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Whoa, Canada

Gretzky devastated after team's elimination by Russia

Posted: Wednesday February 22, 2006 9:39PM; Updated: Thursday February 23, 2006 11:27AM
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Wayne Gretzky
Wayne Gretzky came to Turin under a cloud and leaves the Games on another low note.
AP
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TURIN, Italy -- Wayne Gretzky's heartbreak began late in the third period. Sitting on the edge of an aluminum bench high above the rink, Canada's executive director rocked back and forth with sagging shoulders and folded arms. With one desperate minute left to tie Russia, Gretzky got up and gripped the railing behind Canada's empty net. "I really felt strongly that something good was going to happen, that we were going to get a fluky goal or head into overtime with a power play situation," Gretzky said. Instead, with a half minute to go, defenseman Chris Pronger took a penalty for holding and goalie Martin Brodeur skated back to the net. Ten seconds into Russia's power play, Gretzky watched with a bird's-eye view as forward Alex Kovalev slipped a puck past Brodeur's reach to seal Canada's fate.

Perhaps in his final exit, Gretzky, dressed in a black suit and black coat, hurried out. To watch Russia's entire team storm the rink in a giant red mass, celebrating its 2-0 quarterfinal shutout over his team, was too much to take. With the elimination of Canada, the defending champion, Russia will meet Sweden in the semifinals and Finland will take on the Czech Republic in the other matchup on Friday.

"I feel tremendously responsible that we didn't win," Gretzky said afterward. "Quite honestly, I'm going to reassess where I fit in and what I'm going to do in the future. Hockey Canada is wonderful and our country is great. I love it dearly, but I'm human. It's tough and nerve-wracking."

The Phoenix head coach hasn't had much to celebrate the last three months. After the recent loss of his mother and maternal grandmother, Gretzky's life soon collided with a betting-ring scandal. Rick Tocchet, his close friend and associate coach in Phoenix, has been charged with promoting gambling, money laundering and conspiracy by New Jersey authorities. Then there is Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, who sat with her husband in the stands at the Esposizioni rink and who has been linked with betting more than $100,000 on football.

Gretzky now takes the blame for personnel decisions he made in assembling a team that was touted as the gold medal favorite. During a 15-minute press conference in which he sighed and dropped the word "devastation" seven times, a visibly worn-out Gretzky admitted he was responsible for passing over young hotshots like Sidney Crosby, Jason Spezza and Eric Staal in favor of much older veterans like three-time Olympian Joe Sakic and 35-year-old Kris Draper.

Despite a superstar cast, who earn a combined $97.9 million in the NHL, Canada was held scoreless in three of its last four games and scored only once in its last 12 periods. Russia goaltender Evgeni Nabokov stopped all 27 shots in his third shutout of the tournament.

Throughout the Games, Canadian defensemen failed to move the puck well in the neutral zone, looking tentative and fragmented on the bigger Olympic-sized rink. Then there was the team's disastrous power play, in which Canada was 0-for-8 against Russia. "Maybe we were too spread out. We were not playing our hockey," Sakic said. "It just didn't happen for us. There was a lot of pressing."

Russian defenseman Darius Kasparaitis was more succinct, saying, "Team Canada had great coaching, but maybe they left their offensive power at home."

Russia, meanwhile, has been riding its success on a trio of brash young forwards -- Ilya Kovalchuk, 22, Evgeni Malkin, 19, and Alexander Ovechkin, 20. Malkin, the No. 2 draft pick in '04 who plays for Metallurg Magnitogorsk, leads the threesome in points with two goals and four assists. Ovechkin leads Team Russia in goals after scoring his fifth in his sixth game on Wednesday. Ovechkin started a then-scoreless third period with a brilliant goal that shot under the crossbar with such force it bounced back out. The Washington Capitals' rookie nearly crashed into a referee as he jumped on the ice and raised his stick in the air.

Clutching a white teddy bear and smiling afterward, Ovechkin described the emotional win. "I feel good," he said. "We beat a great team. I know everybody in my country is jumping and drink lots of vodka."

Dynamic and brilliant, Ovechkin's flair can be maddening to opponents. When he scored during the third period against the U.S. in round-robin play, Ovechkin glided to center ice and put two fingers to his lips. "He's the first player I've coached against that blew me a kiss when he scored," Gretzky said.

More frustration lies ahead for Gretzky and his staff, who spent the better part of the day gearing up for the big showdown with Russia by watching the famous 1972 Summit Series. The intense rivalry now puts Canada 1-8 in Olympic faceoffs.

Reminded of his own disappointment at the 1998 Games in Nagano, where the Czech Republic upset Canada in the semifinals, Gretzky carries a similar burden as he faces criticism for what went wrong. For a brief moment, the Great One sounded hopeful. "This country will be back in 2010 [for the Vancouver Games], and we'll hold our heads high," he said. "I'll be there to answer your questions. I'm not going anywhere."

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