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Canadians love ice hockey so much it's even on the money

It is a Saturday night in 1973 in Red Deer, Alberta, and 10-year-old Randy Moller is doing what just about every little kid is doing. He is sitting in front of the TV with his family, wearing a hockey sweater, watching Hockey Night in Canada (HNIC for short). There is no other option. Saturday night, you're Canadian, you stay home to watch HNIC.

Everything else is put on hold.

The show, which began in 1931 and is believed to be the longest-running sports show in the world, binds Canadians from Kamloops to Nova Scotia. It is a lasting testament to the country's unmatched passion for hockey, which will be on display for the world to see during the Vancouver Winter Olympics, which open Friday night.

``Hockey Night in Canada is the equivalent of Monday Night Football, only it may be bigger because the entire family watches every single week,'' said Moller, the Florida Panthers' play-by-play announcer and a former NHL player. ``I remember there was a junior team we used to play in Macklin, in Western Canada, so Hockey Night in Canada came on at 6 p.m. there, and their home games didn't start until 8:30 because if they held them earlier, nobody would show up. Everything centered around Hockey Night in Canada.''

A DEEP, DEEP LOVE

How much do Canadians love ice hockey?

So much that every year for the past half-century, a crowd of 18,000 show up to watch 11- and 12-year-olds play in the Quebec International Pee Wee Tournament, an event that has sent 955 alumni to the NHL. The final is shown on national TV.

So much that in 1984, Canadian astronaut Marc Garneau took a puck and hockey stick into space.

So much that the back of the Canadian $5 bill is a drawing of children playing hockey along with a quotation in French and English from Roch Carrier's short story The Hockey Sweater:

``Les hivers de mon enfance étaient des saisons longues, longues. Nous vivions en trois lieux: l'école, l'église et la patinoire; mais la vraie vie était sur la patinoire.''

It translates in English to: ``The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places -- the school, the church and the skating rink -- but our real life was on the skating rink.''

How much do Canadians love ice hockey?

So much that on Dec. 30, 2009, when Detroit Red Wings great Steve Yzerman, now the Hockey Canada executive director, announced the 23-man Olympic roster, the news was carried live on national TV, and 3.98 million people tuned in. Six analysts dissected the decision for an hour.

An audience of 12 million (one-third of the population) is expected to tune in for the gold medal game in Vancouver.

Canada coach Mike Babcock, whose day job is coaching the Red Wings, grew up in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. He was in skates as soon as he could walk. He knows the magnitude of his job over the next three weeks. He is well aware that Canadians are expecting gold -- and nothing but gold -- on Feb. 28, especially after a disappointing seventh-place finish at the 2006 Turin Olympics.

Canada did not win a gold medal at the 1976 Montreal Olympics or the 1988 Calgary Olympics, so the pressure is on. The mantra of this year's Canadian Olympic team is ``own the podium,'' and none of the athletes is more serious about that than the hockey players.

``It's the biggest honor anyone coaching hockey could have -- the ultimate,'' Babcock said of being the Olympic coach. ``I'm sure Ron Wilson coaching the U.S. feels the same way about it, but hockey is a religion in Canada, and it's the sport. That's what makes it so exciting. Being the best hockey nation in the world means a lot to Canada.''

And it should, considering Canada is the birthplace of the sport.

HOCKEY HISTORY LESSON

The earliest records of the game come from oral histories of the Mi'kmaq First Nation, a native Canadian tribe. They played a hockey-like game called tooadijik. In the early 1800s, immigrants from Ireland and Scotland brought over hurling and ``shinty'' and played them on ice, turning those sports into primitive versions of modern-day hockey.

In the memoirs of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, he wrote about playing a hockey game on Great Bear Lake on Oct. 25, 1825. The first recorded game was played at McGill University in 1875, and in 1886, the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association was established. By 1893, there were more than 100 teams in Montreal alone.

The Stanley Cup was first awarded in 1894, and since 1917 it has gone to the National Hockey League champion.

Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper not only is a diehard hockey fan, but he also is a hockey historian. He is working on a book about the sport's beginnings and is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research. His office is covered with photos of hockey stars.

``It's hard to describe how passionate Canada is about hockey,'' said Florida Panthers left wing Cory Stillman, who grew up in Peterborogh, Ontario. ``Most kids are playing the sport at a very young age, kind of like Pop Warner football here in South Florida. I'd say nine of 10 kids plays hockey of some kind.

``Once winter comes, every lake and pond turns into a rink. And when you hear that Hockey Night in Canada music start, you stop everything and gather around the TV with your family and friends.''

IT'S LIKE `A RELIGION'

Said Panthers rookie Kendall McArdle: ``The passion for hockey in Canada is equivalent to a religion. This Olympics will be monumental for the Canadian hockey teams, and the pressure on them to win is incomparable. If they make that gold medal game, it will be like the Super Bowl, but bigger because of the history. Our national pride hinges on that medal.''

Tickets to the gold-medal game are among the hottest of the Games, with prices soaring to $5,000 on eBay.

``It's our national sport, the fabric of our country,'' Panthers coach Pete DeBoer said. ``Unless you've seen it first-hand, it's hard to explain how much Canadians love this sport. Not only do fans expect Canada to win the gold, they expect Canada to win every game. Anything less will be considered a disaster.''

Panthers forward David Booth grew up in Detroit, such a hockey hotbed in the United States that it is called Hockeytown. He thought Michiganders were nuts about the sport until he crossed the border to Canada for a junior tournament.

``It's completely crazy there -- totally different from American hockey fans,'' he said. ``It's as big as it gets. If they had an arena that could seat 100,000 people for the Olympic gold medal game, they'd sell it out in five minutes. I can't even imagine the pressure on those guys to win the gold. It's insane.''

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