Sports have never come easy to champion Canadian kayaker
They reviewed their notes, examined the soles of their shoes for bird droppings and found other ways to pass the time while waiting on the muddy banks of a river near Toronto.
Then, when reigning Olympic champion Adam van Koeverden finally walked ashore, they jostled for position near the kayaker, notepads and microphones at the ready.
Dozens of sports reporters descended on the Burloak Canoe Club in Oakville that day, all of them eager to talk to a man who says he's not much of an athlete.
Van Koeverden' s mother, Beata, once told a Toronto newspaper that kayaking was the first sport Adam tried in which the effort he put in equaled the gain he got out of it. Her son, she explained, "is not a natural athlete."
He couldn't agree more.
"I would be lying if I said I was," van Koeverden admitted, standing by one of the wooden beams that support the ceiling of the Burloak clubhouse. "I have some abilities as an athlete, clearly. I have very good pain tolerance and my endurance is good. I'm a good runner," he said. "But I can't really dribble a basketball or kick a soccer ball. And I sink in the pool.
"I used to feel weird in gym class because I wasn't good at any sports, and I felt inferior to the kids who were."
Van Koeverden, Canada's flag-bearer at the opening ceremony in Beijing, offered a wry smile when asked if he suffered the ultimate playground humiliation -- being picked last for a team. "No, because I was never picked at all."
He spent a lot of time on the bench while playing for community softball and soccer teams. "I wasn't really drawn to sports," the Olympian said. "I don't remember exactly what pastime I was drawn to at a young age, but it wasn't sports."
Still, he would make an effort if a friend agreed to do the same. An athletically challenged friend, that is. "I didn't want to fail on my own," he admitted with a shrug. "Misery loves company."
He and one of his buddies agreed to try paddling but, when the other boy changed his mind at the last minute, van Koeverden went without him. His mother drove him to the Burloak club on the banks of Sixteen Mile Creek.
On the river that runs from the Niagara Escarpment to Lake Ontario, van Koeverden found his niche.
"I thought there was something alluring about trying to move a boat. It was something weird and obscure that I could do on my own."
Kayaking was not just enticing. It was also a way for the 13 year old to make his mark. "The first thing that made me want to do it was being the best in my school. Nobody else was kayaking so I was automatically the best at it. So, it gave me something."
But recognition didn't come quickly. Even as he climbed through the ranks of competitive kayaking, few outside the sport's circles knew who he was.
In 2003, a few months before he won silver (K-1 1000) at the world championships in Gainesville, Ga., van Koeverden approached several elementary schools in Oakville, offering to talk to students about kayaking. School administrators turned him down - but soon regretted their decision.
The next year, van Koeverden won gold (K-1 500) and bronze (K-1 1000) at the Athens Games.
He was the Canadian Olympic team's flag-bearer at the closing ceremony and, later that year, Canadian journalists voted him the country's best athlete of 2004. (The Lou Marsh Award has been given out every year since 1936.)
School principals came calling, as did most everyone else. International Management Group described him as a national role model and, acknowledging his marketing potential, signed him to a long-term deal.
To date, he has won a bushel full of medals from World Cup events and other international competitions. In 2005, he won silver (K-1 1000) and bronze (K-1 500) at the world championships in Croatia.
At last year's world championships in Germany, he won gold (K-1 500) and silver (K-1 1000).
Van Koeverden is heading into the Beijing Games as a medal favourite and, should he meet expectations, will return to Canada as a conquering hero. No small feat for the man who once dreaded gym class.
"Kayaking continues to be a way for me to distinguish myself," van Koeverden said. "I like being good at something and having a little bit of expertise."
With that, he was done talking to one reporter. Time to move on to another.
Canadian obsessed with beating Spain's Javier Gomez
Javier Gomez emerged from the water 17 seconds ahead of Simon Whitfield at last year's triathlon world championships in Germany. But before he strapped on a helmet and laced up his cycling shoes for the next segment of the race, the Spanish athlete turned and smiled at the Canadian.
