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RETURN TO SPLENDOR
Kostya Kennedy
March 11, 2010
AFTER AN ABYSMAL 50-YEAR ABSENCE THE OLYMPIC HOCKEY GOLD MEDAL CAME HOME
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March 11, 2010

Return To Splendor

AFTER AN ABYSMAL 50-YEAR ABSENCE THE OLYMPIC HOCKEY GOLD MEDAL CAME HOME

AFTER THE GAME HAD ENDED, AND THE FINAL NOTES OF O CANADA had ceased to echo through the E Center, and the players had stopped to smell their yellow-rose bouquets, and Theo Fleury had pressed his gold medal to his chest and wept, the boys from Canada began to talk about premonition. "Sometime during that Czech game last week, something came over us," said Fleury. "I don't know what it was, but we started to believe."

"Then Sweden lost," defenseman Al MacInnis said, referring to the Swedes' 4-3 upset at the hands of Belarus in the elimination round, "and we started talking about that being a sign. How maybe it wasn't a coincidence that it was exactly 50 years ago that Canada had last won a gold."

For four years Canada and the U.S. had been lumped together and lampooned for their medal-less failures in Nagano: oafish North Americans lost on the wide ice of the international game. But, save for a slalom skier from Croatia here or a ski jumper from Switzerland there, the U.S. and Canada had emerged as star nations at the 2002 Olympic Games. Could we even distinguish between them? Weren't those Americans decked out from beret to bottom in Roots gear? Wasn't that Bode Miller, America's best skier, receiving a silver medal, then yielding the stage to the Barenaked Ladies, Canada's best band? Didn't Canada receive a controversial gold medal (figure skaters Jamie Salé and David Pelletier) and the U.S. receive a controversial gold medal (short-track speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno)? Wasn't it a Quebecois journalist, François Gagnon, who locked himself out of his hotel room, naked, then covered his heirlooms with a USA Today? The U.S. and Canada: joined at the hip.

No national flag aside from the host's had been more conspicuous in Salt Lake City than Canada's. At the hockey final, red maple leafs were as plentiful as stars and stripes. One fan's banner read simply GO NORTH AMERICA! Another man held aloft a placard that said I BELIEVE IN MIRACLES in red, white and blue on one side and THE DROUGHT IS OVER 1952-2002 in red and white on the other. Not only the gold medal but also history hung in the balance when referee Bill McCreary dropped the puck between Canada's Eric Lindros and the U.S.'s Mike Modano to start the game, and it was then that Canada began to separate itself.

Oh, the U.S. was plucky, and though Canada controlled the match early, the Americans went ahead 1-0 on a goal by Tony Amonte 8:49 into the first period. Canada responded when Paul Kariya scored some six minutes later, and to the millions of spectators who sat riveted to their televisions—"There won't be a car on the road in Canada today unless that car has a satellite dish," Canada left wing Brendan Shanahan had said before the game—the 1-1 game looked as if it could go either way. That was before Joe Sakic, a 5' 11", 190-pound, 32-year-old center from Burnaby, B.C., took over.

Even an NHL fan familiar with Sakic, an 11-time All-Star, might have missed him early in the tournament. Before the Games he had surrendered his Avalanche number 19 so that Steve Yzerman, who wears that number with the Red Wings, could use it. Sakic, wearing 91, had also surrendered his place to Yzerman on the team's marquee line alongside Kariya and Mario Lemieux. Instead, Sakic was slotted between young wingers Jarome Iginla and Simon Gagné.

In the final minutes of the first period Canada had camped in the U.S. zone, cycling the puck and being thwarted only by U.S. goalie Mike Richter and a few shot-blocking defenders. Yet the goal that gave Canada its first lead came on a rush, when Sakic skated deep into the left corner and whipped a low pass at the top of the crease to Iginla, who knocked it in. "You could almost feel they were going to get one there," said U.S. coach Herb Brooks. "They had better legs than we had."

The U.S. drew on its last reserve in the second period, warding off Canada's sustained pressure and dramatically killing a 5-on-3 power play that lasted 1:08. When, with 4:30 left in the period, U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski banked a shot off Canada defenseman Chris Pronger's stick and into the net, momentum seemed to have swung to the Americans. "That's when Joe made the play that turned the game," Lemieux said.

Less than three minutes after Rafalski's goal, with Canada on another power play, Sakic let loose a knuckling wrist shot from the point that caromed off U.S. defenseman Brian Leetch and into the net for the 3-2 lead that Canada would nurse through much of the last period. Late-game goals by Iginla and Sakic made the final 5-2. "We took it to them, but you know what the biggest difference between the teams was today?" Yzerman said. "We had Joe."

Sakic, who had two of his four tournament goals and two of his three assists in the final game, was named the tournament's most valuable player, becoming the first player to win an Olympic MVP and the Conn Smythe Trophy, which he'd earned in the '96 postseason.

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