By Steve Keating
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada's ambitious goal is to top the medals table at the Vancouver Winter Olympics but it will be a hollow achievement to much of the Great White North unless the men's ice hockey gold is among the final tally.
Hockey's place in Canadian culture is closer to religion than a simple sporting pastime, a unifying force in a country of 33 million people that is often split by politics and language.
The sport is part of the national identity, a rite of passage between fathers and sons and more recently mothers and daughters as the game has evolved beyond its traditional gender boundaries.
Generations of Canadians grew up listening to Hockey Night In Canada on the radio and decades later the Saturday night tradition continues intact on high-definition television.
Canada hopes to win its first gold medal at a home Olympics this time, after failing at the 1976 Montreal Summer Games and the Calgary Winter Games in 1988. To hockey fans, the only really important thing is the men's gold which will be decided on the final day, February 28.
A scene of children playing pond hockey can be found on the Canadian $5 bill while a lucky Loonie (Canadian dollar coin) secretly buried under the ice at the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics, where Canada ended a 50-year gold-medal drought, is now a national treasure housed in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Many of the country's great novelists have pondered hockey's role in Canadian society, Morley Callaghan calling it, "our own national drama," while Bruce Kidd and John Macfarlane described it as "the dance of life, an affirmation that despite the deathly chill of winter we are alive."
From Newfoundland to Vancouver Island hockey touches the lives of Canadians young and old. Children are introduced to the game at an early age, some learning to skate and hold a stick as soon as they can walk, while some people go to their graves wearing team jerseys.
Canada's Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a hockey historian currently writing a book on the early days of professional hockey and children grow up following the adventures of the Screech Owls, a fictional peewee hockey team as it competes around the world solving murders and mysteries, including the theft of the Stanley Cup.
Hockey is a contradiction of graceful skill and brutal violence that runs counter to Canadians' modest, polite image, and novelist Hugh MacLennan theorized that the sport gave Canadians the same release that "strong liquor gives a repressed man."
"Hockey means everything and it means way too much at the same time," Roy MacGregor, one of Canada's most respected hockey writers and author of several defining books on the sport, along with 24 installments of the Screech Owl series, told Reuters.
"It is something Canadians have seized upon that we like to think is the image the world has of us, as some industrious team...cooperative, strong, resilient, victorious, magnificent and most of all humble victors in hockey.
"It's the image we have of ourselves and what we wish the world would see when they look upon boring old Canada. The only time I have seen Canadians absolutely swagger is when they are winning at hockey."
Such is the grip hockey holds on Canadians that failure to win gold in Vancouver could plunge the country into a national depression much like in 1998 when professional players were first allowed to compete at the Olympics and a team led by "The Great One" Wayne Gretzky failed to return home with a medal.
The failure in Nagano reverberated across the entire country, with the reasons debated in local bars and the House of Commons resulting in a landmark Hockey Summit that dissected every aspect of the game from the grassroots to the NHL.
It is that unbridled passion and crushing pressure that will form the backdrop to a competition for the 23 young men hand-picked to carry Canada's immense hopes into what is already being described as the greatest hockey tournament of all time.
"Pressure, there is pressure if you are competing in an under-17 tournament, there is pressure at the Spengler Cup or the world juniors, there is pressure every time any team puts on the Maple Leaf because the goal is always the same -- win gold," Johnny Misley, Hockey Canada executive vice-president told Reuters.
"Canadians expect to win gold, they demand gold and anyone representing Canada grows up knowing that. Canadians feel pride and accomplishment through hockey.
"One thing that unifies our country is hockey. The pressure to succeed is not just on 23 men and women...it is on 33 million Canadians."
(Editing by Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story email email@example.com)