December 16, 2019

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Silver medal can still be symbol of pride

Larocque deserves a pass for decision made in heat of the moment

Matt Slocum / The Associated Press</p><p>Jocelyne Larocque, (3), of Canada, holds her silver medal after losing to the United States in the women’s gold medal hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Thursday.</p>

Matt Slocum / The Associated Press

Jocelyne Larocque, (3), of Canada, holds her silver medal after losing to the United States in the women’s gold medal hockey game at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Gangneung, South Korea, Thursday.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 23/2/2018 (661 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

GANGNEUNG, South Korea — Until that moment, she had done everything asked of her.

No one, on either team, had taken more shifts over 80 gruelling minutes of hockey — a mind-boggling 46 of them by game’s end — than Jocelyne Larocque.

Only one other skater on either team had logged more minutes on the ice than Larocque, who, at 30:55, had put in a day at the office that would have left even Dustin Byfuglien crying uncle.

Larocque would have been, in other words, completely exhausted — mentally and physically — by the time she was asked to do just one more thing for her team.

It was simultaneously the simplest of all the tasks that had been asked of her that day, and also the most difficult: just stand there and take it.

Take it as you watch your most hated rival, the U.S., celebrate on the ice after winning Olympic hockey gold in an epic 3-2 shootout victory over Canada’s national women’s team that was almost Shakespearian in its dimension.

Take it as you watch those American women drape themselves in the U.S. flag and, for the better part of 10 minutes, parade the ice to the most jingoistic chant in all of sports fandom: "U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.…"

And finally, but most importantly, just stand there and take it as an official from the International Olympic Committee hangs a silver medal around your neck that, to you, symbolizes nothing but failure and four years of wasted effort.

Well, Larocque took it, all right. And then she took it off.

And with that, all hell broke loose.

There is one centralized broadcast feed of all Olympic events, and that same feed is sent out to every TV rights-holder in the world. All of which is to say that the entire world — or at least a significant portion of it — saw what the camera saw: Larocque bowing her head to receive her medal during the on-ice medal presentation and then immediately removing it with her right hand as the presenter moved on to give her blue-line partner — and fellow Manitoban — Brigette Lacquette her medal.

Twitter erupted, as Twitter does, and within hours a 29-year-old small-town girl from Ste. Anne, who is by all reports quiet, dependable and shuns the spotlight, had become an internet pariah.

She was called a "disgrace." There were demands, many from Canadians, that she be kicked off the national team. Her Wikipedia entry was changed within hours to call her a sore loser.

People swore at her. American fans, whose team had finally won something in women’s hockey that mattered, piled on. People who never saw the game or the incident called for her head.

That was just online.

Back at the arena, some fans noticed what Larocque had done and began chanting at her, "Put the medal back on!"

The medal ceremony finally over, Larocque then had to face the media in the mixed zone. She answered only two questions, both of them mine.

The first question couldn’t have been simpler, seven words long and offering her a chance to explain herself: "You took your medal off — how come?"

Larocque answered, but not really. "It was just hard. I mean, we were going for gold and I’m proud of this whole team, but we were chasing that gold medal."

I tried again, this time with a more open-ended question that I thought might draw her out and explain her thinking in that moment: "Is there any consolation in silver?"

Again, Larocque didn’t offer much. "Umm, I mean yeah, once we reflect. But not in the moment."

I figured at that point I’d let one of at least a dozen other reporters standing around Larocque take a shot. But everyone just stared back at her blankly and Larocque seized on the pause to turn her back and walk away in search of what I can only imagine was the quiet and private place to cry that she’d craved ever since her team had lost the gold medal about 40 minutes earlier.

But she didn’t get far. The Globe and Mail reported that no sooner had Larocque escaped the reporters than she found an official with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) waiting to scold her, telling her what she had done was improper and mumbling something about "legal" reasons she had to wear the medal.

Now, we interrupt this story at this point to point out the IIHF is the same bloated, comically inept organization that chose to allow the NHL to boycott these Games rather than cough up a few million to meet the NHL’s demand that their travel and insurance expenses be covered.

As a general principle, if you’re doing something the IIHF doesn’t like, you’re probably doing something intelligent.

But I digress.

It had become clear by Friday morning Korea time (Thursday evening back home in Winnipeg) that this thing was probably not going to go away and Larocque was going to need to speak up — and actually say something meaningful this time.

When even the Huffington Post is calling you a bad Canadian, you’ve got yourself a public relations problem that isn’t going to go away on its own.

With a cone of silence descended over Hockey Canada, I reached out and asked them to either give me Larocque — so she could explain her actions to the largest media outlet in her home province — or give me a statement.

Three hours later, Hockey Canada turned down my interview request. An hour after that, they issued a statement to the world from Larocque, who apologized unequivocally, and from Team Canada general manager Melody Davidson, who used the gentlest of terms to agree that, yeah, Larocque probably shouldn’t have done that.

With that, Larocque’s 15 minutes in the pillory were finally, mercifully over and the internet moved on to its next victim.

Why did it take Hockey Canada almost 21 hours from the time Larocque removed that medal to finally get ahead of this story?

Good question.

If Larocque let her teammates down when she removed that medal, calling as it did into question her team’s sportsmanship, then Hockey Canada also let down Larocque, allowing her to twist in the hurricane winds of the internet for almost a day before finally throwing her a rope.

Look, in a fair world, Larocque’s life would never have been reduced to the worst thing she ever did. This is a woman who has been a defensive stalwart on Canada’s national team since 2011 and who led the team in scoring by a defenceman when they won Olympic gold in Sochi in 2014.

She is by all reports kind, gentle and has never met a puppy she wanted to eat.

But social media doesn’t do nuance — social media does outrage, and it needs to be fed 24/7.

Larocque walked into that buzz saw the moment she removed that medal from her neck. That’s on her, I suppose.

But to be honest, I’m not sure I blame her.

True story: I once got nominated for a journalism prize. If I had won it, I would have considered it to be the pinnacle of my career. I lost.

I took the framed certificate they gave me as a consolation prize and threw it in disgust into a corner, breaking the glass. But instead of throwing it out, I decided to hang it in my bathroom, directly across from the toilet, where it would serve as a daily reminder to work harder and smarter.

After a couple years of staring at that certificate, I felt differently about it. Eventually, I remembered it more as an accomplishment than a failure.

So I took it down and hung it in my office, where it hangs to this day, a reminder of the time I almost did something really good.

Yes, Larocque probably shouldn’t have taken that medal off. But now that she has, she should also hang it in her bathroom.

In time, she too may come to remember that medal — and the remarkable game that led up to it — with pride instead of pain. Alternatively, she will have the coolest bathroom wall forever.

Either way, unlike that gold-medal game, she cannot lose. And Larocque could probably use a win right about now.

paul.wiecek@freepress.mb.caTwitter: @PaulWiecek

Paul Wiecek

Paul Wiecek
Reporter (retired)

Paul Wiecek was born and raised in Winnipeg’s North End and delivered the Free Press -- 53 papers, Machray Avenue, between Main and Salter Streets -- long before he was first hired as a Free Press reporter in 1989.

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