Notes from the North

Whether you believe the American men's hockey team quit before the bronze medal game began or that they waited until after Finland scored two in the early part of the second period to quit, I think we can all agree: the US team quit today.

At least some of them did. I personally don't think Phil Kessel quit. You don't go down on your knees on your own goal-line to block a point-blank shot if you're planning to quit. And those American defensemen who kept throwing themselves in front of slap shots didn't quit.

But let's accept the truth of it: many of the hockey players wearing the red-white-and-blue today gave up, mailed it in, quit trying at some point before the final whistle in Sochi.

And let's accept another truth: these hockey players didn't quit because they are American. We've seen hockey players from other countries (including my beloved Canada) quit before. No, Americans are not, by definition, quitters. In fact, it's been my experience that, on average, people from the US are less likely to accept that a cause is hopeless than just about anyone else in the world. They tend to keep working and working and working until the hopeless case gets resolved.

The players on the US men's hockey team didn't quit today because they are American. They quit because they are professionals.

I know, that sounds like a contradiction in terms, doesn't it? We call someone a "professional" when they do their duty, they do their best, even when the odds seem against them, when they don't seem to have anything to gain from putting in the blood, sweat and tears required to do their job.

The American hockey players, like the players on many of the other Olympic teams, are professional athletes. They get paid to exert themselves. They are richly compensated for their blood, sweat and tears.

In fact, they have learned almost from the first moment that they put on ice skates that they deserve to be rewarded, personally rewarded, for their athletic endeavours. They've been given love, admiration, adulation as a result of their abilities. They've been forgiven for their misdeeds, moved to the front of the line, paid great deals of money merely because they can skate, shoot and score.

And, if they've been taught that they are entitled to be rewarded for their athletic efforts, it should not be surprising that these professional athletes have also learned the corollary lesson: that, if there is no reward of value to them waiting for them, then they are not required, not expected to work hard.

You want proof of this corollary? How many times have we seen an professional athlete "elevate his game" when he's heading into free agency? How many times have we seen a professional athlete's performance go into the dumper just after he signs that big new contract? How many times have we seem individual professional athletes (and, in fact, entire teams of professional athletes) "mail it in" once they are out of the playoff race? Once they have nothing really to play for?

Take, by contrast, the amateur athletes who took part in the women's Figure Skating competition, athletes such as Mao Asada of Japan and Yulia Lipintskaya of Russia.

Asada, a veteran who came into the Sochi Olympics as one of the favourites, had a disastrous Short Progam. Instead of challenging for the Gold, Asada sat in 16th place heading into the final Free Skate with absolutely no hope of a medal. Did she pack it in? Did she decide to take it easy in the arduous Free Skate, substituting simple double jumps instead of triples, playing it safe and easy rather than putting her all into her Free Skate? Did Asada, with no hope of any colour medal, quit?

Nope. She went out and skated the best Free Skate of her life. With only personal and national pride on the line, Asada put everything she had into that final performance. She scored a personal best and jumped all the way into sixth place overall.

This amateur displayed absolute professionalism.

And what about 15-year-old Lipintskaya? Coming into the Free Skate, she sat a strong fifth. She knew that, if she put up her best final performance, she was a real threat for the gold. But it was not to be. Lipintskaya fell not once but twice in the early part of her 4.5-minute Free Skate and all hope of a medal disappeared.

Did the teenaged amateur give up after her first, or her second, fall? Did she simply "mail it in" with no hope of medals remaining? Did she decide it wasn't worth the effort, the pain, to keep working even when she stood no chance of a podium finish?

No way. The youngster pulled it all together and wowed the crowd, and the judges, with the remainder of her program. She worked hard, she put her heart and soul into the rest of her performance, despite the fact that there wasn't much to gain from it other than personal satisfaction and national recognition.

These two amateurs showed true professionalism when all hope of a medal was lost.

The hockey professionals, on the other hand, played true to form and stopped working once it became clear they had nothing, personally, to gain.

The players on the American hockey team didn't quit because they are Americans. They quit because they are professionals.

And professional athletes are often the least professional of all the Olympic athletes.


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