"My response was, 'Touche!'" recalls Whitfield, who finished fourth that day, two spots behind Gomez. "Javier had a really strong swim."
That small gesture in Hamburg still motivates Whitfield. "I don't want to be left behind in Beijing," he says about the Summer Games. "I want to beat Javier. He is the best competitor the sport has ever seen. He's become the Tiger Woods of triathlon. "
Gomez, 25, finished last season ranked first in the world, and has won eight of his last 10 events. "He has raised the bar in triathlon," says Brian Mahony, the International Triathlon Union's media director.
"Before, a competitor could be weak in one discipline and still fare well overall, but not anymore. Gomez is strong in swimming, cycling and running. "
At a World Cup event in New Zealand in April, Gomez finished a full 30 seconds ahead of his nearest competitor, Australian Brad Kahlefeldt. Also in that race, he completed the 10-kilometre run in an impressive 29 minutes, 37 seconds.
"Doing the run in less than 30 minutes was an incredible feat," says Mahony, "especially considering the course was very hilly."
Mahony later spoke to Kahlefeldt, who finished the run in 30.11 seconds. "Brad, who is a strong runner, told me he had the best run of his life in New Zealand. But he still couldn't beat Gomez. He said to me, 'I don't know what to do. I'll just have to go back to the drawing board and figure something out.'
"Gomez just blew the field away," adds Mahony. "It scared some of the other athletes."
Whitfield watched the race on the Internet from his home in Victoria, B.C. "Javier decimated a top-class field," he remembers. "I woke up the next morning feeling more determined than ever."
Whitfield then ran a familiar route through Beacon Hill Park, sprinting past water fountains, picnic areas and playgrounds. For the first time ever, he completed the course in less than eight minutes.
“Sometimes, I start to fade during training," Whitfield admits. "When that happens, I just say to myself, 'Javier isn't going to fade so you can't either. You have to keep going.'"
Whitfield is one of the few competitors who stand a chance of beating Gomez in Beijing.
The 33-year-old Canadian, who finished last season ranked second in the world, has a strong finishing kick. He used it to clinch gold at the 2000 Sydney Games, and it could help him pass Gomez en route to the medal podium in Beijing.
"Gomez seems to have just one gear in the sprint finish," says Mahony. "About five kilometres into the run, he kicks it up a notch and stays at that speed until the end. So, if Simon is close at the five-kilometre mark he might be able to pass Gomez. Simon has a great chance, if he's in top form on race day."
Whitfield is in fine form at the moment. He has put his disappointing 11th place finish at the 2004 Athens Games behind him — he made a costly tactical error in the cycling segment of the event — and is running faster now then he was eight years ago.
He has also improved his swimming. "When Javier stands up to get out of the water in Beijing," Whitfield says, "I'll stand up too."
At least, that's the plan.
Of course, it's impossible to predict the outcome of a triathlon. "There are just too many variables," says Mahony, who notes that a flat tire in the cycling segment of the race could put a competitor out of contention.
Whitfield is working on the assumption that both he and Gomez will be in the race in Beijing at the bitter end — with the Canadian one step ahead.
To ensure that happens, Whitfield has been putting in long hours on the road, in the water and on a treadmill in a shed in his backyard.
On the wall in front of the machine hangs a memento from a World Cup event last fall — a sign bearing the words, "Javier Gomez." Whitfield took it from the transition area of the race, and brought it home to use as inspiration.
On his blog, Whitfield confessed to stealing the sign and, he assured Gomez, "you'll be hearing from me.
"Javier is soft-spoken and humble about his success. He's impossible to dislike," says Whitfield. "But I want to beat him in Beijing. What is it American swimmer Gary Hall Jr. once said? 'If you don't beat him in the pool, you beat him in the parking lot.'"Then Whitfield laughs. He's joking, sort of.
Near the end of the women's semifinal hockey game between the United States and Sweden, one of my colleagues leaned into the television and shouted, "Skate, you !@#$%^&!" I gently reminded him he was yelling at women. He shook his head. "They're hockey players!"
