Canadian Olympians will tell you it’s a privilege to sport the maple leaf.
But with that often comes crushing expectations, especially when you’re a Canadian curler or hockey player and the expectation is gold or bust. Anything else is not good enough.
Now with just one year to go until the 2022 Beijing Olympics, the pressure is ramping up again. With added weight.
For the first time since the 1998 Nagano Olympics, when curling and women’s hockey were added, Team Canada will take to the ice for a Winter Games without being defending champions in any one of the four men’s and women’s curling and hockey events.
This is uncharted territory for a nation that prides itself on being the best hockey and curling nation in the world. But in PyeongChang, that wasn’t the case.
Neither Canada’s men’s nor women’s curling teams won medals, the first time either team missed the podium in five Olympics. It sent a shockwave through Canada’s curling community.
The men, skipped by Kevin Koe, finished fourth, while the women’s team, led by Rachel Homan, missed the playoffs entirely. There was a gold medal won by Kailtyn Lawes and John Morris in the inaugural mixed doubles event, but the shutout in the traditional men’s and women’s tournaments was difficult to process.
2018 called ‘an aberration’
“We are a sport that has produced medal after medal, world champion after world champion. I would characterize this as a bit of an aberration in our system,” Katherine Henderson, Curling Canada CEO, said at the time.
On the hockey side, the women’s team suffered a heartbreaking shootout defeat in the gold medal game to the Americans — the pain and emotion of the loss evident as Canada’s Jocelyne Larocque took her silver medal off during the ceremony.
She later apologized, saying “in the moment, I was disappointed with the outcome of the game, and my emotions got the better of me.”
‘Hurts to think about’
The men’s team, without NHL players, rallied for bronze after being defeated by Germany in the semifinal game, a loss that was devastating for Team Canada GM Sean Burke.
“It hurts sometimes to think about,” Burke said that February. “We played our best hockey in all but one period against the Germans.”
So after sweeping gold in all of those traditional team sports four years earlier in Sochi, there just was just one silver and one bronze in PyeongChang. While the hockey teams mostly dodged the wrath of Canadian fans — they still brought home medals after all — the same couldn’t be said for the curling teams. Team Homan and Team Koe faced unflattering headlines, pundits calling for a curling summit and a barrage of online hate.
“It was only a matter of time before we didn’t win everything in curling,” said Marc Kennedy, Koe’s second in 2018. “For so many years we had great results and hadn’t felt the wrath of people until that moment. For everyone in PyeongChang that was an eyeopener. It felt horrible. It sucked.
“Being such a dominant country in curling and in hockey, that pressure just comes with the territory. So many people are counting on you to perform well. You can’t hide from that pressure. Win or lose it’s really important to block out that noise. That’s what it’s become.”
Kennedy has been on both sides of it.
Eight years prior to PyeongChang he was part of a curling dream team along with Kevin Martin, John Morris and Ben Hebert. In front of a boisterous home crowd in Vancouver, the Canadian foursome didn’t lose a single game on their way to the gold medal.
Put winning gold in perspective
“I knew it couldn’t have gotten any better. Undefeated. At home. Kevin Martin getting his gold. It was a storybook,” Kennedy said. “And I think that’s what PyeongChang did for me. It put the incredible Games in 2010 into perspective. It’s still hard to put it into words”
From the highest of highs, to as low as it gets.
Hebert was also part of both experiences. When he walked off the ice in PyeongChang having just lost the bronze medal game, he said then it was “rock bottom” for Canadian curling.
“I know my quote at that point was rock bottom. But guess what? At the time it was rock bottom. I was living that life. That’s where I was,” Hebert said recently.
He’s not there anymore.
Hebert is still part of Koe’s team, alongside B.J. Neufeld and John Morris. Kennedy has moved on to a team with Brad Jacobs, E.J. and Ryan Harnden, a team that also knows that sweet taste of Olympic gold having captured it in 2014.
Nothing to do with redemption
While both curlers understand people will want to talk about redemption on ice for Canadian curlers and hockey players, they say for them personally it has nothing to do with that.
“I know that’s what the media is going to write. I know what gets action. I don’t think you’re wrong for writing it. I’m telling you my feelings on it,” Hebert said, never shy to speak candidly. “When you talk about the great curling nation, it’s not even close. We have six or seven teams on the men’s side and good depth on the women’s side who could represent Canada and win a medal at the Olympics.
“Could you imagine if Sweden sent their third-ranked team to the Olympics? I don’t think they’d win a game. Our third-ranked team could win gold.”
That pressure, both Hebert and Kennedy conclude, is a privilege — famous words once said by tennis star Billie Jean King. It means you’re the favourite. It means if you play the way you’re supposed to, you’ll be a champion.
“If there’s no pressure it probably means you don’t have a chance to win. Having pressure because you’re the favourite is my favourite kind of pressure,” Hebert said.
Kennedy agrees with Hebert about the storylines around redemption and also doubles down on Canada still being the best on ice in the world.
Could you imagine if Sweden sent their third-ranked team to the Olympics? I don’t think they’d win a game. Our third-ranked team could win gold.– Ben Hebert
“It’ll be played up and it’ll be an important tag line but for the athletes it won’t matter that much because we’re the best country in the world in curling and in hockey,” he said.
As for Canada’s hockey teams, NHL players will once again be back at the Games, which will no doubt garner a lot of attention.
In some ways, Canadian hockey fans were more forgiving and perhaps didn’t care as much when the men’s team won bronze, because they made the argument the best of the best weren’t there.
It was the first time since 1994 NHL players hadn’t attended the Olympics and Canada had won three of the six gold medals up to 2014.
NHL players return to Olympics
Now the pros are back and the pressure will once again be ratcheted to an incomparable level. Storylines will swirl, predictions on who will be on the roster will run rampant and Canada will once again be expected to bring home gold.
Sidney Crosby might be playing in his final Olympics. Connor McDavid will be playing in his first Olympics. Canadian hockey fans will be whipped into a frenzy.
On the women’s side, there will be the same amount of pressure there always is to become Olympic champions.
The Canadian women have been dominant at the Games, having won four out of the six Olympic golds since it was added to the Olympic program in 1998.
After losing that first championship game in Nagano, Team Canada won four straight gold medals.
Marie-Philip Poulin, the team captain, has been a member of the last three teams. In her first Olympics, at home in Vancouver, she quickly rose to fame when she scored both of Canada’s goals in a 2-0 victory over the U.S. to take the gold.
She ascended to greatness four years later in Sochi, scoring both the tying goal in the waning seconds and the golden goal in overtime against the Americans.
But she was also on the ice in PyeongChang, feeling for the first time what it’s like to watch another country’s team flag rise to the rafters.
“Losing. It sucks. You want to win and it’s where you want to be at the Olympics,” she told CBC Sports. “I was able to be on both sides of it. Looking back on 2018 is motivating.”
Poulin, 29, and Team Canada just finished a two-week training camp in Calgary, the first time they’ve been together in nearly a year. The last competitive game Poulin and the team played was a rivalry series game against the U.S. last February. But being back together again in the same space reignited that desire to get back on top.
“I’m the most motivated I’ve ever been,” Poulin said. “Our goal is to bring back a gold medal to Canada in 2022. We learn through adversity. If we want to be back on top we’ll have to go through that.”
Quite simply, Poulin hates losing. And wants that winning feeling back for herself and all of Canada.
“Every time we have the chance to wear that jersey it’s something that’s super special. I know there’s pressure coming with it. But it’s an honour,” she said.
None of the athletes will call it redemption.
But make no mistake, getting back to the Olympics and winning gold is the only thing on their minds one year out.