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Archive for Sunday, February 24, 2002

United States to face Canada for Olympic hockey championship

February 24, 2002

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— For three periods, two hours and one history-making afternoon, it will be bigger than Game 7 of the Stanley Cup finals.

With national pride and a gold medal at stake, it will be bigger than hockey itself.

Canada and the United States meet today in the final on the last day of the Winter Olympics, drawing all eyes from bordering countries divided by patriotic loyalties but drawn together by one sport.

Americans and Canadians go at each other nightly in NHL arenas from Vancouver to Miami, but this, of course, will be much different.

"This is the greatest thing that has happened for a long, long time," Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky said. "This will be the most-watched hockey game in the world  ever."

For Canadians, who invented hockey and follow it with an unmatched passion and loyalty, this could be the game they have awaited since 1952, the last time the Maple Leaf wore the Olympic gold medal.

For the United States, it is an opportunity to relive the golden sports moment that perhaps lives with Americans more than any other  coach Herb Brooks' 1980 Olympic team's seemingly impossible gold medal. The United States hasn't won a medal of any color since.

That Brooks is again behind the bench, unbeaten in the Olympics (10-0-2), only adds another extraordinary story line to a game that needs nothing other than the opposing jerseys to sell it.

"It's great that it's Canada and the United States," U.S. defenseman Brian Leetch said. "It makes for a great story. It's perfect. It's what everyone was hoping for."

Everyone except those from Russia, Sweden and the Czech Republic. For the NHL, it could be a windfall, the once-in-a-generation game that compels people who otherwise would never watch a hockey game to turn on their TVs.

One of the intriguing aspects of the biggest Canada-U.S. hockey game since the Americans' 2-1 Olympic victory in 1960 is how it divides NHL teammates, coaches and even owners.

Team Canada captain Mario Lemieux, for example, also owns the Pittsburgh Penguins  who employ Brooks, their interim coach two years ago, as a scout.

"I wrote him last year after he came back to play and said, 'Whatever you do, don't play for Canada in the Olympics,' " Brooks said. "He didn't listen to me."

Opposing goaltenders Martin Brodeur of Canada and Mike Richter live but a few minutes apart outside New York City. Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman play for Canada and Chris Chelios and Brett Hull play for the United States, but all four will be Detroit Red Wings teammates again Monday.

"But we'll just see the jersey," Chelios said. "And we'll go out and play."

Many players on both teams took part in the United States' surprise victory over Canada in the 1996 World Cup that was keyed by Richter's exquisite goaltending. But that was played just before the NHL season, and didn't attract even a fraction of the attention and interest that Sunday's game will.

"We grow up pretty much hating each other," U.S. defenseman Tom Poti said. "From the time we strap on our skates, we're trying to beat Canada. It's a big deal."

One intangible: the United States is 21-0-3 in Olympic games played on home ice since a 1932 loss to Canada.

Strategically, the game will match outstanding top lines  John LeClair-Mike Modano-Brett Hull for the United States and Paul Kariya-Lemieux-Yzerman for Canada  and two teams that have successfully adapted their usual north-south approach in the smaller NHL rinks to the much wider international rink.

"Maybe I should ask Herb Brooks if we can go find a backyard rink and let the two teams go at it," Canada coach Pat Quinn said. "We have to play on a bigger surface and I think our teams have adjusted well."

The United States chose younger, faster defensemen Poti, Brian Rafalski and Aaron Miller to complement the much older Chelios, Leetch and Phil Housley. That strategy has gotten the puck moving and allowed the big U.S. power forwards to station themselves down low and create scoring chances.

The United States has a 24-5 scoring advantage through five games (4-0-1). Canada has a 18-12 edge while going 3-1-1.

If the game is low scoring and one goal means the difference between gold and silver, Canada has some of the finest scorers ever in Lemieux and Yzerman; the United States counters with Hull.

"They know us, we know them," Brooks said. "There are no secrets in this one."

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