Hockey: America's No. 6 sport meets Canada's national obsession at the Olympics

WASHINGTON - In one country, it's a relatively popular niche sport with a passionate following. In the other, it's an identity-shaping national obsession depicted on the $5 bill.

Those hockey worlds will collide for the second day in a row today as the U.S. and Canada face off in the men's Olympic semifinal.

One American website has expressed amusement over hockey's ability to bring the neighbouring country to a standstill.

After the women's final it ran a series of videos under the headline: "Canadians Freaking Out Over Winning Hockey Gold Is Just Fantastic."

That Deadspin post said: "People spend their whole lives looking for something to love like Canadians love hockey. So what happens when you throw in a sudden death win for a gold medal?"

It even showed images of the Canadian politician perhaps best known in America — Rob Ford. Next to an image of Ford joyously bouncing up and down, the site expressed concern over the toll being taken on the Toronto mayor's knees.

Canadians from coast to coast will be hoping for another moment just like that today. The Americans tuning into the game would prefer a reversal of fortune.

The contest gives the U.S. a chance to avenge a stunning collapse in which the Canadian women scored three late goals to win the gold.

For the second day in a row, people from both countries will watch the game together near the White House. The Canadian embassy on Pennsylvania Avenue will host a hockey-watching event as it often does for high-stakes Canada-U.S. games.

The street's most famous resident won't be at the party. But Pennsylvania Avenue dweller Barack Obama will be looking to win back a case of beer from Prime Minister Stephen Harper, after he lost one in Wednesday's bet.

Even their former spokesmen have gone double or nothing.

When Canada beat the U.S. men for the gold in 2010, the president's then-spokesman Robert Gibbs was forced to wear a Maple Leaf jersey to a White House press briefing. He and longtime Harper aide Dimitri Soudas have repeated their bet: the loser must wear the jersey, while the winner gets a bottle of wine.

If history is any guide, the odds are longer on the American side.

Canada beat the U.S. in the first Olympic hockey final in 1920. It won the last two times they faced in a final, in 2002 and 2010. And there were a number of shellackings in between.

The U.S. did win at Squaw Valley in 1960, and at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

But when it comes to obsessing over the game, it's no contest.

A Harris poll last month suggested hockey was the favourite sport of five per cent of Americans. This placed it sixth, after NFL football (35 per cent), Major League Baseball (14 per cent), college football (11 per cent), auto racing (7 per cent), and pro basketball (6 per cent).

About one in 600 Americans were registered to play hockey last year, or 0.0016 per cent.

That's compared to 1 in 55 Canadians, according to the International Ice Hockey Federation.

Still, the Americans are catching up in raw numbers.

There were 510,279 Americans registered to play last year according to the IIHF, compared to 625,152 in Canada. The numbers actually flattened out last year in the U.S., after significant increases.

That growing enrolment is already reflected in the NHL, where more than one-fifth of the players are now American compared to the minuscule numbers of generations past.

So maybe the basketball-loving U.S. president isn't quite a hockey fanatic, and maybe there's no evidence yet that Obama will even watch the game he's got a case of beer riding on.

But some Americans clearly do care.

Just ask Madeleine Albright. The former secretary of state tweeted her congratulations to the Canadians yesterday and offered words of consolation to her own side.

"Tough game — but very proud of #TeamUSA," she wrote.

"Rematch in 2018."

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