Obviously, I love sports. This website and my choice of career stand as a testament to this. I’m not very particular either. Baseball, hockey, basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, the Olympics, it’s all good. Heck, even artistic cycling has made its way on to this blog.
But there’s an ugly stepchild in the sports family that I’ve also got some love for: sports entertainment, better known as professional wrestling.
Yes, it’s obviously fake. But so are most movies and television shows. Professional wrestling is also really corny and clichéd, but that doesn’t diminish the athleticism and skill of its performers.
In fact, there are at least three things about professional wrestling that anyone can appreciate.
You may not know who Ric Flair is, but I promise you that you’ve heard his trademark celebration. It’s a staple of every arena and stadium across North America.
For the uninitiated – Ric Flair has won the world heavyweight championship in various promotions 21 times and is a legend of the business. A lot of the standard ideas in wrestling stem from his career.
One of his signature moves is a knife-edged chop across his opponent’s chest, usually followed by him yelling “WOOO”. The crowd then responds with a chorus of “WOOOs”. It’s now to the point that when any pro wrestler chops someone the crowd will honour Flair with the call.
It’s seeped into popular culture as well. Whenever a goal is scored by the Carolina Hurricanes on home ice Ric Flair appears on the arena’s screens and implores the crowd to WOOO with him. I even saw chef Ted Reader give a Ric Flair Wooo when he broke the record for the world’s largest hamburger.
It’s everywhere and it’s all thanks to wrestling.
2) Entrance Music
I know, I know, athletes in many sports have entrance music. Boxers, mixed martial artists, even hitters coming to bat in baseball have their own entrance music. But it’s an innovation that started in professional wrestling with Gorgeous George, a born-promoter who both Muhammad Ali and James Brown credit as the inspiration for their over-the-top antics and showmanship.
Wrestling still has the most dramatic and often timely entrances, with music being used to cut off the promos of other promos. It’s a trick that never gets old.
There are few moments as exciting as hearing the opening chords of a song that you identify with a particular athlete. Try imagining Mariano Rivera without Metallica’s Enter Sandman or Trevor Hoffman strolling to the mound without the ominous bells at the start of AC/DC’s Hell’s Bells. You just can’t, because entrance music is awesome.
3) The Heel Turn
In wrestling jargon a face is a good guy, while a villain is called a heel. Of course, as sports entertainment is pretty much just a male soap opera, it stands to figure that heels and faces are forever changing sides and turning heroic or evil on a regular basis.
But when a heel turn is done right, like in the clip above, it’s exciting and always gets the crowd amped up. If this could be done in real life, it’d be the best thing ever.
There’s a sense of gut-wrenching heartbreak when the crowd realizes that their hero, the person they’ve been cheering for, is a fraud that has actually been nefariously plotting for their own ends. Melodramatic? Absolutely. But sometimes it really works.
It would be a really refreshing change of pace if the real-life heels that populate professional sports actually embraced their roles as the bad guys, instead of setting public relations flack to spin the story and make it seem like they're just misunderstood. It'd be nice to see someone embrace the fact that they're a jerk.
Consider a world where Alex Rodriguez would sport perma-stubble and rip up the signs of opposing fans. Imagine Chris Pronger cutting promos before games where he calls all the fans of the Edmonton Oilers pencil-necked geeks and then leaving the ice as bad heavy metal blared. Or what about Ron Artest threatening to climb into the stands and whoop anyone drinking a Coke? The possibilities are endless.
It would only make it all the sweeter when the likeable teams and athletes won out, and would undoubtedly draw more ratings.
Three days after Sidney Crosby scored in overtime to lift the Canadian national team to a 3-2 triumph over Team USA in the Olympic hockey final, the Canadian people are still deliriously happy. It’s the biggest international hockey win since the 2002 Salt Lake City games.
The most recent win is always the sweetest, but how does Sunday’s game rate in Canadian hockey history? I’m sorry to say that to me, it the fifth biggest... let’s break it down.
5. Sidney Crosby and Team Canada down Team USA 3-2 in overtime for Olympic gold
It capped a thrilling two weeks where Canada, at long last, won a gold medal on home soil, and then rolled to 13 more first place finishes for the Winter Olympics record. Canada also gained a measure of revenge against the United States who had embarrassed them earlier in the tournament, beating them 5-3.
Canada’s win was big for several reasons.
First and foremost, it was on home soil, with nearly 80% of Canada’s population watching in the arena or on television. What other event could captivate four out of every five people?
It also served as the perfect cap to two weeks of patriotic build up. Like a dam straining against a swollen river, Crosby’s goal unleashed the flood gates.
Crosby himself had virtually disappeared for the last three games, being held off the point sheet even in routs like Canada’s 7-2 man-thrashing of Russia. Having him rise to the occasion in extra time made it all the more surprising.
