Canada's Olympic Hockey Team Defeated

After the fall, with the Russian fans rattling the tiny Torino Esposizioni with frenzied drumbeats and Slavic whoops of delight, their red-jerseyed heroes celebrating in a pulsating cluster around goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, Team Canada stood stock-still at the far end of the rink. No one spoke.

Canada's Olympic Hockey Team Defeated

After the fall, with the Russian fans rattling the tiny Torino Esposizioni with frenzied drumbeats and Slavic whoops of delight, their red-jerseyed heroes celebrating in a pulsating cluster around goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, Team Canada stood stock-still at the far end of the rink. No one spoke. Vincent Lecavalier, bent over at the waist, rested his stick across his knees. Martin Brodeur stared at his skates. Few, if any, could bring themselves to look across the 150 feet of empty ice that separated them from the victors.

Wayne GRETZKY couldn't bear to watch either. Team Canada's executive director left his private box in the final minute after Chris Pronger took a holding penalty just inside his own blue line. Russia's Alexei Kovalev scored 10 seconds into the ensuing power play to make it 2-0, ending all hopes of a comeback. Some suggested Gretzky left his seat in disgust. He said he wanted to change his team's luck. In the three games he sat in that box, Canada had failed to score a goal. The cream of the NATIONAL HOCKEY LEAGUE - players with more than 320 goals among them so far this season, and a combined salary of US$97.9 million - suddenly looked like they couldn't put the puck in the ocean from the end of a long wharf.

A miserable round robin, followed by a quick exit in the quarter-finals of the Olympic tournament, was not part of the master plan. Coming off the triumph of Salt Lake City, Canada's first men's hockey gold in 50 years, and with much of the same team and all of the management in place, expectations were high. Maybe it was an act of hubris, but the chartered jet that was to return the players and their families to Toronto wasn't even scheduled to arrive in Turin until the day of the gold medal match. No one envisioned losing so long before then.

After the game, Joe Sakic, the team captain and hero of 2002, mumbled his apologies. "We know for the fans at home how much it's going to hurt," he said. "But we feel the same. Everybody's just shocked, disappointed and upset with the way things turned out." Defenceman Rob Blake, who also won in Salt Lake but had tasted defeat at the 1998 Nagano Games, announced the end of his Olympic career. Adam Foote didn't say much, but looked like he was considering leaping over the flimsy barrier that separates athletes from interviewers in the "mix zone" and settling some scores. "How disappointing is it?" an American journalist asked Chris Pronger. The Edmonton Oilers star pulled himself up to his full six-foot-six height and glowered down. "What do you think?" he snapped. "It's heartbreaking."

At the post-game press conference, head coach Pat Quinn sat at the table with a loosened tie and a thousand-yard stare, apparently weighing the pros and cons of ritual suicide. He was too crushed to give much in the way of insights. "Nobody could make me feel any worse than I feel right now. We had great expectations for ourselves and we didn't meet them," he said. "We just weren't as good a team as we needed to be to advance."

But it was Gretzky who seemed to be taking it the hardest. This was, after all, his team. He'd hand-picked the players, and predicted great things, saying they were "more talented" than the Salt Lake squad. He looked haggard and was frequently near tears as he spoke. In December, Gretzky's mother Phyllis died of lung cancer. A couple of weeks later, he lost his maternal grandmother. Then, just days before the Olympics opened, police in New Jersey charged Rick Tocchet, his friend and assistant coach in Phoenix, with operating an illegal gambling ring. There were reports that Gretzky's wife, Janet Jones, was one of Tocchet's prime customers, betting more than US$500,000, including $75,000 on the Super Bowl, and even making a $5,000 wager on the coin toss. Now this. "Honestly, it's been a horrible three months for me," he said.

In a lifetime at the rink, Canada's hockey superman has never really gotten used to losing. Knowing the highs of victory only seems to makes the lows of loss harder to take. In 1998, in Nagano, he sat on the bench and watched his teammates lose a semifinal shootout to the Czech Republic. Devastating. Off the ice in Salt Lake City, he'd found a way to make a contribution with his famous "Us Against The World" tirade, rallying his players. Incredible. But in Turin, he could only watch helplessly as the wheels fell off a vehicle that he wasn't just driving, but had designed and built as well. "You wonder what you could have said to certain players, how you could help make it better," he said. "Maybe on this side you feel more like a parent. Like you let your kids down." The Great One had failed. Tragedy. At least, that's what we call it in Canada.