Be still my heart.
Women's hockey has made it. Not only are men following the games and talking about them around water coolers, they're also engaged to the extent they're yelling obscenities at the television screen during big games.
It hasn't always been like this.
When I first tugged on the hem of my mother's coat and begged her to let me play hockey – just like the boys who took to the ice after my figure skating classes – hockey was as legitimate a pursuit for a girl as donning a pair of chaps and becoming a cowboy.
Few girls and even fewer women played hockey in the mid-1970s.
My mother had a tough time finding a league for me to play in. I ended up skating in a Toronto girls' league whose reach was so limited one team included girls from nine to 16 years of age. I was literally half the size of most other players and spent the better part of two seasons trailing the play by a half-length of the ice.
We didn't practice much – boys' teams scooped up most available ice time – but it wouldn't have mattered if we did. Our coach knew next to nothing about hockey. He couldn't have taught us anything about passing, shooting or positioning.
My Grade 5 teacher knew a little something about hockey. When she asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I told her I wanted to be a professional hockey player, she informed me that wasn't a legitimate career option for women.
I was upset and took the issue to a higher power – my father. That night I told him what my teacher had said. He assured me she was wrong. He said I could be whatever I wanted.
I played hockey through high school and university – where we failed to convince administrators to give us a few of the many dollars earmarked for men's football – but hung up my skates soon after.
I smiled broadly when I saw the Canadian women's team step onto the ice for the first women's world championship, in 1990. (Admittedly, I was smiling in part because the neon pink uniforms looked ridiculous.)
I cheered when women's hockey made its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Games, and I was heartened to see the women's tournament at the Torino Games generate so much interest – enough to move my colleague to the edge of his seat. Literally.
As the Canadian women skated off the ice after their gold-medal victory with flags draped over their shoulders and gold medals hanging from their necks, it occurred to me that little girls all over the country, and other parts of the world, were about to tug on the hems of their mothers' coats and ask to play hockey.
For a brief moment, I was bitter.
I discovered hockey at a time when it was mostly, though not entirely, inaccessible for females. Girls today are discovering the sport at a time broadcasters are airing an ad that features a female hockey coach dreaming of her daughter's future on the national team. The woman dips into a cup of yogurt while her cute-as-a-button daughter tapes a stick.
No fair, I thought.
But the bitterness soon subsided and, as once happened to the Grinch, my heart grew three sizes that day.
How could it not? One day in the near future, a man is going to tell his daughter she can be whatever she wants, even a professional hockey player, and be able to believe his own words.
One moment you're squaring off in gold-trimmed bodysuits with the world watching, the next moment you're at an Earth, Wind & Fire rehearsal reminiscing about their showdown as the funky strains of Let's Groove echo through the arena.
So it seems to Canadian Brian Orser and American Brian Boitano, whose memories of their battle for figure skating supremacy at the 1988 Calgary Olympics remain vivid.
In November, during a break in practice for the Earth, Wind & Fire Tribute on Ice, the men looked back at the competition, remembering it as clearly as if it had ended the month before.
"We weren't friends in those days," Boitano says, dispelling the widespread notion that the men were close when they dominated men's figure skating in the 1980s. "We were acquaintances, no more than friendly competitors."
But time has distanced the men from their on-ice rivalry and has brought them closer together.
"After all, we shared an experience that no one else could understand and we'll be linked forever because of it," says Boitano.
The competition that was hyped by breathless media as "The Battle of the Brians" is considered one of the most memorable in figure skating history.
Orser was the reigning world champion and he represented Canada's best chance for a gold medal at the first Winter Olympics to be held on Canadian soil.
He was the subject of countless television reports and newspaper stories in the months leading up to the Games. His medal prospects were debated in living rooms nationwide.
Orser caused a stir wherever he went.
"There was a lot of pressure at the time," Orser recalls. "Wherever I went people shouted, 'Go for the gold!' I was even approached at the grocery store. I'm telling you, if I had heard that one more time I would have popped."
