Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Olympic glory, courtesy of Germany

Rick Amann displays Albertville Olympics banner he presented tothe elementary schol in his hometown of Austin, Man. Photograph by Daniel Pi, Black News.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
January 13, 2010


The thermometer was at that precise point where the distinction between Fahrenheit and Celsius becomes meaningless.

Then there was the wind chill.

Rick Amann of Vancouver had to spend some time outdoors last Friday in Brandon, Man. He grew up on a prairie farm, so he knew to prepare. He dressed and dressed and dressed some more.

“Long underwear. A complete winter jogging strip. Plus another pair of jogging pants. On top, two more layers of windbreakers. A felt jacket. I had at least five layers.”

He donned a white toque and a white track suit. He looked like the Michelin man. On his hands were a pair of familiar red mittens in which he carried the Olympic torch.

Mr. Amann, 49, is one of Canada’s least-known former Winter Olympians. He took part in the Albertville Games of 1992 and the Lillehammer Games two years later.

Back then, his hands were covered by hockey gloves. He played defence for Germany, an underrated but hard-working squad that came within a goal of delivering an upset against his Canadian homeland.

The happy circumstance of his ancestry gave him an opportunity not available to many athletes in this hockey-mad land.

He was raised in Austin, Man., population 450, a farming village just south of the Trans-Canada Highway west of Winnipeg. (His passport gives his birthplace as MacGregor, which is just down the road and the site of the local hospital.) His father was a heavy-machinery mechanic, his mother the local postmaster.

He played his first hockey outdoors on natural ice, volunteering as an ice cleaner, improving his skating as he pushed a shovel around the ice. Young Rick got a few extra precious minutes on the ice with his stick and puck.

He left home at a young age to play junior hockey in Abbotsford and New Westminster. At 6-foot-1, 190-pounds, he was a mobile defenceman with good hands, though those were not always employed in the business of putting the puck in the net. Coach Ernie (Punch) McLean was more likely to be upset by a clean sheet than by a rap sheet.

“If you were playing for New Westminster you had to have a bit of an edge,” Mr. Amann said, “or you didn’t stay with the Bruins for long.”

In his final season with the Bruins, he scored 22 goals in 55 games, an impressive total for a defenceman, especially considering he spent the equivalent of more than three complete games in the penalty box.

A teammate’s tip led to a long career in Germany, where he played professionally for EHC Freiburg and Duesseldorfer EG, the latter a dynasty that recorded four German titles during Mr. Amann’s stint on the blueline.

Teased by a teammate that he did not even know the German national anthem, Mr. Amman had the lyrics printed out. He carried the sheet in his wallet for a dozen years, time during which he also made a point of learning the language and integrating as much as possible.

His Olympic career includes two assists in 16 games. The highlight was a quarterfinal match against Canada on Feb. 18, 1992. The Germans proved to be no patsies, holding the favoured Canadians to a 3-3 draw during regulation.

“(Eric) Lindros came over the blue line, bumped into me and fell down,” he said. “I remember thinking, ‘Geez, he fell over easy.’ Maybe he was off-balance, or caught an edge.”

As the game went into overtime, German television delayed a popular news broadcast. Some friends told him they pulled over to the side of the Autobahn to listen to the end of the game on the radio.

Canada ended up winning the shootout 3-2 to advance, eventually winning a silver medal.

With the Winter Olympics returning to Canada, Mr. Amann applied to be a torchbearer as close to his hometown as possible. He carried the torch for 300 metres along 18th Street in Brandon, where he was met at the passing point by his parents, his sister, a nephew and his family, as well as lots of cousins.

The day before, he made a pilgrimage to Austin, home of the Manitoba Agricultural Museum, which boasts Canada’s largest collection of vintage farm machinery. At an assembly at his old elementary school, he teared up as he told the pupils of the advantages he gained by having grown up in a rural community where neighbours help one another.

A financial partner at CN Rail, he will be busy during the upcoming Olympics as co-host of the German hockey team during next month’s Olympics. He is dedicated to ensuring the athletes and their family have a tremendous time in Vancouver. Because his own family felt gouged by hoteliers and others when they went to watch him in Europe, he has helped find about a dozen homes in his Edgemont neighbourhood of North Vancouver where relatives will be able to stay during the Games.

Should any of the players or family visit the Amann household, they will be able to see on the wall a tattered sheet with the lyrics of the German national anthem, a reminder of an unlikely journey for a smalltown boy from rural Manitoba.

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