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The Role I Played

The Role I Played

Canada's Greatest Olympic Hockey Team
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It’s still February and a call comes into our rented house in Redwood City from Danièle Sauvageau, now Team Canada’s head coach. I think I like her. She’s a former RCMP officer and Montreal cop with a tough exterior, but also seems to engage her players.

“How’s hockey in California?” she asks in her thick French accent.

“We’re in the middle of the pack, probably outside a berth to the Nationals, but for our final weekend we’ll play against the University of California at Berkeley for what’s known as the Big Skate.”

“The big skate? You win a skate?” she asks as if perhaps what I had said was lost in translation.

“Well, kind of. Berkeley is our biggest rival, and in football they play ‘The Big Game,’ so in hockey we play ‘The Big Skate.’” I opt not to explain further. Neither Berkeley nor Stanford are very strong this year; however, my brother, Luke, after being accepted into their optometry school, decided to play for our cross-bay rivals. The Big Skate is for bragging rights, but I don’t explain all this to Danièle — it’s a family thing she’s bound not to understand.

“Well, I guess, good luck in . . . ‘The Big Skate,’” she says with a confused tone.

There’s a pause.

“I am calling to congratulate you on making the World Championship team.”

I realize that this call is not just a catch-up session, but in fact the call I’ve been waiting for since I first watched Susie Yuen and the entire Team Canada in pink jerseys play on television at the 1990 World Championships.

“Welcome to Team Canada.”

Goosebumps run up my spine as a smile floods my face.

“Thank you . . . thank you so much.”

I hang up the phone and scream for Diana, who is in the other room. Corey and Susan come running too.

“Guys, I made it! I made Team Canada.” They rush in for a giant hug, making me squirm while they laugh and congratulate me. None of my roommates have any sort of hockey background, but they’ve watched me play and have been my biggest fans. Diana makes us all a celebratory dinner of empanadas and other Mexican treats, and my Stanford friends help me celebrate a Canadian childhood dream come true.


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The Greatest Athlete (You've Never Heard Of)

The Greatest Athlete (You've Never Heard Of)

Canada's First Olympic Gold Medallist
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Chapter 1: The Biggest Race of His Life

“It is not the size nor build nor physique nor qualities of inherited ancestry that determines a track and field champion. The boy of slender build and of apparent constitutional weakness may turn out to be another George Orton, invincible in the distance runs.” — Donald W. Hendrickson, 1909

Imagine you are three years old. You love to run and jump and play with your friends. But the doctor has just told your parents that you may never be able to walk or use your right arm again because of a terrible accident. You lie in bed, paralyzed, while your friends play outside. You dream of someday running again. Fast. Faster than all your friends. Faster than everyone in the world.

On a brutally hot July afternoon in Paris, a slender, curly-haired man with a shrunken arm is running in the Olympic 2,500-metre steeplechase. He had predicted in the newspaper that he would win the gold medal in this event, but he is in fourth place, and victory seems unlikely. The year is 1900. George Washington Orton is the most decorated distance runner in the world, having won over 120 championships in the United States, Canada, England, France, Belgium, Holland, and Germany. At age 20, he had earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto. When he was 23, he became one of the youngest to earn a Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania. He looks more like a scholar than a world-class athlete. He is five feet six inches tall and weighs 120 pounds. He squints a lot, like he needs eyeglasses.

A week earlier, the English track and field championships had been held at Stamford Bridge, home of the London Athletic Club. In 1898, Orton won the two-mile steeplechase there, demolishing the field by 80 yards and becoming the first North American to win the coveted title. It took 24 years before an athlete from outside Great Britain won the steeplechase again.

By 1900, Orton was already a racing legend in Great Britain, and large crowds had come to see him and the other North American track and field stars in advance of the Paris Olympics.

But in the windy and damp conditions of Stamford Bridge, it was English champion Sidney Robinson who won the steeplechase that year, with Orton finishing a distant fourth. It was a painful defeat for Orton, who was in rough shape after a gut-wrenching 10-day ocean voyage from America.

He vowed to get better and defeat Robinson and the others at the upcoming Olympics.

Orton had been hired as a special correspondent by the Philadelphia Inquirer under the byline “George Orton — the famous Pennsylvania athlete.” One of his assignments was to provide an insider’s look at the Olympic track and field events and predict the winners of each discipline. He mostly chose North American athletes to win, believing them to be superior to the Europeans. And when it came time to preview the 2,500-metre steeplechase, Orton didn’t beat around the bush. “Orton has more speed than the others,” he wrote, “and, as he is a good jumper, he should win, if in condition.” It was simple and succinct. He predicted victory, but in the third person, as if he were talking about someone else.

But Orton is not in condition on this day. Not even close. He hasn’t been right since leaving America nearly four weeks earlier. Forty-five minutes earlier, he had finished a close third in the 400-metre hurdles, becoming the first Canadian to win an Olympic medal, although he may not have been aware of the significance of that feat at that moment. While his opponents in the steeplechase were resting up for their big event, Orton was hurdling against the world’s best.

The Olympic track and field events that year were contested on the grounds of the Racing Club of France, in the Bois de Boulogne, a huge park located in western Paris that is two and a half times the size of New York’s Central Park. It may have been perfect for picnics, but it was a terrible choice as the venue for the Olympic Games.

As Orton pointed out, “The grounds are very picturesque, but not as well adapted for athletes as they might be.” He was being very kind. The biggest problem was the track itself. There wasn’t one. The French had refused to install a cinder track in their municipal park. There was no way they were going to tear up their beautiful grass for foot racing. Instead, they laid out an irregular-sized 500-metre oval (standard size is 400 metres) on uneven grass. Orton pointed out that the track “leads around beneath the trees” and its condition was so poor that “no less than four sprinters broke down.” The steeplechase course was especially brutal. Jumps consisted of authentic stone walls that couldn’t be moved, thick hedges that were difficult to vault, and imposing water hazards. Even if one could successfully negotiate the water jump, a soaker would await you on the other side. The hurdles for the steeplechase were one metre high and fashioned from 30-foot-long telephone poles that had been stripped. None of the obstacles could be knocked down, unlike those in the hurdles events, which would fall fairly easily upon contact.

Conditions for the field events were hardly better. The last few yards of the running broad jump approach featured a six-inch incline. There were reports of some jumpers having to dig their own pits. As well, the venue was not spectator friendly. The Bois de Boulogne was at least a mile from any tramway and far from the nearest railroad station. “This inaccessibility affected the attendance greatly, which was disappointing considering the caliber of the runners and the importance of the events,” wrote Orton.

Gaining a good view of the track was another issue. Most spectators had their sightlines obstructed by a large grove of trees that made up the far end of the race course. Those who were fortunate enough to have the latest invention — binoculars — had the best view of the action. Orton may have predicted victory in the newspaper, but he confessed two weeks later that he was anything but confident the day of the Olympic 2,500-metre steeplechase.

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Against All Odds

Against All Odds

The Untold Story of Canada's Unlikely Hockey Heroes
also available: Paperback eBook
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