TORONTO — My favorite part of this job is sitting in empty stadiums and arenas. We get to arrive early, and we get to stay late. Bookending a big event with two different kinds of silence — the calms before and after the storm — gives you a fuller feeling for the game. Those silences, how they are broken and how they are restored, can tell you so much about what might happen and what did.
Tuesday night was the first time I saw Canada and Team USA play hockey in person.
I’ve watched them battle on TV however many times, and each time I’ve wished I were there. I’ve had more than my share of fortunate experiences, but I still wanted so badly to watch my country, which happens to be hockey-obsessed Canada, take on the U.S., which happens to be better than us at every other sport.
It’s hard to explain to Americans why these games matter so much to us. Imagine our countries were brothers, one big and one little. The big one has everything he might want but a single beautiful, perfect toy that the little brother loves with all his heart. He thinks of it when he’s awake, and he dreams of it when he’s asleep.
And then his big brother comes into his room and tries to take his most sacred thing away.
I was excited, even nervous, in the quiet before the game. Sweden and Finland had played in the afternoon, and the Air Canada Centre had emptied and been cleaned like a plane readied for its next flight. It was close to silent, just a few workers performing their pregame rituals.
It was also pretty dark. It felt as though the entire building were asleep somehow. It wasn’t hard to imagine it breathing softly.
Then I heard a shout. It was, if I’m being honest, a very loud F-bomb. It was startling and out of place in the dim and the quiet. I thought one of the workers had hurt himself somehow.
Team Canada warming up with a little footie of their own (they were easier on the ceiling tiles than the Europeans). pic.twitter.com/My3IasiJWj
— ESPN NHL coverage (@ESPN_NHL) September 17, 2016
Then I realized it had come from Canada’s Joe Thornton.
It isn’t always easy to see it through his beard, but Thornton’s default expression, at least this week, has been a wide smile. He has radiated kid joy.
Now he was swearing really, really loudly. This couldn’t be good.
Closer investigation revealed — with no small amount of relief — that he was swearing because he had let a soccer ball drop in a game of keepie-uppie that he and his teammates were playing in one of the tunnels leading to the empty, waiting ice.
Maybe an hour before their big game against the Americans, they were laughing and joking with each other and kicking around a ball, and Joe Thornton was yelling terrible things with a smile.
I decided right then that they were going to win, and they were going to win big.
I’m going to try to be gentle here so that I don’t sound like I’m gloating. This American team has been terrible, an embarrassment, badly built and badly coached and deserving of every bad thing anyone ever says about them.
I really am being gentle.
They have been miserable and gutless. They lost their opener to lightly regarded Team Europe without scoring a goal. They took to the ice against Canada looking as though they were lining up for the dentist. They snatched the early lead and then gave up two goals in 14 seconds and never looked for an instant as though they might recover.
“This is our championship game,” John Tortorella had said before it. His team had supposedly been custom-made to beat Canada at its own sport, to hit and then get hit and then hit back even harder.
I wish they had been half as hard as they thought they were. I also wish they had remembered that grit is useless without goals.
Whenever I imagined finally going to see Canada play Team USA, I imagined watching a blinding, deafening, electrifying three periods of hockey, and maybe more.
Instead I watched an absolute dismantling.
One of the loudest cheers came with a little more than five minutes left in the second period. Canada pinned Team USA in their zone. They shot the puck and retrieved it, shot it again and took it back, shot it again and followed it.
They did to the puck what these Americans were supposed to do to Canada. They owned it, and when the Americans finally managed to hold the puck long enough to clear it, the crowd applauded.
Offensive woes sink USA vs. Canada
Two goals by an overlooked star and a 4-2 decisive victory over the U.S. proved how incredibly talented Canada is and why it’s a strong favorite to win this best-on-best tournament.
Bad decisions sunk Team USA
A crushing loss to Canada on Tuesday eliminated Team USA and brings credibility to criticism before the tournament that this team just wasn’t built properly to win the World Cup of Hockey.
Rink of dreams: Simple things make hockey great
With the World Cup of Hockey set to begin Saturday, one die-hard fan gives his view of why the event will give the world a great view of what makes the sport so perfect.
The fans were cheering Canada for their effort, and to be fair, this team is as beautiful and perfect as the toy in that little brother’s dreams.
But they might as well have been cheering the Americans for getting their first touch in what felt like forever. They almost needed to feel as though their big brother still wants what they have.
That’s how unbalanced this game was. Applause could be mistaken for pity. A minute into the third period, Team USA’s Max Pacioretty took a dumb boarding penalty against Logan Couture in the Canadian zone, and that’s all that remained of the grand American plan: Hit from behind, because that’s the only place they are anymore.
The rest of the game was meaningless, and now so is the rest of this tournament for Team USA.
For one of the few times in my professional life, and on a night when I never imagined I might, I didn’t have to wait until after the game for the second, concluding round of silence. It came well before the end of it, when I listened for America’s hockey heart, and I didn’t hear a thing.