Fittingly enough, the bitching and moaning started on the eve of Canada Day. In a federation whose component parts rarely see eye to eye, even a long list of NHL players, released in the dead of summer, can be taken as a slight, or proof of bias. Gretzky extended invitations to 36 players to attend a Team Canada training camp in August in Kelowna, B.C. Canucks centre Brendan Morrison wasn't asked to the party, which had the Vancouver papers in a lather. Neither was Nashville's Paul Kariya, or the Canadiens' Sheldon Souray. In fact, there were 570 Canadian-born current NHLers who didn't make the cut, which adds up to an awful lot of angry hometowns.

And if anyone was fuzzy on just how seriously Canadians take their Olympic men's hockey team, the five-day camp in Kelowna should have cleared things up - a crowd of 4,000 turned out to watch an 8 a.m. practice and scrimmage. There were some basic assumptions about the 2006 Olympic roster. The core of the defence from the Salt Lake team - Foote, Pronger, Blake and Scott Niedermayer - would be back. So would forwards Mario Lemieux, Steve Yzerman, Sakic and Jarome Iginla. Rising stars like Joe Thornton, Rick Nash and Martin St. Louis were being pencilled in. Gretzky was careful to say that even those who hadn't been invited to Kelowna could still play themselves onto the team in the upcoming NHL season. But by the end of the camp, the thinking was that there were only four open spots on Canada's roster, and fewer than a dozen guys competing for them. Pat Quinn had already given Hockey Canada a provisional list of rooming assignments for the Olympic village, and told them who would be sitting next to whom in the dressing room.

Throughout the fall and early winter, there were weekly conference calls with Gretzky, his number two Kevin Lowe, the director of player personnel Steve Tambellini, the coaching staff, and Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson, to talk about the progress of players. The core members of the team were never discussed, only those on the bubble. There were very few differences of opinion. Even when it came time to make the hard choices about the last two defencemen and the last two forwards who would be going to Turin, the belief within the brain trust was that, given the available talent, they couldn't really make a bad decision.

Going into Salt Lake, they had chosen the best players available and tried to shape them into a team. This time they would select guys who had already played together and proven themselves at the OLYMPICS, World Cup and world championships. A premium had been placed on past production, especially in big game circumstances. There would be less leadership - both Lemieux and Yzerman had pulled themselves out of the running - but more young legs. The few gambles would be made in favour of offensive-minded players. "This team will play hockey the way Canadians want to see it played," said Kevin Lowe.

In October, Hockey Canada submitted an absurdly long list of 81 players whom it was considering for the Olympics to the International Ice Hockey Federation. Whether it was intended to soothe some player egos, mollify the critics, or safeguard against the possibility that several NHL team aircraft might collide in mid-air, is still unknown. But when the actual Team Canada roster was announced at Vancouver's GM Place on Dec. 21, there were few surprises. And as soon as Kevin Lowe read the last name (Gretzky was still mourning his mother, who had died two days before), the second-guessing began. Shane Doan and Kris Draper would be going to Turin. Rookie sensation Sidney Crosby would not. Eric Staal and Jason Spezza, two of the best young forwards in the NHL, and third and 23rd in scoring, respectively, at the time, were named as alternates, destined to play only if someone was injured.

Most of the outrage was directed at Todd Bertuzzi. The bruising Canucks winger had been a media pariah since he drove Colorado's Steve Moore headfirst into the ice in a May 2004 game, breaking his neck. He had faced criminal charges, and been suspended for 20 games, forfeiting US$500,000 in salary. A civil suit was still pending. Not the kind of man who should be wearing the maple leaf, sniffed the critics. There were even suggestions that the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) might veto his selection. Gretzky and his staff had anticipated trouble, but not this type of a backlash. Little did they know that a much bigger problem loomed ahead on the road to Turin.

There were 2,500 athletes competing at the XX Olympic Winter Games, and 10,000 members of the international media accredited to cover them. Perfect if you are a struggling amateur luger looking for some much-deserved exposure. Not so great if you are an internationally known sporting icon trailing a cloud of scandal. Living next door to the United States, where hockey ranks well below NASCAR, poker, even bowling, in the public imagination, Canadians have a tendency to believe they are the only nation that really pays attention to the game. Perhaps, but even people who wouldn't know a Zamboni from a zebra recognize Wayne Gretzky.

In Nagano, a crowd of 10,000 screaming locals showed up at the train station for his arrival, and he and his Team Canada colleagues needed a police escort to make it out of the crush unscathed. When Gretzky made a surprise appearance at an International Olympic Committee meeting in Prague to help lobby for Vancouver's Winter Games bid a couple of years back, the media stampeded the barricades to get to him, so frightening his handlers that he ended up not doing a single interview. And when police in New Jersey suggested that Gretzky himself might be implicated in their gambling probe - allegedly caught on a wiretap recording discussing the bookie operation with Tocchet - it made headlines not just in Canada, but around the world.