4. Team Canada’s 3-2 win over the United States to win the Olympic gold medal in women’s hockey
The only thing better than winning at home is winning on the road and disappointing your opponents’ fans.
Cassie Campbell, Hayley Wickenheiser, Cheri Piper, Kim St. Pierre and the rest of the women on Team Canada did just that as they dropped their one – and only – hockey rivals, Team USA.
There are two factors that make this victory particularly sweet. The first is that for once, Canada was the underdog in international hockey. That’s right, the Americans had won their previous eight meetings. That’s a heck of a big monkey for Team Canada to carry on their backs and it made this ninth meeting on the biggest of all stages especially intense.
The other is that the referee (an American) called a series of questionable penalties, all against the Canadians, including five straight in the second period and a total of 13. The United States were only assessed four minors, meaning that the Canadian squad had to play on its heels the entire time.
Holding off a late surge, the Canadian women held off their arch-rivals for the biggest win in women’s hockey history.
3. Montreal Canadiens and Red Army battle to 3-3 tie on Dec. 31st 1975
Super-Series ’76 grew out of the popularity and success of the 1972 and 1974 Summit Series. Instead of playing all-star teams from the National Hockey League and the World Hockey Association, the Super-Series pitted the Soviet Wings and the Red Army (two of the top teams in the Soviet Union’s hockey league) against eight NHL teams.
The Canadiens were one of the best teams in the NHL at the time and went on to win the Stanley Cup that season. Many considered it to be a World Championship of professional hockey. It ended up being was a showcase for the considerable talents of Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak who faced 35 shots while his team only mustered 13 against future Liberal MP Ken Dryden.
Unlike the other games on this list, Canada didn’t win. However, as argued over on HockeyAdventure.com, it was the most entertaining game ever.
As a whole, the Super-Series underscored the fact that Soviet-style hockey could work against North American teams, moving the NHL towards the fire-wagon brand of hockey popular in the 1980s.
2. Canadian men top Team USA 5-2 in Olympic gold medal game
The most memorable and important hockey game in my lifetime, this game is significant for several reasons.
First of all, it allowed Team Canada and the nation as a whole a level of catharsis after being upset by the Czech Republic in the 1998 Olympics in Nagano as well as avenging themselves on Team USA after a devastating loss to the Americans at the inaugural World Cup of Hockey.
Both losses had wounded the national psyche and called into questions the direction of Hockey Canada.
Further, Canada hadn’t won a gold medal in the Olympics for fifty years, not since the 1952 games in Oslo, Norway. It was an opportunity to regain dominance in a sport that many Canadians consider their rightful property.
It also featured the best hockey play I’ve ever seen.
With the United States leading 1-0, Chris Pronger carried the puck past the blue-line where he suddenly stopped, shaking off the American covering him. He wired a pass to captain Mario Lemieux who raised his stick for a one-timer. As a smile flashed across his face, the cornerstone of the Pittsburgh Penguins let the puck slip between his legs to a streaking Paul Kariya who snapped a shot past a startled Mike Richter.
Pronger’s pass was good. Kariya’s speed and skill were great. But nothing – nothing – will ever top the incredible hockey sense and awareness that Lemieux displayed on that play. I could watch that play all day, every day. It’s poetry in motion.
1. Canada wins on Paul Henderson’s goal in the final minute of the eighth game of the 1972 Summit Series
You knew this had to be number one. The gran’ daddy of them all, the 1972 Summit Series irrevocably changed the international game of hockey, undoubtedly for the better.
The context of the series itself was incredible. Canada had withdrawn from almost all international competition, even going so far as to cancel the 1970 World Junior Championship in Winnipeg.
As a result, only a handful of North Americans had ever seen the Soviets play hockey. The game developed in a vacuum behind the Iron Curtain, creating a more finessed style of play that relied heavily on teamwork and passing plays as well as conditioning and stamina.
Canada’s brand of hockey was a more physical, individual game including using their bodies to block shots. Team Canada’s stickwork was fancier, using tape-to-tape passes that didn’t touch the ice and flipping the puck in over the defence.
The styles clash was epic, and changed how the game is played as both sides of the Cold War began using each other’s tactics and strategies.
Further, sports were becoming increasingly political. Just that summer the Israeli team had been massacred at the Munich Olympics and most African nations had boycotted the summer games entirely to protest Rhodesia’s apartheid state.
Also, unlike the other matches on this list, the Summit Series was played over the course of four weeks with tension mounting after each game. By the time the eighth and final game was played in Moscow, it seemed like the Cold War was hanging in the balance.
That last game is a classic. Whether it’s Peter Mahovilich jumping over the boards to rescue Alan Eagleson from Red Army officers or J.P. Parise threatening to slash one of the referees, the tension is palpable. With Henderson’s wonderful, desperate goal all of that pent up emotion was unleashed in a moment that still sends chills down Canadian spines.
Nothing will ever be able to top that moment for Canadians.