WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah - It's no easy feat for a man with a bad back to carry the weight of an entire nation. But Mario Lemieux is trying. He's trying awfully hard.
Lemieux scored twice yesterday to help Canada's struggling hockey team earn a 3-3 tie against the Czech Republic at the E Center in the final game of round-robin pool play for the 2002 Olympics. Canada advanced to play Finland tomorrow, while the Czech Republic will face Russia.
For the Canadians, it was a game worthy more of relief than celebration. The country that invented the sport hasn't won an Olympic gold medal in it in 50 years and was facing tremendous pressure after two lackluster performances.
"There's certainly a lot of pressure on us, but I think the last couple of days we've jelled as a team," Lemieux said. "It meant a lot for all 22 guys sitting on that bench."
Lemieux's goals didn't come easily, thanks to some brilliant net work by Czech goalie Dominik Hasek, who made 33 saves. The one he didn't make, however, was huge. With Canada trailing 2-1 near the end of the second period, Lemiuex fired a shot high on goal. Hasek gloved the puck, but tumbled backward into the net. After reviewing the play, referees declared it a goal.
"Dominik's whole body was clearly over the line," Lemieux said. "The puck was in."
Czech forward Martin Havlat gave the Canadians trouble all game, scoring two goals off blown defensive assignments, but it was Jiri Dopita who nearly did them in with a third-period goal with just under six minutes to play. Though Canada outshot the Czechs 36-20, Hasek almost made it stand up before Joe Nieuwendyk scored with three minutes left to tie it 3-3.
Afterward, all was clearly not well in Team Canada's camp. Wayne Gretzky, the executive director of Team Canada Olympic hockey, was livid in the post-game news conference about a number of non-calls on the Czechs, including a clear check in the back by Roman Hamrlik on Theo Fleury in the final 30 seconds.
"I'm tired of it," Gretzky said. "I'm sick and tired of people taking shots at Canadian hockey. When we do stuff like that, we're goons. When Europeans do it, it's OK. There should have been four or five penalties in this game and a few suspensions as well."
Normally about as controversial as vanilla ice cream, Gretzky said that Hamrlik's actions were "cowardly" and that he should be suspended for the rest of the tournament. He also said he's tired of Team Canada's woes being played up in the media, calling it "American propaganda," and suggested the rest of the world was taking glee in the team's struggles.
"If you want to talk about hockey, you're going to talk about the Canadians because we're the biggest story in hockey," Gretzky said. "Everyone's loving us not doing well. They loved the start we had. ... It's such a crock of bull. We've got great guys in our locker room and nobody wants us to win but our own players.
"People don't understand the kind of pressure these guys are under," he said. "They don't understand the B.S. our guys have to go through. But we're still here. We're still standing and we're very proud."
United States 8, Belarus 1: They could have folded. They could have pointed fingers, questioned their coach, panicked and resorted to times of old.
But down 1-0 to lightly regarded Belarus after a hectic first period, the U.S. team refocused and dominated, scoring eight unanswered goals to turn its final pool-play game into a rout.
The win got the Americans off to their best Olympic start since 1980 at 2-0-1, and it also earned them a top seed and date with Germany in tomorrow's quarterfinals.
"I think we feel like we can beat any team in this town," said U.S. forward Jeremy Roenick, who had two assists during a five-goal third period. "It's a confident feeling, but it's focused. We know what we have to accomplish and we're doing it."