Canada Gets It Right
I have always loved winter sports. One of my earliest memories is as a young child sitting between my mother and father as we, with an experienced driver at the wheel, flew down the Mount Van Hoevenberg Bobsled Run in Lake Placid (NY) in a four-man sled. One of my fondest childhood memories was being taken to the Automat and then to the Old Madison Square Garden to see my beloved New York Rangers, especially my heroes Gump Worsley, Lou Fontanato, and Andy Bathgate get creamed by the Detroit Red Wings who were led by Gordie Howe and Terry Sawchuck.
So, when the Winter Olympic Games were held in Lake Placid in 1980, my wife and I attended for a day and saw the Men’s Downhill at Whiteface Mountain (won by Austrian Leonard Stock) and two men’s ice hockey games in the village proper. What I remember most of these two games was that I was surprised that Poland could skate and hit with Finland (The Poles won in an upset, 5-4.) and that Czechoslovakia bombed Norway, 11-0. The two biggest personal events occurred outside the competition itself. I turned down the opportunity to purchase two tickets for a total of $20 (!) for the USA-Sweden ice hockey game that turned out to be the only blemish—a two-two tie—on the “Miracle on Ice” gold-medal winning (and now legendary) USA team. I also saw speed skater Eric Heiden, who won five gold medals in his discipline at the Games, practice on the oval in front of Lake Placid High School. I have never seen an athlete who was so superior to the rest of the field. I have had the pleasure of seeing Jimmy Brown, Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, and Secretariat perform, but Eric Heiden was in a class by himself.
As we were driving home to New York City, my wife and I made plans to attend a future Winter Games for a more extended stay. We finally did so thirty years later at the recently completed XXI Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver.
What follows is a series of diary entries, takes (and outtakes), and observations about our trip to Vancouver from February 15 to February 22, 2010.
Vancouver 2010 was one of those rare “perfect” vacations in which everything worked as anticipated (or better).
We began the process of purchasing Winter Olympic Tickets eighteen months ago. We had to go through the North American Ticket Agency Co-Sport (out of Seattle) and we received the opportunity to purchase tickets to eight of the ten events we wished to attend. I then wrote Co-Sport a four-line e-mail requesting aisle seats since my wife (knee) and I (foot) have minor mobility issues and use canes. When we received our tickets in December of 2009, we discovered that all our seats were easily accessible and did not involve any major stair climbing. More important, when the men’s ice hockey pairings were announced (more than half of our events were hockey games), we knew the gods were smiling on us: We would see the USA and Canada face-off against one another as well as seeing them each play against a European opponent. We would also have the opportunity to see pre-Olympic favorite the Russian Federation play the Czech Republic.
Traveling day is President’s Day and there are fewer vehicles on the road on the drive from Santa Fe to the Albuquerque Sunport. The flights from Albuquerque to Phoenix and then on to Vancouver were on time and uneventful. We took a taxi to our hotel, the Sheraton Vancouver Wall Centre on Burrard Avenue—amid overcast, threatening skies. Our twenty-fourth floor room was comfortable with truly breath-taking views of the city, Vancouver Harbor, and the mountains to the north where the alpine snow events would be held at Whistler Mountain (75 miles from Downtown Vancouver). Another added benefit we hadn’t banked on was that our booking included a full Scandinavian smorgasbord from 5-11 A.M. Not only was the food plentiful and tasty, but it eliminated the foraging for food in the mornings visitors to a new city often have to undergo. We went to bed early to the sights and sounds of the exhaustive coverage of the Games on Canadian television.
Today was our tourist day. We built in an extra day at the beginning of the trip so we’d be certain not to miss any of the events for which we had tickets due to any weather or transportation snafus. We needn’t have worried. The weather cooperated magnificently: The temperatures for the next week were the warmest since 1896 and we saw not a drop of precipitation on our entire trip. I would hate to estimate the odds of a cloudless, dry winter week in Vancouver but we experienced one. We were two blocks from Robson Square, a hub of the entertainment activities. There were frequent free music events all day into the early morning hours, e.g., we heard a Russian male singing American jazz standards, a Finnish diva singing Sinatra, and some singer of indeterminate gender doing Presley in an indecipherable (perhaps personal) language. The Vancouver Olympic Committee closed off many streets to make pedestrian malls, so there were buskers and street entertainers of every stripe performing for enthusiastic crowds. (Yes, there were the ubiquitous mimes.)