Orser carried the Canadian flag in the Opening Ceremony. A few days later, when he stepped on the ice before 20,000 exuberant spectators in the Calgary Saddledome, millions tuned in from around the world.
Orser and Boitano were neck-and-neck in the battle for gold heading into the long program, worth 50 per cent of the final score.
Boitano skated first, executing a near-flawless performance with only one blemish – a slight bobble in a triple-jump landing.
Orser wasn't as fortunate. Ninety seconds into his routine, he almost missed a triple flip jump, landing on two feet instead of one. He then downgraded a triple Axel to a double.
Judging was close but Boitano won by a sliver to claim the gold medal while Orser captured the silver.
Toronto Star columnist Jim Proudfoot described the outcome as "the ugliest defeat in the history of skating in Canada. The American media will be celebrating Boitano's victory for years to come."
Sure enough, Boitano returned home to a hero's welcome.
"All of a sudden, everyone knew me," the San Francisco native recalls. "I remember thinking, 'I'm the same as I was two days ago but no one knew me then.' It was a big adjustment."
Orser also faced challenges in subsequent months – and years.
"I was really disappointed. I couldn't imagine going through life without a gold medal. I wondered 'What if?' for years.
"But then one day I was at a seminar and someone played a tape of my performance at the Games. At first, I winced. I had never seen it before. But watching the tape that day I thought to myself, 'Hey, I was pretty good.'"
Orser is now happily involved with the sport that once caused him pain.
Based in Toronto, he helps coach young skaters including Olympic hopefuls Lesley Hawker and Shawn Sawyer.
"I can see in their eyes, in their body language, that they're focused on the Games," Orser says. "It takes me back."
He's also involved in various skating shows, not only as a skater but as a choreographer and director. He's now involved with the Celebration on Ice tour, which started in Kingston, Ont., in mid-December.
Boitano is also involved with figure skating and performs in a lot of shows. He prefers television specials to touring.
"I decided to stop touring because I didn't want to be gone for so long," he says. "With television specials your audience is able to see you perform but there isn't as much wear and tear on your body."
Boitano recently appeared in his own television special, which was taped in Las Vegas Dec. 17 and was broadcast on Jan. 1.
Though he's focused on the present, Boitano hasn't forgotten the past – and he couldn't, even if he wanted to.
"I was at a hotel in Hamilton [Ont.] last year when this guy came up to me and said, 'You're the Brian who beat our Brian!' I was thinking, 'Buddy that was so long ago, you have to get over it.'"
Last year, Boitano sent Orser a link to a CBC website listing "the 10 most anticipated sports events." The Battle of the Brians was at the top of the list.
Boitano, 42, and Orser, 44, often work together. They've skated in many of the same shows, the most recent being the Earth, Wind & Fire special. The show was taped in Bridgeport, Conn., on Nov. 12 and was broadcast on Dec. 17.
"The group was awesome. People in the audience were on their feet," Boitano says, seizing the opportunity to compliment his former rival.
"Brian [Orser] choreographed that show and all the skaters really liked what he did."
The two veteran skaters hung out with band members for three days in Bridgeport, and spent some time chatting about the past.
"Whenever Brian and I get together we reminisce. We talk about how unbelievable the Calgary Games were," says Orser. "Being part of the 'Battle of the Brians' was pretty cool. I'm really proud of how Brian and I handled the situation.
"We both skated really well. The drama unfolded according to script," he says before pausing. "Of course, I would have written a different ending."
Jennifer Botterill and Angela Ruggiero squared off in a Women's National Hockey League game last season then joined their former Harvard teammates for some friendly chit-chat.
The women talked about everything, from their days at Harvard to the weather, but they didn't talk about the WNHL game that had just ended.
"We have so much invested in the games, and we take so much pride in our performances, that talking about the games could get in the way of our friendship," explains Ruggiero, a defenceman with the Montreal Axion.
