When John Furlong emigrated from Ireland in 1974, the customs officer greeted him with “Welcome to Canada. Make us better”―an imperative that has defined Furlong’s life ever since. A passionate, accomplished athlete with a track record of community service, John was a volunteer for Vancouver’s incipient Olympic bid movement when it began in 1996, and then spent the next 14 years living and breathing the Olympics. Furlong and his organizing team, including 25,000 Blue Jacket Volunteers and many partners, orchestrated a remarkable Winter Games. Patriot Hearts is the story of how they did it.
Early on, Furlong realized the Olympics weren’t about highways and buildings and tourism, they were about people: the athletes, but also everyday Canadians who wanted to see their country shine on the world stage. He pioneered a vision for the games that would capture the hearts and minds of Canadians. A games for the many and not the few.
Working with Globe and Mail columnist Gary Mason, Furlong recounts the leadup to the Games and describes how he handled seemingly insurmountable setbacks ― such as the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili, a global recession and the washedout snow at Cypress Bowl ― to achieve a runaway success and, ultimately, a pivotal moment of nationhood.
Patriot hearts will be published on February 11, 2011, a year after Canada welcomed the world at the opening ceremonies.
By the time I arrived at the arena it was jammed with people wearing the now iconic Team Canada jerseys. Even though it was more than an hour before game time people were already blowing horns and beginning chants of “We Want Gold, We Want Gold.”
This was the one event where I had hoped to be sitting with members of my executive team; it was the last day of the Olympics and we’d been through so much together. This was going to be perhaps the most historic hockey game in the nation’s history. If we won, I wanted to be celebrating with the people who had become family to me over the last several years.
But I had been asked to sit with the big bosses, Dr. Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC and René Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. It was a request I felt I couldn’t turn down.
After taking my seat I reminded René of a conversation we’d had back in 2002 at the Salt Lake Olympics, when Vancouver was still bidding for the Games. It was the day of the men’s gold medal game, Canada versus the United States, one we would ultimately win. Imagine the same final in Vancouver, on Canadian soil, I told René at the time. It would be one of the biggest things ever to happen in the country. It would be one of the biggest things ever to happen to international ice hockey. René didn’t need to be convinced.
I think from that moment on he wanted our bid to succeed.
While confident of the outcome of this Olympic rematch, I had some nervous energy to burn off so I walked to the concourse and decided to go looking for Blue Jackets, the incredible volunteer army that had played a pivotal role in making the Games such a triumph. I wanted to thank each one of them for their incredible service in the name of their country. I spoke to as many as I could before it was time to drop the puck.
Everyone in the country wanted Canada to win, but there was more at stake than just Olympic hockey bragging rights. The Games weren’t going to be judged a failure if we lost. I knew what we had accomplished, was aware of the unprecedented nationalistic fervour the Olympics had ignited across the country. But I felt winning would mean the difference between ever-lasting glory and a fortnight that would still be considered great but not, perhaps, become immortalized.
A gold medal would be Canada’s fourteenth, establishing a new Olympic record for any nation at the Winter Games, a record that would be difficult to break for a long time. Victory on this Sunday afternoon would also give the country what it most wanted from these Games: men’s hockey gold. A win would go down in our history as a uniquely Canadian moment that would be written about in books and talked about for generations. It was much more than just a hockey game.
By the time the puck was dropped the crowd was on its feet, chanting, making more noise than I’d ever heard in a hockey rink. Imagine a 747 revving its engines inside a hangar—that’s how loud it felt. All around me were adults and children screaming their hearts out. I could only shake my head in wonder at how sport could transform a cross-section of Canadians into a roiling mass of kinetic energy.
I knew nothing about hockey before arriving in Canada from Ireland. But I quickly learned just what the game meant to people here. It was to Canadians what Gaelic football was to those back home. And the more I came to understand the game, the more I realized Canadians had rallied around a sport that defined them and their spirit. Hockey players were among the toughest, most fearless athletes of any sport. Canadians were among the most resilient and courageous people. In so many ways, the sport and the people who loved it were a natural match.
Large parts of the gold medal game remain a blur to me. I had a million things on my mind that afternoon, as I did most days during the Games. The closing ceremonies would be taking place just a few hours later. Getting 60,000 people into BC Place Stadium was a massive undertaking. I worried about that. I had a speech to give as well. I was fretting about how my French was going to go over. There was still a cross-country skiing race to get off up at Whistler.
So my focus wasn’t entirely there when Canada went up 1–0 in the first period and then 2–0 in the second. I couldn’t have told you who scored the goals at the time, but now I can, of course. So thank you, Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry. I will never forget, however, the sound in the rink when the pucks went in, the blast of the horn, the spontaneous delirium of the crowd. Jacques Rogge, normally so reserved and stoic, even cracked a smile.
I thought that quietly he wanted Canada to win because he understood what it would mean, ultimately, to the Games and the place that would be reserved for them in our annals if the Olympic experience was capped off by hockey gold.
Before the second period was finished, however, the United States would make the score 2–1 on a goal by Ryan Kesler, whom I had often watched play in this building for the hometown Vancouver Canucks. Now he was the enemy, no doubt an odd feeling for him and the many Canucks fans in the rink that day. After his goal I felt the energy seep out of the building a little bit. I could sense the worry and dread and yet I remained cautiously optimistic.
Beside me, meantime, René was absolutely delighted. “All we need now is another American goal,” he said during the second intermission.
“Another goal,” I screamed at him. “Are you out of your mind?”
“No, no, John,” he said, smiling. “It would be unbelievable for the ratings. We need this game to go to a shoot-out. That would be perfect.”
“No it would not,” I screamed. “Now you stop that right now, do you understand? We do not want or need overtime. We do not want a shootout. We want this game over, finished, and wrapped up, now.”
I spent most of the third period tightly clutching the edges of my seat. I wasn’t alone. I swear I could hear my heart beating, or maybe it was the collective sound of everyone else’s. The last minute of regulation time was pure torture. When the U.S.’s Zach Parise tied the game with 24 seconds left I closed my eyes and covered my face in my hands. Nearby, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was doing the same. I looked over at Jacques. His face was ashen. I looked at René. He couldn’t stop smiling.
“René,” I said. “I’m just telling you that if the U.S. scores in overtime I’m going to stab you in the heart with my pen. I am, René. I am going to do that.”
And then I took my pen out of my jacket and held it high in the air. “Remember,” I said.
I’m not sure I was smiling.
I don’t remember leaving my seat during the intermission. I was paralyzed with fear. On that front I was no different from most people in the building. We all wanted it so badly. You could read the tension on their faces. No one was smiling. People rubbed their hands nervously. Others chewed on fingers. Those who were religious prayed.
I’m not sure I took a breath again until seven minutes and 40 seconds into overtime. When Sidney Crosby scored I jumped up and raised my hands in the air. It was like a valve blew in the arena and a beautiful energy was released. Everyone was hugging and kissing and jumping up and down. I saw many people crying. People looked so relieved. Some looked exhausted, as if they had played in the game themselves.
On some level they had. It was like all of the country was on that bench alongside the players.