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On a November afternoon in Ottawa, a formal man strides into a conference room in the Langevin Block building across from Parliament. He seems taller and, blessedly, less stiff than he does on TV. Stephen Harper is prime minister of Canada. More to the point, he is the First Fan and a hockey historian. He is a member of the Society for International Hockey Research and a booster of the Hockey Hall of Fame candidacy of James George Aylwin Creighton, who organized the sport's first indoor game, in Montreal in 1875. The pictures on the walls include Harper with the Calgary Flames, with Bobby Orr, with Jean Béliveau. His enthusiasm when he's quizzed about the photos makes clear that the honor of being in the same frame with these men is all his.
Of course, if Harper were a working stiff from southwest Montreal, he still might have had a close link to the game's great names. The mover lugging the bed up the stairs might have been Raymond Bourque's brother-in-law. The folks in the house diagonally across the way might have been Scotty Bowman's parents. This is why the sport, and this gold medal game, are so personal: Virtually everyone in Canada has a connection to hockey, and most seem to know someone who knows an NHL player or coach—sort of One Degree of Kevin Bieksa (the Canucks defenseman).
In a sprawling land with two official languages and seemingly 200 regional grievances, hockey is the connective tissue, the game that reflects Canada's best self. "Hockey is a fast, aggressive, tough sport, and that's an important part of Canadian psychology and history," says Harper, who blows past the interview's allotted 15 minutes because the subject is right in his sweet spot. "It's sometimes forgotten because Canadians are thought of as peace-loving and fair-minded and pleasant. Which we are. But that's not inconsistent with tough and aggressive and ambitious."
French historian Jacques Barzun wrote that "whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball." That is even more true of hockey and Canada. "You can say soccer in many countries is just as important as hockey is in Canada," Harper says, "but nobody has a national claim to soccer the way Canada has a national claim to hockey or the United States has a national claim to baseball. They define the country in a unique way."
As if to make his point, the prime minister presents a parting gift: a puck with his signature on one side and Canada's coat of arms on the other.
Starting with a cushy opener on Feb. 16 against Norway, a team with just one NHL player, Team Canada will feel the vise of pride (and expectations) that enveloped Brodeur on the fairways last summer slowly squeeze ever tighter. If Canada—with Crosby as the offensive fulcrum and Brodeur as the presumptive No. 1 goalie—secures its gold medal birthright on that final day in Vancouver, a nation will warm itself in the reflected glow of Olympic glory.
And if a tricky bounce or a hot opposing goalie should high-stick a nation's destiny—six different countries have played in the three finals since the NHL first participated in 1998—well, the mood will be Go, Canada, Go ... and don't hurry back.
For Michael Farber's interview with Canada's First Fan of Hockey, Prime Minister Stephen Harper, go to SI.com/olympics