After a fortnight filled with North American fervor, the Games sign off with -- what else? -- the U.S. vs. Canada for hockey gold
By Kostya Kennedy
We knew it would come to this, didn't we? Even before Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, lit the Olympic cauldron at Rice-Eccles Stadium -- then checked his cell phone to find a message of congratulations from Mario Lemieux, captain of this year's Canadian club -- we knew that a U.S.-Canada hockey final was inevitable. The two nations came into the Games already in a bitter battle for control of hockey's grandest non-Olympic stage. Canada produces three times as many NHL players as the U.S. does; the U.S. is home to four times as many NHL teams.
For four years the two nations have been lampooned for their medalless showing in Nagano. Canada hasn't won a gold in hockey since 1952. The U.S. drought dates back 22 years. Today, in what U.S. center Doug Weight calls "the matchup everyone wanted from the start," one of these rivals will revel in its long-awaited victory.
Before these Games unfurled no one could have foreseen how closely the U.S. and Canada would commingle. Who, for instance, could have known that Americans would be lining up by the hundreds to buy clothing from Canadian outfitter Roots? Or that on the first night that Bode Miller, America's best skier, stood at a medals ceremony he would be succeeded on stage by Barenaked Ladies, Canada's best band? Or that a Quebecois journalist, François Gagnon, would lock himself out of his hotel room, naked, and then cover his heirlooms with a USA Today. The U.S. and Canada, joined at the hip.
On Friday, U.S. hockey coach Herb Brooks, who works as a scout for the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins, was looking forward to the final when he pointed out that Lemieux, who owns the Penguins, "is a spectacular player. And, well, Mario's my boss. So let me say that Canada is a great team."
Some people believe the fate of today's game is not in the stars but in the stripes. Russian players were incensed at the officiating of Canadian-born referee Bill McCreary in Russia's 3-2 semifinal loss to the U.S. on Friday. Defenseman Danny Markov complained so vigorously after the game ended that he was barred from playing in Russia's 7-2 win over Belarus in yesterday's bronze medal game. "There's not much you can do about it," said Slava Fetisov, the Russian coach. "An agreement's been signed to have a final between Canada and the U.S.A. You have NHL referees. They live here, and they know the North American players."
It is a preposterous contention, yet it was no surprise to hear the U.S. and Canada tarred with the same brush. No individual, and no nation, can command the sway of public favor and not expect a backlash from those who have been overlooked. For North Americans the Games' final gold medal comes down to a face-off between good and gooder. For conspiracy theorists, and a growing alliance of disgruntled nations, the gold will end up in the hands of an evil empire, no matter who wins.
The U.S. comes into the final physically intact, save for a thigh injury that will likely keep forward Keith Tkachuk out of today's match. Brooks, who guided the 1980 team to its miracle gold, has never lost a game in Olympic competition. A win today, and the U.S. will have won three straight hockey golds in Games on American soil.
If the U.S. had its most difficult test in the semifinals, Canada got what goalie Martin Brodeur says was "the breather we needed," a 7-1 stomping of overmatched Belarus. Canada had staggered through the placement round. The team was spun around in a 5-2 loss to Sweden and barely held off lightly regarded Germany before tying the Czechs. Canada's crack roster, which is made up of more NHL All-Stars and major-award winners than any other Olympic team -- appeared perplexed in the international setting and allowed the Europeans to pick it apart. The Canadians spoke courageously of improving as the tournament went on and then delivered by playing their best in the quarterfinals to edge Finland 2-1. "We've been trying to figure out what we can do with the bigger ice, defensively as well as offensively," said coach Pat Quinn after beating the Finns. "We've condensed the ice as the tournament has gone on. When we came here, we were like Swiss cheese. We've worked hard to make it Muenster."
When, in 1998, the Canadians lost to the Czechs in a semifinal shootout and then dropped the bronze medal game to Finland, the boldface headlines reporting the death of hockey in Canada were not regarded as exaggeration. "Our guys play for a country that feels that anything less than gold is failure," says Quinn. "That can paralyze any team. There's this fear: 'Oh, no, what if we fail?' We've talked about it, and we can't let that fear get to us."
The world got a glimpse of Canada's fear, as well as its loathing, when Wayne Gretzky, the team's executive director, addressed the media before the elimination round. He unspooled an angry rant that was an attempt, he later said, "to protect our team." Gretzky was unhappy about the negative things that were being said and written about his struggling team. Discussing a nasty cross-check that Czech defenseman Roman Hamrlik had given to Canada's Theo Fleury in that night's game, Gretzky said that "if we do that, we're called hooligans. If a European does, it's O.K." Aspiring to even greater martyrdom, Gretzky also claimed that "no one wants us to win but us." He then went on to blame "American propaganda" for reports that Quinn was losing his grip on the team.
The bad press, of course, came straight from hockey's homeland. The U.S. press doesn't care enough about the backwaters of Canada's locker room to even look there, and that is where we find the cultural divide in this final. Sure, the U.S. wants to win the gold, but a silver would do nothing to diminish this nation's good cheer. The U.S. has already won more medals than ever before at a Winter Olympics. More important, it has pulled off the Games smoothly, despite the logistical quagmires that the threat of terrorism has caused.
For Canada, these may go down as the Roots Games, but a loss today would send painful and lasting reverberations through the roots of Canada's game. "I know a lot of people are going to watch this game in the U.S.," said Canadian forward Brendan Shanahan on Friday, "but there won't be a car on the road anywhere in Canada [today]. Unless the car has a satellite dish."
The U.S. has relied on a range of contributors. John LeClair was the team's best forward early in the tournament. Bill Guerin set the tone against Russia. Jeremy Roenick saved the semifinal when he slid into the goal mouth and took a puck in his gut to save a potential game-tying shot. "It's going to be all of us playing together, for one jersey," says forward Scott Young. "We're going to come out skating and be aggressive and support the puck. That's the way we've played since we got here."
The dynamic offenses in this game (plus defensemen on both squads who are effective at passing and shooting) create an intriguing subplot: the showdown between Brodeur and U.S. goalie Mike Richter. Brodeur wrested the goaltending duties from Curtis Joseph, Canada's starter against Sweden, by playing terrifically in the third period against Germany. He made a sensational, game-saving lunge to glove a goal-bound puck against Finland. Richter, who stopped a dizzying 17 shots in the third period against Russia, has been the U.S.'s top goalie.
In the NHL, Brodeur and Richter play less than 15 miles apart -- Brodeur for the New Jersey Devils, Richter for the New York Rangers -- and today recalls the fabulous seven-game series they played against each other in the 1994 Eastern Conference finals. Richter won Game 7 of that series 2-1, in double overtime, and the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup. Since then Brodeur has won two Cups himself. "This game is kind of like a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final," says Brodeur, "except if you lose that game, you don't get a thing. Here you still get a silver medal to hang around your neck."
Then he pauses. "But a silver," he adds, "is not what we came here for."