An Eh for effort
Canada far from finished headed into elimination roundPosted: Monday February 18, 2002 11:09 PM
Updated: Tuesday February 19, 2002 10:36 AM
For two games against strong Sweden and a middling German team, Canada looked like a hamster on a wheel, struggling with the tempo of the play, the geometry of the larger international ice surface, the absence of the red line, the hurry-up face offs, no television time-outs, a strict 15 minutes between periods and the 4,000-feet of altitude in Salt Lake City.
With one tie, the mountains started crumbling.
The meaning of this hockey tournament for once-favored Canada cannot be overstated. There are 77 countries participating in Salt Lake, which means there are 77 separate Olympics. For hockey’s homeland, even the fuss over pairs skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier is dwarfed by the men’s hockey tournament. The near panic at home concerning Team Canada’s stumbling start was not confined to armchair patriots. Even fellow National Hockey League players were putting in their two bucks -- given the feeble Canadian dollar, putting in two cents would have been less than worthless -- with Kris Draper and Sean Avery of the Detroit Red Wings telephoning teammate Steve Yzerman.
“They had it all figured out,” Yzerman said with a crooked, bemused grin. “They were telling us that we got to do this, we got to do that. Avery’s just a kid, and he was a little panicked. I was trying to ease his mind.”
Team Canada simply has been the slow learner in the Olympic tournament, the kid who doesn’t put his pencil down until the teacher calls “Time.” The Canadians were more easily flummoxed by the strangeness of the game than the Americans for no good reason other than sometimes it takes someone a while to get the hang of things. Indeed the first three games have been less of a learning process for Canada than an unlearning process, the purging of a lifetime of NHL ways over the period of four days. The time for tutorials is over now that the knockout play starts Wednesday with a quarterfinal match against Finland, but the Canadian players seem relatively satisfied that they have been building period by period. “I’ve been on a lot of these teams where we’ve started slowly and come back and won gold,” Paul Kariya said. “Every time we’ve overcome adversity. This time, adversity came early. It’s better it happened now.” The defense is still statuesque at times -- if Adam Foote was any more of a statue on the Martin Havlat’s first goal, there would have been a pigeon alert at the E-Center -- but the forwards are now keeping the proper gap with the defensemen to provide outlets for passes and Kariya and Michael Peca appear to know the big-ice game as well as any European. If nothing else, at least Canada was willing to throw its weight around against the Czechs, showing a flash of anger and enthusiasm that previously had sorely been lacking.
If a tie is supposed to be like kissing your sister, this one was like getting a date with the cute woman in the corner office. There is some potential here. A win over the Czechs would have set up a showdown with Russia, which, despite a loss to Finland on Monday, is a more dangerous quarterfinal opponent. The Finns are the least explosive of the top European teams, capable of beating anyone -- Finland swiped the bronze medal game from Canada in Nagano -- but their more conservative style is a better fit for the Canadians. “We’re set up pretty good heading into Wednesday,” said Wayne Gretzky, Team Canada executive director.
That game goes on their permanent record.
Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and CNNSI.com. Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.