She and Botterill, a forward with the Toronto Aeros, have been friends since starting at Harvard in 1998. They have also been on-ice rivals since joining duelling national teams. For almost a decade, the athletes have juggled their roles as friends and rivals.
Botterill skates for Team Canada while Ruggiero suits up for the United States. The two countries have been vying for supremacy in women's hockey since the puck was first dropped in the 1990 women's world hockey championship.
They have rarely broken a sweat disposing of weaker teams, but the North American rivals have waged fierce battles against each other in many international competitions, including nine world championships and two Olympic Games.
The Canadians have won eight world titles and the Americans one, but Olympic competition has been less lopsided. The Americans won the gold medal in 1998 and the Canadians won gold in 2002. Intensity was high in each of the teams' showdowns.
After Canada lost to the U.S. in the final round-robin game at the 1998 Nagano Games, Canadian forward Danielle Goyette smashed her stick against the glass and stomped off the ice.
"That's the Olympics," she later told the Canadian Press. "Emotions have a tendency to run high."
Botterill and Ruggiero crossed sticks in Nagano, when they were 18-years-old and the youngest players on their respective teams. They didn't know each other at the time but a few months later they met at a train station on a recruiting trip to Brown University in Rhode Island.
The women chatted but avoided discussing the Nagano Games, which had ended with the jubilant Americans receiving their gold medals as the Canadians looked on with tear-stained cheeks.
Botterill and Ruggiero became friends and roommates at Harvard. After home games, they joined their teammates at a popular Cambridge restaurant. The young women would talk about the games, and their lives, while scooping up spinach and artichoke dip with tortilla chips.
"The members of the hockey team spent a lot of time together," a wistful Botterill recalls. "We were the closest of friends."
They also gelled on the ice. The Harvard Crimson won the national title in 1999 with Botterill scoring the decisive goal in overtime. The Winnipeg native twice won the Patty Kazmaier Award, given annually to the top women's college hockey player in the U.S.
Botterill also graduated as the NCAA's all-time scoring leader, having notched 319 points in her four years with the Crimson. Ruggiero, a native of Panorama City, Calif., won the Patty Kazmaier award once and finished her career with 243 points.
Both women have proven as valuable to their national teams as they were to the Crimson.
The respect is mutual
Botterill has been chosen most valuable player at two world championships (2001, 2004) while Ruggiero now is regarded as the world's best female blue-liner.
"She's a great rushing defenceman," Botterill says. "She creates a lot of offence. We try to catch her out of position, when she's too far up the ice. You just want to beat her in the corners."
Ruggiero also has good things to say of Botterill. "She's a great player. I have tremendous respect for her. But when I see her in a Canadian jersey, she's just another opposing player."
The women speak during the year when their training schedules allow, but they won't speak to each other much once their skates are laced up and their chinstraps are fastened in Turin, Italy.
"We don't have much rapport on the ice," says Botterill. "Sometimes she'll give me a tap with her stick and tell me to have a good game, but that's about it."
The rivalry might lead to a roughing penalty or two. But it won't interfere with the women's friendship.
"Angela is definitely a friend of mine," says Botterill, adding that in the near future the rivals will be sitting next to each other, not in a penalty box, but in a church pew.
"Everyone seems to be getting married these days," Botterill says of the women with whom she and Ruggiero used to share a team bus. "So you see all your former teammates at weddings."
Is it hard to face off against a friend after sharing a piece of wedding cake and a few whiskey sours? Not at all, says Botterill.
"Having a friend on the other bench makes the games more competitive."
Perdita has won a world championship and defeated one of her idols. But she might have to win a medal in Athens to be considered the best in her sport
Something about a female contestant on The Price is Right caught Cathy Moe’s attention.
As the woman rushed down the aisle with visions of washer-dryers dancing in her head, Moe rolled the woman’s name around in her head. She thought it was extraordinary and decided to give it to her unborn daughter.
Almost 24 years later, Moe’s child has lived up to her special name; Perdita Felicien is one of Canada’s premier female athletes.
