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Welcome to Canada, where the little guy loses

Professional hockey players cut in front of old ladies waiting for flu shots, and a Chinatown grocer gets charged for catching a thief.

A girl braves a H1N1 influenza vaccination shot and a regular flu shot in Vancouver, British Columbia, Oct. 26, 2009. Last week, as people from high-risk groups lined up around city blocks to receive their swine flu vaccines, players from the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs jumped to the front of the line, causing widespread outrage. (Andy Clark/Reuters)

TORONTO, Canada — Professional hockey players are used to being transformed from heroes to bums depending on their performance in a game. Rarely, however, do they attract the fury of even those who care little about the sport.

It happened in Canada last week when news broke that players on two teams — the Calgary Flames and the Toronto Maple Leafs — jumped to the front of the line to be vaccinated against swine flu.

The news came as lineups reserved for high-risk groups stretched around city blocks. That meant that highly paid athletes had jumped ahead of pregnant women, children below the age of 6, and people with chronic illnesses, many of whom had waited up to seven hours at immunization clinics. The preferential treatment also came as some clinics were forced to shut down because they ran out of vaccine. (Also last week, in Ukraine, which is gripped by a swine flu pandemic and in the throes of election leadup, H1N1 became fodder for the biggest political football match to date.)

As outrage grew in Canada, the players and coaches for the most part ducked the media. But a few tried to justify the move.

John Mitchell, who plays center for the Leafs, insisted that pro athletes are at a higher risk of contracting bugs.

“We go from city to city and rink to rink,” Mitchell told reporters. “There's people that might be an avid fan who doesn't want to miss a game even though he's feeling a little sick. They come to the rink. You never know what will happen from there. We have every bit of a chance of catching it as everybody else, maybe a little bit more.”

By the time Mitchell voiced his defense, a pattern had emerged. It was learned that the board of governors of seven Toronto hospitals — often stacked with the well-heeled — had also jumped the long queues and received the H1N1 vaccine. And, a private Toronto clinic that serves executives of corporations who each pay $2,300 to become clients had received 3,000 doses of the scarce vaccine.

Similar debate erupted south of the border when Wall Street heavy weights like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup were given doses of swine flu vaccine. A Goldman Sachs spokesperson insisted the shots would be given only to high-risk employees.

In Canada, provincial health ministers in Alberta and Ontario have vowed investigations. Two health bureaucrats in Alberta were fired for apparently having approved the preferential treatment given the Calgary Flames. Still, the incidents confirmed what every school child knows: The big wheels get the grease.

Said Sharleen Stewart, president of a union that represents Ontario health care workers: “What we are seeing evokes scenes from the Titanic, the privileged pushing to the front and leaving vulnerable women and children to a chilling fate.”