Tuesday, March 2, 2010

America Touched By a Different Midas

By Bob Ekstrom

Being a contrarian can suck at times. It doesn't come with all those Look-At-Me perks it's cracked up to have, and it gets lonely zigging while the world zags.

I should know. My name is Bob, and I'm a contrarian.

It's an affliction I've had from the womb, but unlike jaundice or colic this one didn't go away in the first few months of life. My proclivities have always cut against the grain. As a child, I sided with Goofus over Gallant. Snidely Whiplash soon became my favorite Rocky and Bullwinkle character, and I always maintained that Mary Ann was hotter than Ginger. Then came the unthinkable: in 1980, I pulled for Finland against the U.S. ice hockey team at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics.

For me, contrarianism knows no logic, no rhyme, and — in that one moment in time — no sense of patriotism.

I had fully grasped — no, embraced — the significance of beating the Soviets two nights earlier. For me as for others, it was the period punctuating a Cold War sentence started by the Kremlin. They may invade Afghanistan and any other forsaken Eurasian sovereignty too weak to defend itself, but their world dominance was stopped cold on the ice of Olympic Fieldhouse at Lake Placid, and not another word would follow.

But two days later against Finland — a country sharing a border with that of my ancestors — it no longer sounded like the death knell of communism. I never really regarded hockey as a litmus test of national pride anyway, so as long as the Soviets were done, I was indifferent. What was evidently lost on me was that gold was still within their red clutches going into that final day of competition.

Things were different in 1980. There was no single-elimination process to decide gold in ice hockey. The medal round was a continuation of the preliminaries, except you dropped any points earned against teams that didn't make it. There was no predetermined gold medal game. The Miracle On Ice victory had given Team USA two points in the standings — elevating them to three overall — but that was it. Both the Soviets and Swedes had two and would face off later that afternoon. If the Soviets won — as they ultimately did — only a two-point effort by the U.S. against the Fins would have staved them off.

By that Sunday, the Miracle win was luring neophytes faster than the melodies of the Pied Piper lured rats. Most newbies didn't know which colors the U.S. skaters wore and needed to be given directions to find the new attack zone after each intermission. Pink skates have always been like pink hats: both are welcome at the party, but just go sit in the back and be quiet.

Not a chance. I watched the game in a large community television room with buddies Mike and Steve and a dozen or so pink skates. Every shot taken was as if a goal had been scored, every check an egregious no-call foul. I gripped my armrest and fought back the fire, but their shrills were the spilling of innocent blood that fanned the flames of the Johnny Blaze within me. By the start of the third period, with the U.S. down, 2-1, I wanted the pinks to burn.

For 30 years, I've carried that guilt and have shied away from any Olympic hockey discussion. People will ask, "Where were you?" and I will answer, but what I don't tell them is that, when Mike Eruzione invited a nation to join him on that gold medal platform, I was not there. Nor was I positioned for redemption in 2002, when I watched with detached interest as Team USA settled for silver against the Canadians.

But in these games of the XXI Winter Olympics, America — the land that that has matched me to a beautiful wife, set me up with a good career, and provided the resources to raise four great kids — was now giving me a third chance.

We are indeed a nation of freedom and choice, but on Sunday afternoon, I offered neither to my sons. Maybe I wanted to shelter them from the mistake I made 30 years ago, and maybe I wanted them to appreciate the blessings they have by watching their country on ice; either way, they were occupied with Call of Duty: Modern Warfare just before face-off and I needed the television, so off went the Xbox. We all tuned into ice hockey.

The game, of course, was incredible. Even as Team USA put out almost 68 minutes of energy on the ice, we matched it on the sofa. I imagine that to be a task easier done back in 1980 because, let's face it: as villains go, Canada is no Soviet Union. There's not much to hate. This is just a colder version of America, only with better health care. Sure, they've been known to boo our national anthem, but weren't many of us figuratively guilty of the same ourselves in the 1960s?

With Team USA trailing, 2-1, to start the third period, it was déjà vu. I found myself again in a community television room with a chance to do it over. Only now, I've seen too much to be dissuaded by prevailing sentiment, notwithstanding the contrarian within.

I've seen evening commutes come to a standstill as occupants leave their vehicles to wave flags and hold candles of tribute rather than hurrying home. I've watched scores of young men and women from neighboring towns go off to protect a people half a globe away that cannot defend themselves. I've been inspired by peers within my own company who pledge thousands of dollars out of their own pockets to support Haitian relief, and I anticipate still others doing the same now for Chile.

And when Zach Parise beat Canadian goalie Roberto Luongo for the equalizer with 24.4 seconds left, I thought I'd seen it all. I felt 30 years younger.

As games go, Parise's tally ultimately proved for naught and the Canadians prevailed, but I've seen too much of this land to know its true mettle is not manifest in an ornament draped around its neck. Ours is a nation touched by gold no Sidney Crosby goal can ever deny.

My name is Bob, and I'm an American. It just took me 30 years to fully realize what that means.

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