Monday, February 24, 2014

Olympics 2014 - NativeWritesNow Edition

It was a Native Olympics second only to Jim Thorpe owning the 1912 Stockholm Olympics in Sweden. The Sauk and Fox/Pottawatomie athlete won gold in both the Decathalon and Pentathalon at those games and had the King of Sweden declare him the greatest athlete of all time.

A century later, the Sochi Games brought together Native athletes from Canada and the US that made indelible marks on the Olympic stage.

The Ted Nolan Story was already plenty dramatic. Even if it ended with him hoisting the Memorial Cup as Coach of his Sioux Greyhounds. Nolan grew up on the Garden River First Nation and overcame poverty, racism and limits of size and talent to make it to all the way the NHL.

Soon after his playing career ended he began coaching. He coached his hometown Greyhounds to three consecutive Championships and soon Nolan found his way back in the big leagues this time behind the bench.

After one year as Assistant Coach he was hired by the Buffalo Sabres to be their head coach. By his second season Nolan had turned around the lowly Sabres and led them to a Division title and he was chosen the NHL's Coach of the Year.

Nolan's clashes with all-star goaltender Dominik Hasek saw him run out of town. The whispers were that it wasn't that Nolan was such a good coach but that Hasek was such a good goaltender. Anybody could win with the Dominator in net.

The team would continue the rise initiated by Nolan and ascend to the Stanley Cup final the year after he had left the team, but the descent for the Buffalo Sabres has been brutal since those heady days.

Nolan would speak out publicly in the years that followed about the open racism that he experienced and that he believed was a factor in him not returning to a job behind the bench.  He returned to the NHL behind the bench for the New York Islanders and led them to the playoffs in his first year.

He was let go again after his second year by a Islanders management team swirling in confusion and led by newly hired General Manager Garth Snow.

Nolan had his second chance in the NHL and it didn't work out. He had been kicked out of the circle. It had to hurt. Nolan is a "Player's Coach". He makes the players believe in themselves and you can't lie in their face to do that. You have to put your heart on the line right next to them. It's gonna hurt sometimes. Sometimes it's gonna break.

He would be banished to Latvia or so it would seem but it was in this former Soviet country that Nolan would find his love of the game once again.  He got his players to rise up and win their way into the Olympic tournament. He overseas success brought him back once again a third act in an NHL coaching career. He was greeted on return to Buffalo as second coming and prodigal son all rolled into one.

His return had one caveat. During the Olympic break he would return to his place behind the Latvian bench. During the tournament he showed the world that he could coach men to challenge superstars.

I googled Latvia when I heard that Nolan was coaching the country and the first thing that came up is Latvian Jokes. I clicked on the link and turned out that Latvia jokes make fun of the people's intelligence and also starvation and rape. It's that insidious hatred that is disguised as a smile, the good old ethnic joke. They were picked on and they were disregarded and more ways than one.

They were true underdogs and if you love sport as much as I do, you found yourself rising up as well to cheer David Latvia versus Goliath Canada even as a fan of Team Canada. Yes, there is the nationalistic side to the Olympics but there is the pureness of sports that reaches into the most human part of us. It is why the first Rocky movie is the best. Rocky doesn't win, he goes the distance with the Champ.

The Canadians didn't even know they were in a fight until half way through the game by that time New York Islanders franchise player Jonathan Tavares was knocked out of the game and out for the season. It would have Garth Snow, the man who exiled Nolan from the NHL crying foul on the whole idea of sending superstars to play against men.

Yes, Nolan is a Player's Coach but he's also a strategist who had his team committed to a system that kept them in it against every team they played including eventual Olympic silver medalist Sweden.

He is also a trickster with the guts to try something on the Champ. The only goal by Latvia was a trick play where one player entered the front bench door and another snuck out the back door. It was so crazy that it might have worked again if CBC commentator Glenn Healy hadn't screamed the information to the broadcast booth.

When Nolan had tried the same trick again in the third, the Canadians were ready; but without that extra intelligence one wonders if the Canadian brain trust would have been fooled again.

Who knows what would have happened to Team Canada if they actually trailed in the third period. The population of Canada is small but the weight of it's hockey expectations are greater than any other country.

Nolan and Team Latvia had their chances but the final decision was also in the hands of a First Nations man. It was Carey Price, Ulkatch Nation BC who led Canada past Latvia and then shut the door the rest of the way. No one would score on Price again. I know it's a stereotype, but the truth of it stares you into the face when you see Price. He is stoic. Steadfast and unbeatable in the end.

Jocelyne Larocque Metis Nation, MB took home Gold and as one of the new generation of Women's Hockey.  It was Larocque that started the play that turned the whole game around and led to the team's already legendary comeback against Team USA. Larocque fired a crisp pass out of the Canadian end that found Meaghan Mikkelson, then Brianne Jenner and then the back of the US net. A few other miracles later and Team Canada was wearing Gold.

On the American side, TJ Oshie (Anishinaabe) and Team USA Hockey got off to a fast start but fizzled out when they came up against the stonewall of Carey Price. Oshie had already earned his place in the US Olympic legend with his snake dance scoring performance against Team Russia.

I am sure somewhere Jim Thorpe is smiling.

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