Will 99 light it up?

The burning question today is – who will light the cauldron?

12.02.2010
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The 1998 Olympic Winter Games were the last tournament Wayne Gretzky played for Canada. Photo: HHOF

VANCOUVER – Tonight is the night the Olympic Winter Games officially open, and the one question on the tip of everyone’s collective tongue is – who will light the cauldron? This year more than most, it’s a dilemma that is particularly Canadian. After all, who is the usual cauldron lighter? The person typically has had a great Olympics career and is internationally recognized, but those two criteria don’t necessarily go hand in hand here in Canada.

When anyone thinks of Canada and sports, the first thing that comes to mind is hockey. When one thinks of great winter athletes who have had Olympics success, the names aren’t the stuff of legend as are the hockey players (who don’t have great Olympics success in recent times).

So who will VANOC go with? Great Olympians include Miriam Bedard (biathlon), Nancy Greene (downhill skiing), and Gaétan Boucher (speed-skating). Hockey players include Wayne Gretzky, Bobby Orr, and Gordie Howe. In Canada, these hockey legends tower above the Olympians. But if this is the Olympics, shouldn’t great Games performers from the past get priority? It’s a tough decision, but really if you don’t make life complicated, Canada=hockey=Gretzky.

Gretzky is a name and face any winter sports lover recognizes. He transformed the NHL and gave the league a presence in Europe it never had before. He toured with the Ninety-Nine All-Stars during the lockout of 1994-95 to great success, and his pure skill, gentlemanly conduct, and ambassadorial history are irrefutable. Nobody played for so long at such a high level for Team Canada than Gretzky.

But wouldn’t it be great to combine his presence with Orr and Howe, the other two members of hockey’s great Canadian triumvirate? These three represent the game in Canada going back to the years just after the Second World War. Howe made his debut with the Detroit Red Wings in 1946-47; Orr started his NHL career in 1966-67; and, Gretzky entered the league in 1979-80, Howe’s last of 32 pro seasons. That would be a pretty incredible sight to see these three light the cauldron.

And what about Paul Henderson? Is there room for him? After all, he scored the greatest international goal in Canada’s history, at the 1972 Summit Series. Or Mario Lemieux, whose winning goal at the 1987 Canada Cup capped off arguably the greatest three hockey games ever played. Howe and Orr played pretty much in the years before NHLers could participate in international events (although Orr played in the 1976 Canada Cup and Howe in the WHA-CCCP series in 1974), and Gretzky played in only one Olympics (a disappointing fourth place finish). He was, however, general manager of Canada’s 2002 gold medal team in Salt Lake City.

The other name being considered by public opinion – one that is neither international nor hockey – is Betty Fox, mother of Terry who died in 1981, but whose heroics are known throughout the world. If she were to light the cauldron, it would be a symbolic gesture for her son’s bravery in the face of grave illness, his ability to inspire and give hope to people around the world. Her inclusion has a compelling argument to it, no question.

Is there another choice? Someone not mentioned here? The person who lights the cauldron surely has to be an athlete or related to winter sports in some way (as opposed to a politician or cultural figure). So much of Canada’s glory and great sporting history comes from hockey, and it’s difficult to imagine a non-hockey person having the same level of prestige. Yes, Boucher, Bedard, and Greene all performed great feats at the Olympics, but do their accomplishments measure up to the name Gretzky? Many Canadians, at least, would say no.

ANDREW PODNIEKS

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