In August 2003, Felicien became the first Canadian woman to win a world track and field title by striking gold in the 100-metre hurdles at the world championships in Paris.
Felicien, who had been ranked sixth in the world going into the meet, set a Canadian record of 12.53 seconds in Paris, shattering her personal best of 12.67. A picture of the jubilant athlete running her victory lap with a Canadian flag draped around her shoulders was splashed across sports pages around the world.
Until Felicien won that race, most Canadian sports fans had no inkling she had won three NCAA hurdles titles competing for the University of Illinois, or that she had been named the NCAA’s female track and field athlete of the year.
But the world championship made her an instant Canadian celebrity; she was no longer more popular in a Midwest state than in her own country.
The endorsement deals soon flooded in. Felicien signed a major sponsorship deal with Nike and Cheerios and hired an agent — former hurdler and professional football player Renaldo Nehemiah.
She received the key to her hometown of Pickering, Ont., where her high school put her national team singlet in a glass case and established a scholarship in her name.
It was at that school a decade earlier that a coach convinced Felicien to focus on the hurdles instead of the sprints, which she preferred.
At the end of 2003, Felicien was named Canada’s best female athlete of the year, the first track athlete to win the Bobbie Rosenfeld Award since the pentathlete Diane-Jones Konihowski in 1978. She finished with 33 of 88 first-place ballots and 115 points, leaving world champion skier Melanie Turgeon a distant second with 12 first-place votes and 64 points.
“Perdita Felicien is the best in the world in a sport contested around the world,” reasoned Graham Parley, sports editor at The Toronto Star.
But in the minds of a lot of track pundits, it was premature to call Felicien the best in the world before she had beaten American Gail Devers, the best female hurdler of her generation, in a final. Devers had competed at the 2003 worlds but was eliminated in the semifinals.
The much-anticipated showdown between Felicien and the three-time hurdles world champion finally came in the 60m hurdles final at the world indoor championships in Budapest in March.
Devers was out of the blocks first, but Felicien just pulled ahead at the finish, winning in a championship-record time of 7.75 seconds.
“This was a great confirmation that I could beat Gail head-to-head and there are no excuses,” Felicien said in a conference call following the indoor championships.
The victory wasn’t just important to satisfy the pundits, either.
“Definitely, there’s this big confidence boost when you’ve beaten someone you’ve idolized,” Felicien said. “Now I know I can beat her, but it’s going to be a really hard task every time. I wouldn’t have run as fast a time without Devers in the race.
“As a kid, I looked up to Gail Devers,” Felicien added a few weeks later. “But I haven’t let it faze me.”
Nor has it stopped her from bumping into her childhood hero, literally.
Felicien and Devers banged into each other during the 100m hurdles at the Home Depot Invitational meet in Carson, Calif., in May, knocking both out of contention. Devers finished second and Felicien placed fourth, while American Melissa Morrison won the race.
A few weeks later, Devers beat Felicien at The Bislett Games, the first leg of the International Association of Athletics Federation’s Golden League series. Devers clocked 12.56, the second-fastest time of the season. Felicien finished second with a time of 12.66.
Meet organizers had promoted the Felicien-Devers showdown as the meet’s main event. Indeed, after years of competing under the radar, Felicien now has to deal with the spotlight and being in the crosshairs of the world’s hurdling elite.
“The secret’s out, but you have to prove yourself over and over again,” Felicien said. “I’m going into the Olympics as a favourite, but I have to train and focus like I’ve never won anything before.”
Despite the rigours of competing against a legend and the attendant fanfare, Felicien remains focused on the Athens Games. Ever since she was eliminated in the first round of the 2000 Sydney Games, Felicien has been determined to redeem herself.
A few months before the 2004 Games, she reminded reporters she had been to the Olympics before and insisted the competition would be “nothing but comfortable” for her.
And her aim in Athens? To make her unusual name one to remember.
An hour after the NHL suspended Todd Bertuzzi for the rest of the season, I opened my e-mail account.
