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Frozen in time: Folklore in the land of ice and snow

Posted: Tuesday, January 13, 2009 | 09:58 AM

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As I was walking my little pup Davey in the park near our house just outside the core of downtown Toronto, the strangest thing happened.

At dawn’s first light, a guy in a toque and parka passed me by - he was on cross-country skis.

Not even a hundred yards away, the traffic was bumper to bumper on Queen Street - the bankers and lawyers in a hurry to get to their towers on Bay Street - but the skier paid rush hour no mind. Soon he became a speck on the landscape, gobbled up by the frosty horizon where the water meets the shore of Lake Ontario.

It was a sight that took my breath away and made the dog sit still. It struck me as a sporting moment peculiar to Canada, which is after all, the land of ice and snow.

This week I begin teaching a course to a group of prospective sports journalists at Toronto’s Centennial College. It’s called, “The Field of Play: Canada and the Culture of Sport.” I’m excited because it’s a chance to reflect on and remind others of the great traditions we are blessed with in a northern climate populated by resolute souls who excel in winter with the help of games we all hold close to the heart.

In a sense, Canada’s folklore is based largely on the fact that we are a country in love with the frozen time of year. A healthy number of our heroes are the steely athletes who have emerged to star internationally over the course of many generations.

I thought back to the latest Sports Weekend show, this past Saturday afternoon. We spent four hours reflecting Canadians who were competing at home and abroad in three sports - none of which were hockey.

Firstly, with the help of Todd Brooker - the last of the “Crazy Canucks” - we provided same-day coverage of two World Cup alpine skiing races in Switzerland and Slovenia. As I listened to him analyze what was happening in Europe I was transfixed knowing that he had won at Kitzbuhel and wrote the final chapter in a tale which saw four consecutive Canadian victories at the world’s most feared downhill event.

It was the same Todd Brooker who is said to have survived the most spectacular crash of all time on the Streif course at the Hahnenkahm. The very Todd Brooker whose name is emblazoned on one of the gondola cars at Kitzbuhel - a living legend who is instantly recognized and adored every time he visits that Austrian epicentre of the sport.

Just an average Canadian whose hometown is Paris, Ont., Brooker emerged to conquer the world from the modest slopes at Blue Mountain overlooking the vast waters of Georgian Bay.

Then there’s Dave MacEachern of Charlottetown, P.E.I. Hailing from Canada’s smallest province, Dave is our bobsleigh analyst and also happens to be half of the team that conspired to end a 62-year-run of dominance by European sleds in the two-man event at the Olympic Games.

Along with pilot Pierre Leuders of Edmonton, MacEachern captured gold in Nagano, Japan in 1998 and is revered as one of the best brakemen in history. He is the inheritor of the Vic Emery legacy - one which saw Canada, a country with no bobsleigh tradition or facility, capture the four-man gold medal at the Innsbruck Olympics of 1964.

Things have changed in Canada with regard to bobsleigh.

There’s a world-class track at Calgary now, another for the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver/Whistler on the way and Canada’s Helen Upperton is one of the top pilots on the women’s circuit.

As I watched MacEachern go about his business on Saturday afternoon, it became crystal clear that Canada has a history in bobsleigh because of people like him.

Finally, Kurt Browning stood beside me on the set that day. He had come in to forecast the prospects of all of the contenders who will be travelling to Saskatoon for the Canadian figure skating championships.

I have to admit it’s hard not to be awestruck when you’re in the company of the man who, in 1988 at the world championships in Budapest, Hungary, landed the first quadruple jump in competition. Kurt Browning came out of small town Alberta to revolutionize one of the world’s most popular sports and reign as the daring men’s champion for four years.

And so, as I begin to teach those aspiring sports journalists, I approach the first lesson with plenty to get across. There is such a rich and warm texture to sport in our frigid country. It’s emblazoned in our past just as surely as it will shape the future of this sporting nation.

Even though the appearance of that cross-country skier awakened something in me as I walked with Davey through the early morning streets of the Canadian metropolis - there was something else that confirmed what I already suspected.

The players at the open-air rink by the waterfront were already in full flight. The sounds of pucks and sticks shattered the early morning calm. It was comforting to know that new stories of glory were being written in the land of ice and snow.

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