There are 3.8 million square miles, a treasure trove of natural wonders, forbidding wilderness and vibrant, cosmopolitan cities, but the central geographical truth of Canada is this: Everyone lives two doors down from someone connected to hockey. Consider Edmonton Oilers left wing Ryan Smyth, a first-time Olympian who was raised in the Rocky Mountain resort town of Banff, Alberta, where the January temperature and the degree of separation from the game are often the same—one. Smyth grew up across town from Oilers equipment manager Barrie Stafford, Smyth's first link to the NHL. His acquaintance with Stafford led, in the serpentine way all good stories do, to Smyth's being run over in a parking lot by left wing Glenn Anderson during the national team's training camp for the 1984 Canada Cup. "I was eight, and I was bending down to tie my shoe," says Smyth, who, thanks to Stafford, was Team Canada's stick boy during the camp. "Glenn didn't see me and backed over me."
Smyth went to the hospital with a twisted ankle and tire marks on his shirt courtesy of a future 498-goal scorer, a badge of honor he wouldn't let his mother wash off for the longest time. "For people in the United States, what happens in the hockey tournament in Salt Lake City will end in 12 days unless the Americans win, in which case it will go on forever," says Los Angeles Kings coach Andy Murray, a Team Canada assistant in 1998. "For Canada it'll be 365 days a year, win or lose."
The Games in Salt Lake City have been a national obsession for Canada since the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek stoned the Canadians in a semifinal shootout in Nagano four years ago. Ever since, the homeland of hockey has viewed its favorite sport through an Olympic prism. The 2001 Stanley Cup finals between the Colorado Avalanche and the New Jersey Devils was as much a referendum on Canadian goaltenders—Patrick Roy or Martin Brodeur?—as it was a determination of the NHL champion. Team Canada's orientation camp in September in Calgary, four days of noncontact shinny, was lavished with coverage usually reserved for the Games. The Dec. 15 announcement of Canada's final roster, an event covered live by six television networks, was made by seven men in dark suits, underscoring the seriousness of the task of returning the gold medal to a nation that, despite recent evidence to the contrary, still thinks of hockey supremacy as a birthright.
Considering that its last Olympic gold came 50 years ago, Canada is due. However, it's favored in Salt Lake City not only because of talent but also because it's discarding the most Canadian of conceits. "I've felt for some time that we've overemphasized our work ethic and desire, and underemphasized our ability," says Detroit Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, a veteran of Nagano and a pillar of the 2002 team. "We always thought we could outwork the other team, that we wanted it more than another country. That wasn't necessarily true. We're as talented as any country, but until now we've overlooked that."
Since Nagano, a generation of 25-and-younger forwards has emerged, including Smyth, a slithery winger that Edmonton teammates call the Octopus, and dynamic scorers like Jarome Iginla of the Calgary Flames and Simon Gagne of the Philadelphia Flyers. "In the last Olympics we played well, but we played a workmanlike style, keeping the puck along the boards, keeping it moving ahead, a lot of stationary play," Yzerman says. "With the makeup of this club, we can be more of a puck-control team, the way other countries are."
The Canadians weren't hiding their talent under a bushel in Nagano, where their roster included hardworking pluggers like Rod Brind'Amour, Shayne Corson, Trevor Linden, Keith Primeau and Rob Zamuner—there were no other choices, except perhaps Mark Messier, an old thoroughbred who wasn't about to pull a Canadian fire wagon. There were gaping generation and talent gaps in Canadian hockey in 1998, just as there had been in the late '70s and early '80s, when the Soviet Union dominated the Challenge Cup and Canada Cup until Wayne Gretzky and, later, Mario Lemieux established them-selves. With Smyth and some other young players who have emerged in time to make the 2002 team, the talent gap has been closed. "The greatest moments in Canadian hockey have been about creativity, about letting Gretzky be Gretzky and Mario be Mario and trusting that they knew how to win," says Detroit's Brendan Shanahan, who in Salt Lake City is expected to play on a line with Lemieux and Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. "Talk about creativity. This team has [Colorado's Joe] Sakic, Lemieux, Kariya. The last thing you want is to put handcuffs on them."
The vision of a Team Canada that blends slick with sturdy belongs to Gretzky, the club's executive director. Maybe he was a quixotic choice to run the show—"a slap at every NHL general manager," as one former G.M. puts it—but he was a brilliant choice as well. The guy on the third stool in any Saskatchewan tavern could have come up with at least 18 of the 23 players that Gretzky, assistant Kevin Lowe and coach Pat Quinn picked. The important thing is, Gretzky was doing the choosing, putting his name and touch on a team that has the speed to handle the big Olympic ice surface, the savvy to adapt to a game with no red line, and scoring from four lines.
Many of the defining moments of Gretzky's unparalleled career came while he was wearing the red maple leaf. The image of the crestfallen Gretzky, alone, on the Team Canada bench after the 1998 shootout—a shootout in which coach Marc Crawford had chosen not to use the player who holds the NHL record for goals—is etched into the national consciousness.
That was just another in a series of disappointments for Canadian hockey fans. Canada had lost the 1996 World Cup finals in Montreal to the U.S. and watched franchises in Quebec City and Winnipeg move south of the border as its percentage of players in the NHL continued to dip. This season the league is 52.3% Canadian, down from 64.2% as recently as the 1993-94 season. When Hockey Canada approached Gretzky, he suggested that Detroit coach Scotty Bowman should run the program, but the organization knew whom it needed. In a land starved for Olympic glory, Gretzky is Mom's meat loaf with a side of macaroni and cheese—comfort food.
He handpicked Quinn, an imposing man who coaches an aggressive style with the Toronto Maple Leafs and who took the underdog Vancouver Canucks to Game 7 of the 1994 Stanley Cup finals. He's also one of three men who have coached more than 1,000 NHL games without winning a Cup. The decision to pass over Bowman, universally recognized as a master behind the bench, for the coaching job was a quasi-political one. While no one will say so directly, the decision might have been rooted in '96, when Bowman backed out of coaching Canada's World Cup team before the start of training camp. When Bowman called Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson to inquire about the Olympic job, Nicholson told him to phone Gretzky. The NHL's winningest coach declined to pursue it further. "I have a great deal of respect for Scotty," Gretzky says, "but it was one of those things. I just felt Pat was the right guy."