In Slovakia, life imitates hockey

GROWING up playing hockey in Canada, I learned that it doesn’t matter if the other guys are bigger or better, have more expensive equipment or wear fancier sweaters: the team that plays with more heart can win. I admit my belief was shaken by our team’s frequent, embarrassing defeats. But on the rare occasions it was confirmed, life was much sweeter and more just.

GROWING up playing hockey in Canada, I learned that it doesn’t matter if the other guys are bigger or better, have more expensive equipment or wear fancier sweaters: the team that plays with more heart can win. I admit my belief was shaken by our team’s frequent, embarrassing defeats. But on the rare occasions it was confirmed, life was much sweeter and more just.

As adults we recognise that hockey has become the usual sports thrash of money, adverts and politics. But there are times when it returns to its original narrative. For example, few of us who were living in Slovakia in 2002 will ever forget the run to the gold medal at the World Hockey Championships in Sweden. In homes and pubs across the nation, people witnessed improbable victories over Canada, Sweden and finally Russia. The confidence the Slovak team showed seemed to echo a growing confidence in the country at large, that the experiment of nationhood ten years earlier had been neither a failure nor a mistake. As political scientist Soňa Szomolányi said of the victory party on SNP Square in Bratislava: “I felt I was witnessing the true birth of the modern Slovak nation.”

Slovaks haven’t had much to celebrate in hockey since then, but they’ve had even less to cheer about in public affairs. The country is crippled by discord over where it should be heading and how to get there, while young people continue to leave for better opportunities abroad, and serious media are even questioning whether Slovaks have what it takes to administer their own affairs. As if the best among us have simply lost heart.

If sports hold any meaning in life, it was surely in Vancouver. Slovakia’s hockey players showed grit, patience and above all teamwork in beating squads that were far better on paper. They played with heart, both when expected to lose and when expected to win, and earned a shot at Olympic gold.

As a country, meanwhile, Slovakia is at a low point. Just like the second period of the hockey team’s game against Norway, the better side lacks all conviction, while the worse is full of passionate intensity. If I were coach Ján Filc and Slovakia, the country, was my hockey team, I would call a time out. I would gather their unhappy faces around the bench and appeal to their hearts as so many coaches did in my childhood. Look, I would tell them, this game may be proving more of a grind than you expected. A lot of you are disappointed with your leaders, with the referees, with each other. But there’s plenty of time left, and if you can just shake off this debilitating pessimism, we’ll get the job done.

As a Canadian, I rooted for Slovakia in its semi-final match against Canada. It’s not that I don’t love my country, or that I’m trying to be interesting. It’s just that hockey, like life, is a narrative of the heart. And over the last 20 years, Slovakia’s story has been much more inspiring.


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