Cultural events were also everywhere in evidence. We had the opportunity to see a first ever display of Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawings at the Vancouver Art Gallery at no cost. The day was warm enough to have an afternoon coffee and pastry on an outdoor terrace. We noticed something odd on that terrace in that the other five couples were all speaking Dutch and quaffing cups of espresso. We had spent a year living and working in the Netherlands and quickly learned that the Dutch loved coffee and sun in equal measure.
We took a taxi to a working class section of South Broadway to Pondok Indonesian Restaurant. While living in the Netherlands, we were introduced to Indonesian rijs tafels and ever since have been scouring the bushes looking for Indonesian restaurants on our travels. Podnok served delicious nasi goring, satays, and mixed seafood platters, all of which were washed down with local micro-brewery beers.
We wrapped up the evening by taking a cab to the Vancouver Playhouse which was presenting the world premiere of Laurie Anderson’s latest set of takes on the follies of both society and the individual, Delusion. My mini-review: witty, engaging, a few startling images, but, ultimately, uneven.
Today begins our Olympic Games immersion. This is our only early day. We have to get up at 4: 30 A.M. to get to the Vancouver Olympic Centre for Women’s and Men’s Curling in Nat Bailey-Hillcrest Park. This venue is a renovation and expansion of a clubhouse with the addition of four state-of-the-art curling lanes. Security was extensive if unobtrusive. There was a three-block area around all Vancouver venues that would only allow proscribed shuttle buses to enter this perimeter. After the brief walk, all ticket holders had to undergo full-body scanning prior to entering the venue in question.
At the Olympic Centre, Jackie and I were surprised (and delighted) to discover our seats were in the first row next to the lane where Great Britain women’s team was to play China. Actually, the British team is composed of all Scots who invented the sport in the Sixteenth Century and from which all the 42-pound rocks are still made of Aberdeen granite. The day began with a march of Scottish drummers and pipers and four games commenced simultaneously. Each team has 73 minutes to complete its 80 throws; if a team exceeds the time limit, the team automatically forfeits the game to its opponent. So the action is almost continuous with no media or commercial breaks. Being so close to the event, my wife and I could actually see the pebbling of the ice which increases the speed and possibility of curl for the rock and see how the sweepers use different strokes to make the stone move as they so desire. All four matches were one point victories (two in sudden death overtime) and the Scots became our favorites for the rest of the Games. The skip (think “quarterback”) of the Scots team is Eve Muirhead, a 19-year old potential superstar of the game. A teenage skip is unheard of as most curlers hit their primes in their 30’s, so Muirhead’s leadership position is the curling equivalent of Dave DeBusschere becoming player coach of the NBA Detroit Pistons at age 24 in 1964.
We sat outside after the women’s morning on the ice and spoke to a Canadian couple who gave us tips on great Thai restaurants which we found to be accurate. The afternoon sun made it sweater weather, and within an hour we were back inside for four simultaneous men’s matches. As luck would have it, the Great Britain men (all from Lockerbie, Scotland) played France in the lane closest to our front row seats. The 93-foot sheet makes yelling by the curlers a necessity and a curling match is never a quiet, contemplative event, though its advocates bristle at the shuffleboard analogies. They much prefer the “chess on ice” categorization. The matches were a bit more lopsided in the afternoon with the only close match being the USA’s loss to Switzerland by one rock as the USA women did to Germany in the morning session. After some nourishment, we headed back to the hotel to ready ourselves for the ice hockey tomorrow.
For the most part, the Men’s Ice Hockey Tournament is to take place in Canada Hockey Place (formerly GM Place before the bankruptcy of the auto makers and the home of the NHL Vancouver Canucks). Just across the street from CHP on Pacific Boulevard is BC Place, the home of the Canadian Football League BC Lions and the venue for the opening and closing ceremonies and the nightly presentation of medals. Canada Hockey Place seats nearly 20,000 hockey fans and the streets were full of people looking to get a ticket to the games. After the “hurry up and wait” entry line and security check, we saw two well-played games, USA over Norway, 6-1; and Canada over Switzerland, 3-2, in a sudden-death shootout (4 shots, with Sid the Kid Crosby scoring the winner).
The fans were mostly Canadian and almost all were outfitted in Canada team Red Maple Leaf jerseys and fireman red Vancouver Olympic red mittens. They were enthusiastic but tense as hockey is more than a sport in the country. The Canadians are also good sports, doing the wave and singing to “YMCA” at the request of the announcers. One Canadian wag summed it all up as he screamed out during a lull in the cheering, “For god’s sake, score a goal. Hockey is all we got; it’s our culture.”
