IN A DECORATED CAREER—THREE STANLEY CUPS, FOUR Vezina trophies, record numbers of NHL wins and shutouts—Martin Brodeur could not recall anything quite like it, thousands of people saluting him in a place like this with the three most emotionally charged words in the distinct vocabulary of his nation. ¶ Those words are not "I love you." ¶ Those words are "Go, Canada, go."
"They were going crazy. People were screaming, 'Bring home the gold for Canada,' " Brodeur says. "It was unbelievable."
If he had been tending net during an Olympics matchup, or if he had been spotted walking into Canada Hockey Place in Vancouver, the tsunami of noise would have been easy to process. But Brodeur was nowhere near a hockey rink and nowhere near the Games. He was on a golf course, in a suburb of Toronto, playing in a charity event on a hot day in July—seven months before the 2010 Olympics even began.
THE FIRST RECORDED INDOOR HOCKEY MATCH WAS played on March 3, 1875, at the Victoria Skating Rink in Montreal in front of 40 spectators. When Canada reached the gold medal game 135 years later at the XXI Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver, 17,748 white-knuckled fans watched at the arena while another 26.5 million Canadians—nearly four in five!—tuned in at some point to the most significant hockey game ever played on Canadian ice.
Go ahead, rummage through the past for another home game in which so much psychic income has been invested. The other historic matches in Canadian hockey history (the finale of the 1972 Summit Series and the gold medal win in 2002 that ended a 50-year Olympic drought) were played in Moscow and Salt Lake City, respectively. One might argue for the 1975 New Year's Eve classic between the Montreal Canadiens and the Red Army at the Forum—"If there's more pressure than that in Vancouver, we'll need paramedics in the dressing room," Jacques Lemaire, a Team Canada associate coach who played in that 3-3 tie, said before the 2010 Games. But that '75 match didn't consume a nation for four years, which has pretty much been the case since the Canadian team stumbled in the 2006 Olympic quarterfinals and went medal-less in Turin.
The Vancouver Games were the perfect storm: each country's best, the five-ring seal of approval, midwinter hockey in the sport's birthplace. To further elevate the stakes, Vancouver may have been the Olympic goodbye for NHL players. Commissioner Gary Bettman has been hesitant about another midseason hiatus for Sochi 2014. "If this really is it," Team Canada defenseman Chris Pronger said, "it's good to go out with a bang."
The record-setting viewership for the gold medal game was little surprise, considering that about four million people had tuned in on Dec. 30, when general manager Steve Yzerman, surrounded by Hockey Canada advisers at a gussied-up agricultural exhibition hall in Saskatoon, named the 23-man roster. This was a Wednesday, around midday depending on which of the six time zones you lived in. Think about it: More people in Canada (pop. 35 million) watched Yzerman's announcement on a workday than people in the U.S. (pop. 305 million) tuned in to see USA Hockey name its Olympic team on New Year's Day during a broadcast of the highly popular outdoor NHL game at Fenway Park.
In the words of International Ice Hockey Federation president René Fasel, Canada is "a nation of 35 million general managers." And after Yzerman announced the team, there was never a respite from the unsolicited advice of hockey's enormous chattering class, which interminably debated suitable wingers for Sidney Crosby, argued the merits of Patrick Marleau and fretted about the seventh defenseman. When coach Mike Babcock ran a snappy 46-player Olympic orientation camp in Calgary last August, it was covered by more than 200 credentialed media members.
Reflecting the country's mood, this was no mere team-bonding exercise, even for players who were sure to make the club. "I was figuring we'd just be working on systems, so I went down to the rink in the morning and did some legs [weightlifting]," Pronger said. "Then I go out for practice, and it's 100 miles an hour. I'm like, Holy f---. Guys are flying around, and I'm like, Tone her down, boys." Four days of Mach 3 practices ended with a Red versus White scrimmage in the Olympic team jerseys before 19,289 fans, who had paid between $20 and $50 a ticket. In the third period White forward Patrick Sharp looked up at the sold-out Pengrowth Saddledome and murmured to teammates on the bench, "It's like we're back in the playoffs. Game 7."
Six months later Canada faced off against the United States in the final event of the Games, and for the Canadian players the stakes were higher than for any Stanley Cup. "[Hockey] is the world's game," said Mike Babcock before the final, "but we still think it's ours. And I'm a bit of a redneck, so I think it is ours." Canada's quest for hockey gold was a mission to which everyone seemed to have a connection. It feels like every Canadian has a close link to big-time hockey—a cousin who had a tryout with the Maple Leafs, an uncle who got drafted, a brother-in-law who won the Norris Trophy—or at least knows someone who knows someone in the sport who once played with someone on the Olympic team. Sort of a Three Degrees of Kevin Bieksa.