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Number four in the medal count, number one in hockey

Fourth!

Fourth in the medal standings with 17 medals placed over the heads of Canada's best athletes – make that the world's best athletes.

And six of those 17 shone with a golden hue.

Just to top it all off, two of those gold medals were for men's and women's hockey, the crown jewels of the Winter Olympics.

This year our men and women brought those medals home to Canada where they rightly belong.

OK, so this is old news but let's face it – it was a momentous event.

These Olympics will go down in the annals of Canadian history as one of our finer moments in the international sporting arena, relegating Nagano to a distant, almost forgotten memory.

There was a lot riding on Sunday's game. To be defeated by the Czechs and the unstoppable Hasek four years ago is one thing but to be defeated by the Americans is quite another.

For Canadians from coast to coast, Sunday served not only as a sweet double victory over our Yankee cousins but it also reconfirmed the fact that hockey truly belongs to Canada – nowhere else.

More than Mounties, maple syrup, back bacon or beer, it is hockey that defines who we are as a nation.

The Brits can have their Royal Family, their endless cups of tea and their football and their football hooligans. The Aussies can have their Vegemite, their Ayres Rock and their boomerangs. And the Americans, well they can have everything else, except for hockey.

Hockey is pretty much the only thing that can get our collective patriotic juices flowing.

That patriotism was out in full force on Sunday. It was evident in the wooly red toques on our heads and the masses of people who took to the streets in the victory celebrations.

It was apparent in the palpable tension that gripped millions of viewers in living rooms and bars across the nation.

But how did hockey come to represent everything that is Canadian?

How did our collective national consciousness get wrapped into a puck, a stick and a slab of ice?

Officially hockey's place in our country was established in Parliament on May 12 1994 when the Canadian government passed Bill C-212, a.k.a. Canada's National Sport Act.

This Act recognized hockey as Canada's National Winter Sport, relegating lacrosse with the dubious honour of Canada's National Summer Sport.

Before that time, lacrosse was the national sport although this was never officially recognized in Parliament.

It was just a century ago that Canada was winning the gold in lacrosse, both in the 1904 and 1908 Olympics.

It must have been the same feelings that gripped the nation 100 years ago when fans across the country saw their lacrosse players recognized as the best in the world.

Back in 1867, before hockey had even come to Canada, lacrosse was the culturally binding force across our country. At Confederation the motto of the sport was established as "Our Country-Our Game."

In the formative years after Confederation, lacrosse became a unifying force in Canada, bringing east and west together.

But over the course of the 20th century, interest in the sport slowly waned and the sport was later dropped from the Olympic roster altogether.

Hockey meanwhile got stronger and stronger, especially as the huge rivalry developed between the protestant Maple Leafs and the catholic Canadiens.

With the NHL expansion in 1967 from six teams to 12, its place in Canada became firmly established.

These Olympics will only serve to deepen our love for the game and for the legends it creates.

It will create more die-hard fans in a country already full of die-hard fans and it will tempt more kids into the sport, especially into women's hockey.

The women's games in Salt Lake were of a superior quality to the games four years ago (wish I could say the same about the refereeing).

It's a sign that the women's hockey is just going to get better and better.

All of our athletes made us proud this year, from our speed skaters to our figure skaters to our curlers.

But 2002 will be forever remembered not as the Games shrouded in figure skating controversy or Russian threats or speed skating glory.

Rather they will be remembered as the year that Canada reclaimed hockey.

This is not to take away from the achievements of Jamie Sale and David Pelletier or Marc Gagne or Catriona LeMay Doan or any of the other accomplishments of our athletes.

The medal standings are definitely important and our fourth place is a tremendous feat.

But I wonder, had we been first in the standings without hockey gold, would we be as proud?

I somehow think not.

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