Tuesday, 2 March 2010


Apologies for interrupting Lena’s magnificent 2009 – A Club Odyssey series (which I hope you’re all reading and enjoying) but we thought it a good moment to take stock, catch our breath and revel in the witnessing of pure art.

Before Sunday’s Olympic final I hadn’t watched any ice hockey matches, although Lena is a keen follower. I’m always eager to learn new things – why, otherwise, do we continue living? - and rule-wise the game is very easy to pick up; the general pattern of football with some necessary brutalism on loan from Australian Rules football but structured slightly differently. And, of course, there’s the ice.

Earlier on in the qualifiers Canada had been thrashed by the USA 5-3, so this second meeting was never likely to be a beamingly friendly one. And despite thirteen gold medals – the first ever won by Canadians on Canadian soil at the winter games – this was the crucial one, the one which counted, the one which would render all of the others irrelevant or make them all the more priceless, the last and biggest event of the Winter Olympics. Canada stood still for two or three hours.

Three periods, each lasting 20 minutes, not including frequent stoppage time, and both sides were busily aggressive without yet suggesting desperation. But the Canadians were getting more shots at goal, not quite getting them past the impenetrable, Zappa-like Ryan Miller but not missing by much. At the other end, Canada’s goalman Roberto Luongo was impeccably impassible.

For a while it looked as though attrition would be the order of the match, but someone had to break eventually, and happily it came down to a Mennonite – Jonathan Toews – to put the first puck into goal. There had been quite a bit of pushing and shoving but the balletic grace of some of the puck-pushing was pretty remarkable. In the second period Corey Perry made it 2-0 before Patrick Kane – no, not that one – set up a beauty of a solo run for Ryan Kesler to bring it back to 2-1. There was already some air of complacency about the Canadian team? Which one is this Sid the Kid guy again?

In the third period Canada basically sat on it and the Americans became keener, hungrier, to win the match. The Canadian play became diffuse, vague, muddled. Sidney Crosby was definitely identified by me as number 87. He hadn’t scored in two games and it was akin to watching Kenny Everett on stage in the ill-fated Hunting Of The Snark musical some 20 years ago; for 95% of the time he hovered around, eagerly tapping his billiard cue, but only had one mediocre number to himself and really his part could have been played by anybody. He looked neutered, confined.

Then Crosby had an immaculate one-on-one chance to shoot for goal and he missed. That was almost it. The same old story. The big chance missed. The grand job they couldn’t quite finish. And, with the most predictable of inevitabilities, Kane equalised, magnificently and imperiously, with 24 seconds of the game to go, or to be more accurate the puck slid between Luongo’s arm and leg and through the goal mouth.

Well, that was it. 30 million Canadian heads in hands. On to extra time, sudden death, and in all probability a shoot-out. All they needed was that magic closer of a third goal, the last, deft touch to make the game and the world theirs. Myself, I thought they’d blown it, and who was this Crosby kid anyway? Just another hype-up, another would-be great sportsman who looked at his page in history and scrawled it out with crude crayon.

Well, someone must have said something to them in the break, since, although the Canadians still looked asleep for the first five minutes or so of extra time play, something – I don’t know what, some fugitive spark – touched them, threatened incineration, and all of a sudden they woke up, started lunging for Miller as though landing at Normandy. They realised what they had to do and they went for everything, and so did the Americans.

More specifically and importantly, Crosby woke up, seemingly remembering what he was there for, ankle injury or no ankle injury; he forgot himself and thrust, once and then twice, for goal. He was possessed, entirely in and of himself – and in the fourteenth minute it happened; with the casual elegance of Noel Coward tipping ash off the end of a never more golden cigarette, he found his angle, spotted his destiny, and skied the puck into the goal with uncanny, Astaire-like artistry.

It was won, Canada indeed owned the podium, and I was proved utterly and thoroughly wrong. In those last two minutes of hockey, Crosby reminded me and everybody else of why we should pay attention to him; he knew what was at stake and, like Antony Sher at the end of God On Trial, suddenly revealed that the game belonged to him.

And it was art. Pure, magnificent art, when you see a human being exceeding their own self, going beyond what they know to be their own limits, doing something supernatural, something neither you nor I could ever hope to do. This is why we attend to sport, why in its glorious irrelevance it is so vital (and as with sport, so with art); the possibility that we might witness and perversely participate in the phenomenon of man becoming more like God.