Five American friends had sent me messages. All of them were about Bertuzzi. Some of the messages started with chitchat. But Bob, in New York, got straight to the point. "Thuggery on ice," he wrote. "I would never let a child of mine play such a sport, at least not in North America."
I had spent the better part of a decade trying to convince Bob that hockey was worthy of Canadians' loving embrace. In Prague, where we both lived for a time, I regaled him with hockey stories to rival those about Babe Ruth's called shot and Knute Rockne's "Win one for the Gipper!" speech.
I waxed poetic about the Leafs' Bobby Baun scoring a game-winning goal in the 1964 Stanley Cup playoffs on a broken ankle, and about the magical 1972 Summit Series.
Bob started to come around. He got caught up in the Czechs' excitement during the 1998 Nagano Games, and he peppered me with questions about hockey's rules and regulations.
I was certain that, within a decade, Bob would be whacking an eraser around the floor of his Manhattan office with a ruler yelling, "He shoots, he scores!"
But when Bertuzzi lashed out on Monday, he broke Steve Moore's neck -- and put me back to square one with Bob.
I didn't respond to his e-mail right away. I wasn't sure how to address him. Should I be defiant (Screw you! You don't even know what 'dump and chase' means!), breezy (No biggie. Moore will be back on skates in no time) or apologetic (On behalf of the Canadian people ...)
I closed my e-mail account and turned to the television. I saw the same images on every news station -- Bertuzzi punching Moore, Bertuzzi with his head bowed in penitence, Bertuzzi wiping tears from his eyes. There was no escape.
I walked back to my computer and opened my e-mail account. There, at the top of the queue, was a message from Melissa in Phoenix. Finally, an e-mail about something other than Bertuzzi.
Melissa had as much interest in hockey as I did in horticulture. I opened her e-mail expecting to read a message about the status of her relationship with Glen or about the final episode of Sex and the City.
"Hey, I can't believe a Canadian hockey player broke another player's neck!" she started. "I thought all you Canucks were mild-mannered."
Back to square one.
Before leaving for the world hockey championship in Germany last spring, Slovak star Marian Hossa touched base with some friends from home. "Whatever you do in the tournament," one of them implored," don't lose to the Czechs!"
Soon after, the Czech Republic dispatched Slovakia 2-0 in the quarterfinals in Hanover. The tournament ended with the Czechs sporting gold medals and Hossa's friends shuffling through the cobblestone streets of Stara Lubovna, shoulders slumped, hopes dashed.
It had happened before. In the nine years since Czechoslovakia split into two countries, the Czechs have become a hockey Goliath, winning gold at one Olympics and three senior-level world championships, and casting a long shadow from which the Slovaks seek to emerge. Having failed to do so, the Slovaks are frustrated and anxious, but determined to turn their fortunes around, perhaps at the upcoming Winter Games at Salt Lake City.
To be sure, there is little bad blood between Czechs and Slovaks. They split peacefully, share an open border and speak similar, mutually understandable Slavic languages. The nations are like brothers. But these siblings are rivals. The Czech Republic has beaten up on its little brother, winning all seven of their senior-level matchups since the split. Understandably, Slovakia's pride has been wounded.
Why has the Czech Republic fared so much better than Slovakia in hockey? The Slovaks' frustration is evident when they ponder that question.
When Czechoslovakia split, the most valuable components of the country's industry, economy and the national hockey team were parcelled out to the Czechs. The Czech players' experience proved invaluable in subsequent international competitions. In contrast, the Slovaks had to build their hockey program from scratch.
Why had there been so few Slovaks on the Czechoslovak team? Demographics had been a factor; the Czech population (10 million) is twice the size the of the Slovak population. But there was more to it, according to Los Angeles Kings forward Zigmund Palffy.
"On the old Czechoslovak teams, the coaches were Czech. They just didn't give Slovak players much of a chance," he explains.
