James Lawton: Canada driven by Tigerish desire to succeed in struggle on the ice

Saturday 27 February 2010 01:00

At a time when England's football team is rent by the repercussions of a bad case of the sweet life going wrong, you can only marvel, so far at least, at the ferociously single-minded approach of Canada's ice hockey men.

As they sought in the small hours of this morning to sweep away Slovakia en route to the Olympic final here tomorrow, they were displaying the collective will of a herd of charging moose. Having survived the psychologically threatening defeat by the Americans in a group game, the Canadians have risen up to crush the potentially brilliant Russians. The single most identifiable quality of the team is their fierce insistence that nothing will distract them from their purpose.

Partly, no doubt, this is because of the nature of their game – five skaters operating on short, intense shifts of action, a goaltender performing under the fierce pressure which comes with second-by-second scrutiny. There is also the fact that the Canadian hockey player, rather like the Italian footballer, is obliged to see himself not just as a hired hand but also the admired, or at the very least respected, representative of his people. There is, it seems, a deeply sown sense of responsibility to occupy a certain place in society, to strive not only to win but to express an awareness of great good fortune.

This is something that, at the end of the first decade of the 21st century and despite a huge increase in professional rewards, does not appear to have changed since an extraordinary philosophical statement carried one of hockey's foot soldiers – an enforcing "goon" is a less flattering description – to the top of the bestseller lists here 25 years ago.

It was made by Dave "Tiger" Williams, of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Vancouver Canucks, Los Angeles Kings and Detroit Red Wings. He talked about the harshness of his upbringing back home in Weyburn, Saskatchewan, how he skated on the frozen river, unpromisingly, and how he never lost sight of the fact that if he made anything of himself it would be through ice hockey. He also spoke vividly about the unremitting hardness of the game he played in the knowledge that it was his best chance, perhaps his only one, to have some of the good life portrayed on the television screen of his modest, wood-framed, two-bedroomed, overpopulated house in the prairie.

Williams became the most penalised player in the history of the National Hockey League. He was inspirational and anarchic and hugely driven and once survived a prosecution by the province of Ontario. The charge was that on the occasion of an NHL match between the Toronto Maple Leafs and the Pittsburgh Penguins, Williams was in possession of an offensive weapon, namely a hockey stick, with which he inflicted injuries on Dennis Owchar, a Pittsburgh player, that required 46 stitches.

Williams was acquitted and some reasoned that it was partly because his defence decided not to put him into the witness box. Later, the player said the decision was probably wise. "I could have told the court a few things about the realities of life for a hockey player and no doubt the lawyer was right. I would probably have hanged myself if I'd gone into the witness box.

"I could have told the court about the old arena in Weyburn, how the cold went into your bones and you tried to warm yourself up on the old boiler and how it was up in tough towns like Flin Flon and Estevan in junior hockey – what it was like having grown men shouting to you on the ice that when you came off they were going to smash you in the face. You got more fighting than you ever needed in junior hockey and that was just the training course, a weeding out for the big league." Before one junior game, when Williams was pitted against a talented player and was anxious not to be shown up before big-league scouts, he whispered into the ear of his rival, "I know where your farm is. If you make me look bad I'll come and burn your wheat fields."

Williams made it to the big league all right, and when he finished his playing days he retired to a splendid property in the heights of exclusive West Vancouver overlooking a sea and city landscape beyond his imaginings on the 500-mile bus rides of a junior hockey player. When Williams was done, Wayne Gretzky, still many people's idea of the greatest hockey player the nation has ever seen despite the rise of the current young star from Nova Scotia, Sidney Crosby, delivered a generous verdict – and the game's favourite mantra.

Gretzky said: "The man is living proof that hard work can bring success and rewards. He wanted it, he worked for it, he got it. I admire that."

As his career wound down, the Tiger reflected on some of the meaning of his journey, saying: "Sometimes I weigh the pros and cons of hockey, run the whole business back through my mind, and then I try to imagine what it will be like not to play, not to go down early to the rink and sit with the trainers and do all the bullshit you do before a game.

"I've learned hockey the hard way and I've learned it deeply but my hockey background may not be worth much when I've stopped playing. It could be that one day I'll have to walk into a room where the guys I'm doing business with don't give anything for hockey and they'll be asking the old question, 'What are you going to do for me today?'."

Interestingly, given Fabio Capello's current problems in the dressing room, he also outlined his ideal for any team, whatever its level of talent. "The only promise I would make for a team of mine is that it wouldn't quit easily, nor destroy itself out of pettiness or any lack of physical or moral courage. I wouldn't have a single 'floater', not one player who couldn't give himself to the team."

That remains, all the evidence suggests, the code of the Canadian ice hockey team pursuing gold. Capello must yearn to make such a claim.

Best and Giggs would have loved to the chance to do a Bridge

Wayne Bridge will have plenty of time to reflect on his decision not to go the World Cup because of his loathing for John Terry and an apparently unshakeable sense of betrayal.

It will be for the rest of his life and though it is probably too late to offer advice it might be worth mentioning that the worst of his self-analysis will come when he is no longer able play the game at any level let alone the supreme challenge represented by the World Cup.

The great rugby player Gareth Edwards once said: "I can't think of anything worse than looking back and saying, 'I could have had another season, another tour, but I turned down something that I would never able to do again, and it just happened to be the best thing I could ever do.'''

Another perspective is that some of the greatest players produced in these islands, George Best, John Giles and Ryan Giggs, never got the chance to play in a World Cup. The guess here is that they might have been prepared to put aside a hatchet for a few weeks in order to do something for which, but for the geographic circumstances of their delivery, they were plainly born.

Attitudes harden after Rochette melts hearts

When Canada's brave figure skater Joannie Rochette won a bronze medal here on Thursday night the Winter Olympics moved beyond nationalistic points-scoring.

Rochette's success came just a few days after the death of her mother and passionate supporter Therese, and it augmented a remarkable statistic. Of Canada's haul of 17 medals, 13 had been won by women. "Our women rock!" declared one appreciative headline.

You don't say, guys.

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