Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Losing is such Swede sorrow

But they know inside they are the best

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From the insanely early moment they dropped the puck, emotions were running high as Canada battled Sweden for gold in men's ice hockey at the Sochi Olympics.

I am referring specifically to the atmosphere in my den Sunday morning, although I suspect there was a fair bit of tension among the shrieking fans and sweaty players squeezed inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome.

Like millions of Canadians, we dragged ourselves out of bed at a godforsaken hour -- our bed is pretty big, so it holds a lot of Canadians -- and squatted in front of the big-screen TV to slurp coffee and perspire heavily.

The drama was especially intense on our main couch, on one side of which sat my buddy Bob, a proud Canadian hockey fan who also happens to be my boss, while the other side was occupied by his beloved wife, Lena, who also happens to be a fiercely patriotic Swedish person.

Bob was the first person to arrive for the game, likely because he knew we'd be serving an unlimited supply of something Canadians love almost as much as hockey, by which I mean freshly cooked bacon.

I do not wish to imply Swedish fans were not as excited about going for hockey gold, but Lena accidentally slept in and didn't arrive until the bacon was cooling and the score was already 1-0 for Canada.

Decked out in a gigantic blue-and-gold Swedish scarf we gave her one Christmas, Lena quickly showed her true colours, bodychecking the verbal skills of CBC's hockey analysts.

"I'm appalled at their pronunciation of the names of the Swedish players," she chirped, before firing off the names on the Swedish roster, none of which I recognized as they tumbled from her lips with perfect pronunciation.

This was followed by a minor skirmish along the boards as Bob and his Swedish bride took opposing views of a long pass by a Swedish player.

"Oooooh! Nice play!" Lena shouted with glee.

"OFFSIDE!" Bob countered. "That's totally offside! That's the worst pass I've ever seen!"

I will confess here almost everything I know about Sweden I have learned from Lena. I know, for instance, that Swedes are incredibly punctual. I know they love coffee even more than we do, although the drive-thru lineups at Tim Hortons outlets might argue to the contrary.

Traditional Swedish delicacies include pickled herring and I'm told you haven't truly lived until you've tried surstromming, a fermented Baltic herring with a pungent bouquet of rotting fish whose consumption is considered a test of manhood.

Like us, Swedes possess a special brand of humour, which I discovered at a Swedish Flag Day party when Lena supposedly taught me how to say hello in her native tongue, and I wandered around asking, in perfect Swedish, for complete strangers to "kiss me" on the lips.

As for hockey, the Swedes are passionate, but as Lena happily explained, they are also passionate about skiing and other cold-weather sports.

In a section on sports in the Xenophobe's Guide to the Swedes, a book Lena gave me, there's no mention of hockey, but there is this nugget: "In winter, some Swedes make a contest out of running naked from hot saunas to roll around in the snow before heading back into their steaming sanctuary. The bravest jump into holes in the ice."

Little wonder that, while Canadian fans have no problem getting worked up for their American rivals, we find it impossible to dislike the Swedes, who may be even more polite than Canadians, if you can imagine.

Nibbling on a cinnamon bun, Lena explained her homeland's fiercest rivals are the neighbouring Finns, but they mostly adore Canadians. "We don't like the fist fights in Canadian hockey," she noted. "We left that behind in the Viking stage."

Asked whether Swedes are as obsessed with hockey as we are, she smiled contentedly. "The Swedes know inside they are the best," she said. "They don't have to obsess."

And just seconds later, Captain Canada, Sidney Crosby, scored his first goal of the Sochi Olympics, putting the gold-medal game almost out of reach for our friendly Scandinavian foes. There was another period to play, but the tension began to fade, and my buddy Bob, secure in our hockey supremacy, quietly nodded off on the couch.

Which is when his Swedish wife had to head off to work, caring for patients at a local hospital. "Are you going to be OK if Canada wins?" I asked as she trundled out into the cold.

"I think I'll be able to dust myself off and put one foot after another," Lena beamed bravely. Which, if you think about it, is what Olympic champions do.

doug.speirs@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 24, 2014 A4

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