Compatriot Michal Handzus, a forward with the Phoenix Coyotes, agrees. "Czechs were behind the success of the old Czechoslovak teams," he says, and he cites another reason why the Slovaks have been less successful than their neighbours in recent years -- the Slovak hockey system.
"The Czechs' top-level league [Extraliga] is better than ours, so their players stay at home and gain valuable experience before leaving for North America. That doesn't happen in Slovakia," he sighs. "We don't have as good a league as we should, so players don't stick around. This hurts the growing process."
The Slovaks have another problem, one that is obvious to even the casual fan -- goaltending. While the Czechs have a handful of goalies in the NHL, including perennial all-star Dominik Hasek of the Detroit Red Wings, the Slovaks have yet to produce the top-notch goalie essential to international success.
"A goalie makes all the difference in the world," Palffy says, noting that Hasek's brilliant performance was a crucial factor in the Czechs' drive to the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan.
In the final of the 2000 world championship in Russia, the Slovaks took 33 shots on net, putting three past Czech goalie Roman Cechmanek, who plays for the Philadelphia Flyers. The Czechs managed just 15 shots on net, but beat Slovak goalie Jan Lasak five times to win the game.
The loss disappointed Slovak fans, including the thousands who had jammed into a medieval square in the centre of Bratislava, the Slovak capital, to watch the game. No doubt, it also disappointed Slovak Prime Minister Mikulas Dzurinda, who had made a headlong dash from the parliament building to a waiting plane and headed to St. Petersburg to watch the game with several cabinet ministers.
The hoopla at home surrounding the game may have been a factor in the Slovaks' performance. "We were the team that made all the individual mistakes," Slovak coach Jan Filc told reporters after the game in St. Petersburg. "The players were a little bit nervous maybe, and were not used to playing under such stress."
"There is an incredible buildup before games between us and the Czechs," says Hossa, a forward with the Ottawa Senators. "As a result, we want to beat them so badly we can't relax on the ice and just play our game. It gets worse with each Czech victory."
Adds Handzus, "We know how much our games against the Czechs mean to our fans. Ten thousand of them greeted us at the airport at 3 a.m. when we returned home from Russia."
Imagine how many would have turned up if the Slovak team had beaten the Czechs in the final.
It remains to be seen whether the Slovaks will face the Czechs in the upcoming Olympics in Salt Lake City. For now, the Slovaks are focused on a more pressing issue -- putting together an elite team and actually qualifying for the medal competition when their best players are still under obligation to their NHL teams.
While the Czech Republic, Canada, the United States, Finland, Sweden and Russia are automatically in the main competition, eight other teams, including Slovakia, will be forced to duke it out in a qualification round. The two teams left standing after that round will advance to the main tournament.
The NHL schedule breaks for the main tournament, but not for the qualification games. Some teams have given their Slovak players permission to compete in one or more of the country's three qualification games, but other teams remain undecided.
As a result, Slovak general manager Peter Stastny won't be able to set his roster until the 11th hour. Even then, the team will face difficulties. Among the Slovak NHL players who have been granted permission to compete in the qualification round, most will be available for just one game.
For example, the Phoenix Coyotes' Handzus, Ladislav Nagy and Radoslav Suchy will skate for Slovakia in its Feb. 9 game against Germany. Buffalo Sabres star forward Miroslav Satan will also play in that game. Hossa and Senators teammate Zdeno Chara will lace up for Slovakia when it takes on Latvia on Feb. 10.
Nonetheless, Slovak players are optimistic about their team's chances in Salt Lake City. "We've had problems with our goaltending, but we also have great offensive strength," Palffy says, referring in part to Washington Capitals ace Peter Bondra. "We have power forwards who can score."
Handzus believes the Slovaks "can compete with anybody." It's only a matter of time before the Slovaks seriously challenge the Czechs' supremacy, Hossa believes.
"I feel that in a year or two the tables could be turned. The Slovaks could be on top. We have a lot of talented young players." He pauses before stating the obivous: "A victory over the Czechs would be a really big deal for our team and our country."