All eyes on hockey final between U.S. and Canada


WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah - At 3 p.m. today, friends will go at each other for national pride and Olympic gold, and it's likely to go down as the most-watched event in the history of hockey.

But for short, you can just call it United States vs. Canada.

"I can't even imagine how many people are going to watch this one," said U.S. forward Jeremy Roenick. "It's going to be a ghost town all throughout Canada. I guarantee there won't be a single person on the streets."

Other than that, nothing is for certain except that one team will go home with a gold medal in hockey for the first time in more than 20 years. The United States is hoping coach Herb Brooks has just enough magic left to bring home a second gold medal to go along with the one he won in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y. Canada, inventors of the sport, hopes to end five decades of angst by bringing home its first gold since 1952.

"This is the greatest thing that has happened for a long, long time," said Wayne Gretzky, director of Team Canada Olympic hockey. "This will be the most-watched hockey game in the world - ever."

It should also be one of the most hotly contested. Both teams shrugged off a series of recent Olympic disappointments to get here - the United States beat Russia, 3-2, in the semifinals, while Canada beat Belarus, 7-1 - and both are plenty hungry to finish off the quest for gold with a happy ending.

Canada brings size and speed to the table, and a wealth of offensive firepower led by the best player in the world, Mario Lemieux. But it also brings the burden of knowing that a silver medal would be considered a complete failure back in Canada.

"It means a lot to us, to the players and the fans back home," Lemieux said. "It's something we haven't done in a long time. It means a lot to the whole country. We are all proud Canadians. Hockey is our sport back home. Everybody plays it, and everybody watches it. For us to have the chance right now to do something special for our country is something we'll cherish for a long time if we win the gold medal."

The burden isn't nearly as great for the Americans, but it's the chance to prove they're not inferior to their northern counterparts. The United States has talent, but it will rely mostly on its cohesiveness, its leadership and the knowledge that no American hockey team has lost on home soil since 1932, going 21-0-2.

"Canada definitely has some of the best players in the world," Roenick said. "They're highly respected, especially by us. They're our biggest rivals, but we have the most respect for them. They're our teammates and our friends. It's going to be unbelievable."

The United States won't necessarily have the outright home ice advantage it has had in its previous four contests. Canada has a large contingent of fans who expected the team to be in the gold-medal game since tickets became available years ago. The United States' appearance is still a surprise, considering a team made up of the same players finished sixth in Nagano, Japan.

"I would imagine it will be 60-40 split in favor of us," said U.S. forward Doug Weight. "I think you'll see a great hockey game with a great crowd."

Canada has had the United States' number over the years. The teams have faced each other in Olympic play 14 times, with the Canadians winning nine. The Americans have won twice, while the teams have tied three times.

However, the United States owns the edge in recent history outside the Olympics. A number of players on both teams took part in the United States' surprise victory over Canada in the 1996 World Cup. In that game, U.S. goalie Mike Richter was outstanding.

"This is what you wait your whole life for, to be in these situations," Richter said. "It's as fun as can be because you're trying to play your best."

For Gretzky, who put together Team Canada, it will be yet another chance for him to put his stamp on Canadian hockey. His popularity helped expand the game throughout the United States, and America has been his home for more than a decade. But today, he's strictly a Canadian.

"No one," he said, "remembers the team that wins silver."

For the gold

Matchup: United States vs. Canada

What: Men's hockey gold-medal game

Where: E Center, West Valley City, Utah

When: Today, 3 p.m.

TV: Chs. 11, 4

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