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Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

Reserved, restrained – and rocking with Sid the Kid

The Globe and Mail
By Roy MacGregor, The Globe and Mail Posted Wednesday, November 18, 2009 10:16 PM ET

Perhaps humanity cheered the very first flame louder, but not by much.

They began gathering hours before this simple, short event, nearly 8,000 of them coming out, as people once did for royal tours. They laid out blankets and staked claims and waved their small flags and promised children they would be lifted high when the moment came.

In a way, it was about royalty - at least in this part of the country - and the flags, more often than not, were on hockey jerseys. Ones that didn't hold the Canadian flag said "87." When you're known by your number, you're either a convict or a Canadian hockey god.

Sidney Crosby eventually came out of the dark, and those sitting along the Citadel Hill, like fans at a Stanley Cup final, rose to their feet and cheered for the flame as much as for the hero. They say fame flickers, but the fame of this oversized barbecue lighter appears, by now, not only lasting, but growing.

He came and handed off and they cheered the moment two flames burned together. But then his went out, and this young man, just 22 and almost childlike in his delight at the moment, went off to explain the inexplicable to those who think they know everything.

What did it feel like, a reporter asked.

"Really, really proud," the young man said. He then deferred to the other runners and said, "I just feel proud to be one of them."

He was polite to everyone, but then, they are so polite in this part of the country that people sometimes apologize for interrupting their own thoughts.

But let the topic turn to the actual competition of hockey, and just watch the change. More than half a century ago, novelist Hugh MacLennan tried to explain all this to a U.S. audience when he claimed that the national game is the counterpoint to Canadian self-restraint.

"To spectator and player alike," he wrote, "hockey gives the release that strong liquor gives a repressed man."

In Halifax, they talk about how reserved and restrained the people are - but not when it comes to the need for this country to win. Not when it comes to Sidney Crosby, local hero from nearby Cole Harbour.

They cheered this Olympic flame as loudly as, in the summer, they cheered the Stanley Cup he brought to this same city. If he ever brings back gold, more seats will be needed on the Citadel Hill.

Asked how carrying a simple torch compared to carrying the Stanley Cup and other trophies he has won, the kid who rarely says much replied, "It's there," and that said it all.

As this Grand Tour of Fire crosses the country, there seems an inescapable connection to the national game.

When people were asked to turn out in red in Corner Brook, Nfld., as many wore hockey sweaters as Canada sweatshirts.

When the caravan rolled through the Mi'kmaq reserve of Eskasoni, NHL logos were painted on the oil tanks. When the emcee at the community event in Truro, N.S., tried to pump up the crowd by asking who should be captain of Team Canada come February, he was met by polite silence at the mention of Jarome Iginla and Scott Niedermayer, but a mighty roar of enthusiasm when he said Sidney Crosby.

Morley Callaghan once called hockey "our own national drama," but it's a drama forever being work-shopped, where an individual character can come along and alter the script - Orr did, Gretzky did, Crosby is fully expected to - and all 32 million Canadians consider themselves critics.

Canadians love their stars, but they also expect a certain humility of them. All the greatest - Richard, Béliveau, Orr, Lafleur, Gretzky, Lemieux and now Crosby - have an "aw, shucks" lineage that would make Gary Cooper blush.
But Canadians insist on this, just as they will forever insist that Sidney Crosby is the shy kid from little Cole Harbour, and not a man who lives in Pittsburgh, Pa., and makes $9-million U.S. a year.

So powerful is this sense of polite humility that it seemed to extend yesterday to the singular protest that coincided with Crosby's visit.

The People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) set up early in the day along Spring Garden Road to call for an end to the commercial seal hunt and announce a 24-city protest with the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) that will be in lockstep with the torch.

"The eyes of the world are on Canada," PETA senior vice-president Dan Mathews said into a microphone.

They attracted next to no attention. A university student raised questions about their use of a white-fur seal as a prop when seal pups have not been killed for years. He was politely answered, if not convinced.

Privately, the protesters said that they are being deliberately non-provocative. The backlash from anti-Olympics protesters forcing runs to be cancelled and throwing marbles under police horses - they say the police threw the marbles themselves - means they acknowledge the difference between publicity and bad publicity.

The protesters did not notice Jim Richards, the director of the 2010 torch relay, who stood in a plain jacket and listened politely before declaring that if all future protests are like this, then "we can live in harmony."

Such is the state of tolerant Canada in the late fall of 2009, where a 22-year-old hockey player can attract thousands on a cold weeknight and say, "It's not about me carrying the torch. I'm just another person."

Yet just wait until they drop that first puck in Vancouver.

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