The USA-Norway game was closer than the final score. The Americans scored three goals in the last ten minutes of the third period, but they demonstrated grit and solid fore checking. Ryan Miller in the USA goal was very good. The Swiss play the same pressure, defensive game as the Americans and revealed a way to play the Canadians. With all its high-powered scoring stars, the Canadians do not like to be fore checked. In the NHL, they have their enforcers who take care of players who play such a game. However, international hockey does not allow or tolerate such rough play. The Canadians appear to be vulnerable to a close checking, young team with a hot goal tender.
We had a sumptuous meal at the Thai House (Robson Square area) and walked back to the hotel soaking in the good vibes of the musicians and street entertainers.
Today is to be a change of pace. After a filling breakfast at the hotel, we do some sight-seeing, drinking coffee on sunny outdoor terraces, and shopping for souvenirs. The official souvenir shop is in the famed Bay Store and the lines are long and the pickings are slim. Canadians have bought up everything in sight and are wearing their national colors with uncharacteristically energetic pride.
We took a taxi to the east to Exhibition Park where the ice dancing compulsory short program (a tango romantica) was held at the Pacific Coliseum. This venue has a large international-sized ice rink with great sight lines and upgraded food choices from the rather standard fare at the other more traditional sports stadiums. I settled for a steak sandwich and garlic fries.
Twenty-three ice dancing pairs competed with the traditional powers—Russia and France—doing well. The Canadian pair finished second and the American team of White & Davis, combining elegance and athleticism but lacking the flair and confidence of the Russians, claimed third place.
We indulged our taste for Pacific Rim food back at the Thai House and then back to the hotel.
Today we headed out to West Vancouver to the campus of the University of British Columbia. This is perhaps the most attractive college campus I have ever seen. It is tree-lined with mature evergreen trees and affecting views of the bay and surrounding mountains. The campus itself is impeccably clean and well-cared for.
We are here to attend a Women’s Ice Hockey Qualification Game at UBC Thunderbird Arena’s 6,700 seat rink. I have attended women’s NCAA collegiate hockey games, but this was my first international competition. China (with only 156 registered ice hockey players in the entire country) put up a game fight against Switzerland, but lost 5-0. Both teams possessed good skaters and stick handlers, but the Swiss outmuscled the smaller, less experienced Chinese team. The stars of the game were the Swiss twins Stefanie and Julia Marty while China’s star was Sun Rui who was all over the ice.
We returned to downtown on the Number 44 bus. In keeping with the desire to make the games as “green” as possible and to aid security concerns, there was no parking available at any venue, but all public transportation was free. Just show your ticket for that day and you rode free. Late in our trip, we discovered the “Cupcakes Shop” and feasted on the only item on sale in the store.
Today is to be the highpoint of the Games for us. We return to Canada Hockey Place to see two men’s hockey games for the ages, the Czech Republic vs. the Russian Federation and the USA vs. Canada. The Russians are the fastest, most talented national team I have ever seen. Malkin scored two goals and Ovechkin was the most dominant player on the ice. His check of Jaromir Jagr, former NHL scoring leader and all-star who can still play at a high level, changed the direction of the game in a 4-2 Russian win.
Canada Hockey Place rocked with the enthusiasm and angst of Canadian hockey fans as their team faced off against their neighbors to the south. The Canadians outshot the Americans, 45-22, and had the best of play, but they ran into a impenetrable goalie in Ryan Miller who was clearly the first star of the game. Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur, the NHL all-time leader in wins, was a bit soft in goal and only Danny Heatley and Sidney Crosby provided any spark to the Canadian team. I witnessed perhaps the most significant open net goal in my life as a diving Ryan Kessler poked the puck in for the clinching score in a 5-3 USA upset victory. The only Canadians who didn’t mind the defeat were the police who feared a quarter of a million cheering, drinking Canadians in the streets of Downtown Vancouver if the national team had won.
Unobtrusively, we raised a pint in our hotel bar to Hockey USA and the savants who decided to put together a young, hungry team and leave the experienced stars at home.
The seventh consecutive day of gorgeous, spring-like weather greeted us on our travel day. The day was uneventful until we were driving home from Albuquerque and ran into a heavy snow squall, the first snow we had seen since we left New Mexico eight days previously.
Our Vancouver Winter Games experience was extremely positive. Vancouver is a gem with gorgeous topography, world class cultural opportunities, and top-notch gastronomic experiences. The events themselves were tightly contested by high performing athletes, especially considering what is at stake for those involved. However, the most important and lasting effect was being in a place where people wanted to be. The bonhomie was palpable. I didn’t want to leave.
The XXII Winter Olympic Games will be held in Sochi, Russia, on the Black Sea. I wonder when tickets go on sale.
Photos by Jacqueline Laing