canadians yesterday and offered words of consolation to her own side.
“Tough game—but very proud of #TeamUSA,” she wrote after the women’s loss.
“Rematch in 2018.”