For Canadians, hockey is golden


WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- In a sport where toughness is measured in scars, stitches and missing teeth, it's almost unheard of to see a grown man break down and cry.

But when the final seconds ticked off the clock yesterday in Canada's 5-2 win over the United States in the Olympic gold medal hockey game, there seemed to be enough Canadian tears to melt the ice of the E Center Ice Arena.

For 50 long, frustrating years, Canada had watched its Olympic hockey teams struggle to succeed in the sport the country invented. But all that angst was washed away yesterday by 60 minutes of nearly perfect play, as Team Canada became the first team in 70 years to defeat an American Olympic hockey squad on home ice.

"This is a great moment for a proud country," said Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky. "As a nation, we desperately needed to win this tournament."

The game marked the final competition of the 17-day Salt Lake Olympics, which ended last night with a fireworks-laden closing ceremony. Salt Lake played host to 2,532 athletes from 78 nations, the largest Winter Games ever.

The U.S. men's hockey silver gave the American Olympic team 34 medals, leaving the United States one behind Germany, the medal total leader for the games. Among those U.S. medals were the first Winter Games golds by an African-American (Vonet- ta Flowers in bobsled) and a Hispanic-American (Derek Parra in speed skating).

Yesterday's gold-medal match didn't quite live up to its billing as the greatest hockey game ever, but it had its moments, and will likely go down as one of the most-watched hockey games ever. The United States -- which last won a gold medal in hockey in Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980 -- hung with the faster, more talented Canadians for 2 1/2 periods, but in the end didn't have enough magic left to pull out the victory. The last time the United States lost a hockey game at home in the Olympics was 1932, also to Canada.

"We don't have anything to feel bad about," said U.S. captain Chris Chelios. "It was a great accomplishment winning a silver medal. We're proud of that. Hopefully, this helps out for the generation that didn't get to see the 1980 Olympics as a kid."

For Canada, the win was equal parts joy and relief. Perhaps no team in the Olympics was under greater pressure than Team Canada to deliver a gold medal, and it showed early in the tournament when the team struggled, losing in the preliminary round to Sweden, 5-2.

"You don't know what it's like to have a piano on your back. No other team had more pressure than ours," defenseman Al MacInnis said. "Everybody in Canada was watching with the same intensity that we played the game with. It's amazing the way a sport can bring the country together."

As well as Team Canada played, it didn't start the game well. The United States jumped out to a 1-0 lead at 8:49 on a breakaway goal by Tony Amonte, and Jeremy Roenick nearly made it 2-0 minutes later, just missing the net on a three-on-one break.

"We caught them pinching and cheating an extra defenseman in their offensive attack," Chelios said. "They played aggressive, but they had a lot of confidence that they could get away with it. After [the first goal], they came back and showed a lot of character."

After an early flurry of shots, the United States got winded. During the entire tournament, Team USA had excelled at not turning the puck over at mid-ice, but after an emotional 3-2 semifinal win over Russia on Friday, the Americans didn't have the energy to keep the puck away from Canada's athletic defensemen. Canada got two goals from Paul Kariya and Jarome Iginla in a span of four minutes at the end of the first period, putting itself in control the rest of the way.

"It's tough. I think we were a little tired out there," said U.S. coach Herb Brooks.

The United States valiantly fought back to tie the game at 2-2 on a power-play goal by Brian Rafalski in the second period, which came just minutes after Canada failed to score on a two-man advantage after two penalties by the United States.

But Canada's Joe Sakic, who was named the tournament's MVP, beat American goalie Mike Richter off a beautiful pass from Ed Jovanovski just three minutes later to take the lead for good.

Canada tacked on two more goals late in the third period to seal the win. The Canadian fans capped off the victory singing "O Canada" with less than a minute to play.

"When the fans were singing like that, I was really fighting to hold back tears," MacInnis said.

Yesterday's game was perhaps just as important to the future of the NHL as well. Four years ago at the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, the league was hoping the Olympics would boost interest in hockey in North America, partially because NHL players were competing for the first time. But the experiment didn't go quite as planned, as Team Canada finished fourth and the United States sixth.

The NHL, which interrupted its season for two weeks to allow its players to play again this year, has been noncommittal about agreeing for 2006, when the Winter Games go to Turin, Italy.

"I really hope the decision to not play in the Olympics doesn't happen," said Team Canada coach Pat Quinn.

Yesterday's game also provided one of the best moments of the Olympics when afterward, the players took turns kissing a Canadian dollar, which they had secretly planted at center ice before the tournament for good luck.

"I hope the guy that helped us put it under the ice doesn't get fired now," said Gretzky, holding up the coin in the post-game news conference. "We're taking it with us back to the Hall of Fame."

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