James Lawton: Canadians fear return of a miracle

Canadian manhood is, barring some unimaginable disaster in the small hours of this morning, on the line today when the virtuoso Russian stick-handlers stand in the way of the ultimate climax to these XXI Olympics.

It would mean a potential ice hockey final against the United States surely guaranteed to drain the last available emotion from a nation which for 12 days now seems to have had one foot in sports heaven and another in hell.

First, though, it is the moment of the Canadian women.

Tomorrow they get the chance to strike a huge blow in the holy war against the giants from south of the border in a final against the Americans which requires not only the nerve to sustain another deluge of national expectation but also to derail the apparently unassailable progress of someone still known as a miracle man.

He is American coach Mark Johnson, one of the heroes of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, who insists that his defining moment will be played out here and not in the old film reels of one of the most fabled days in his nation's sports history.

"What we're doing here," the 52-year-old says, "will give me just as much satisfaction as events in Lake Placid. I answer questions about 1980, but no, it doesn't define me, it was just part of my life – a fun part, of course."

Johnson is the son of one of the iconic figures in ice hockey, Bob Johnson, who led the University of Wisconsin to years of unrivalled dominance in the college game, and what the father did for the young men of that university, the son has done similarly for the American women.

Now his coaching reputation hinges on his ability to reverse the result of the 2002 final in Salt Lake City, when the Canadian women produced a golden double alongside their male compatriots.

So far, it is so impressive. While the Canadians battled to beat Finland and their supernaturally inspired goaltender Noora Raty, who made 45 saves, 5-0 in one semi-final, Johnson's team overwhelmed Sweden 9-1 in the other. The Americans, naturally enough, faced a less than sympathetic audience, with the majority of the 16,000 crowd dressed in the red and white of Canada and chanting, "Let's go, Sweden, let's go".

Johnson, though, is happy to cultivate the motivation created by such a gauntlet of discouragement. "My players feed off this kind of atmosphere, it points them towards their goal," he says.

The American dressing-room resounds with the echoes of agreement. Veteran Jenny Potter leads the chorus, saying: "The intensity is certainly there. Hate is a strong word but there's definitely dislike, and that's why we play this game. This brings out the best in each other."

Her team-mate Caitlin Cahow is in broad agreement but expresses it in a way not often heard within the perspex barricades of a relentlessly demanding game. "I've never really felt the hate," she announces. "What Canada does makes us better. I love playing Canada. I love playing in Canada. This is about love. Thursday is the dream of a lifetime."

For Johnson, it will be one offering both great symmetry and confirmation of his belief that however hard you push your players – for himself, he still sets the harshest standards of personal fitness in iron man competition – you also have to give them a substantial ration of fun.

"I learnt from my dad," he says, "you had better have a little fun in practice – and every day. Herb Brooks [the coach who conjured the "Miracle on Ice" with a regime that might have been borrowed from a US Marine training camp] is not the model here. If it's not fun, you fear you are going to lose them."

Johnson identifies the greatest fun as scoring goals and his team's game is geared to sweeping attack conducted at high pace.

He recalls his first team talk to his first women's team with a wry smile. "I remember saying, 'there's no crying in hockey'. That lasts about three days. They cry if they're happy, they cry if they're sad. Women's hockey is more emotional. Women are also big on what I call the 'why' element. You need to tell them why you're doing a certain drill before they buy into it. Men just do it."

Meanwhile, Canadian womanhood declares itself ready to trail-blaze its way to national celebration. The evidence is certainly strong enough to feed such optimism. In the preliminary rounds the Canadians produced some withering power in a flood of 41 goals against two, a suggestion of awesome strength even in a world game which tapers off sharply beneath the twin powers. Captain Hayley Wickenheiser says: "We've been through it. We're ready for anything that comes our way."

The worry is that this may just not include another miracle bearing the name Mark Johnson.

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there