By Saturday, Feb. 11, the first day of official competition in Turin, Google's news search was returning more than 2,000 hits for Gretzky and the furor. "Gretzky's sterling rep slammed into the boards," wrote the Chicago Tribune. "The Great One skates into a betting scandal" said London's Independent, noting that Janet Jones and Paris Hilton share the same publicist. Even the Taipei Times did a piece. The COC's opening press conference was dominated by questions about whether Gretzky should even bother coming to Italy. Soon it was a staple query for Canadian athletes as well. "We've heard about it," said Cassie Campbell, the captain of the Canadian women's hockey team. "That's the way it happens at the Olympics. Last time it was Jamie Salé and David Pelletier. People catch on and take off with it."

On Feb. 13, the men's hockey team gathered for a light skate in Mississauga, Ont., before catching their chartered flight to Turin. CBC broke away from live figure skating coverage to show five minutes of NHLers loafing up and down the ice and chatting by the boards. Gretzky had promised to make himself available to the media. "Oh, Jesus!" he muttered as he walked into the rink's lobby for his impromptu news conference. There were 40 TV cameras and more than 100 reporters.

No one recorded what he said when he first walked into a press conference room at the Palasport Arena in Turin the next morning, but it must have been far worse. The clicking shutters sounded like a swarm of locusts, and camera flashes lit up the room like a disco. For long minutes, the photographers continued to snap as Gretzky smiled, took off his coat, grabbed a bottle of water, unscrewed the top, took a sip, and then just sat there waiting. The request from Brad Pascall, Hockey Canada's director of communications, that all questions be restricted to the upcoming game drew laughter.

Someone asked Gretzky if he thought the gambling allegations might distract his team. No. Did he plan to discuss the situation with them? No. "It doesn't involve me. I wasn't involved. It's over and done with," said Gretzky. "And quite frankly, this is the last time I'm going to talk about it. But if you have questions about hockey I'll stand up here all day and answer them." It's a media strategy that never seems to work for politicians, but it turned out just fine for Wayne Gretzky.

True, a couple of newspaper reports now placed the timing of his wiretapped conversation with Tocchet after the police had visited Gretzky to ask about Janet, and after they'd served his assistant coach with a summons. That seemingly contradicted earlier suggestions that he had prior knowledge of the alleged ring. And Gretzky's own lawyer would soon say police told him that the hockey star wouldn't face any charges. But the matter was far from over. There were still suggestions that several current NHL players, a coach, and a team owner were involved. And while the bets were reportedly on football, any hint that anyone connected directly, or indirectly, to the NHL bet on hockey would be a big problem for the league.

As with all sports journalism, however, stories that rock the boat aren't really a comfortable fit. For example, one of the former Stanley Cup winners playing in the Turin Games was no longer wearing his championship ring because he reportedly lost it to a hooker. But to tell such tales publicly is to risk being cut off by the fraternity of players, coaches and management who act as sources. Gretzky may well be purer than the driven snow - and that is certainly the belief of many of the people who know him best - but he is also the biggest meal ticket in the sport. Attacking him is unpopular with the hockey guild, and the public. Those columnists who had the temerity to suggest Gretzky should stay away from Turin for the good of the team, soon found their email inboxes overflowing with vitriol.

The gambling issue came up only once again during the rest of the Games. In an interview with CBC's Ron MacLean after Canada closed out its round robin with a 3-2 win over the Czechs, Gretzky used a somewhat tortured analogy to describe his team's attempts to break out of its own end. "It's like football, sometimes it's good to hand off because when you hand off, that opens up the passing line," he said. CBC cut away to interviews with Martin Brodeur and Joe Sakic. When the network returned to the studio, MacLean brought up an off-camera exchange Gretzky had with his wife, where he apologized to Janet for even mentioning the gridiron. Gretzky smiled weakly and chuckled.

In fact, as the Olympic tournament went on, and Canada stumbled through the schedule, the betting controversy went from being a hot news story to a dark press-room joke. "I'm finished talking about hockey," reporters imagined Gretzky saying. "But if you have questions about gambling, I'll stand up here all day and answer them."

It began promisingly enough, 5½ minutes into the tournament opener on a power play against the host Italians. Sakic made a pass from the right boards to Bertuzzi behind the net, who quickly fed Iginla out front for a one-timer. 1-0. Italy evened it up right off the hop in the second, with a goal by Jason Cirone, a transplanted Torontonian. But Canada responded by popping five in a row past Jason Muzzatti. The former Hartford Whaler had the late Pope John Paul II painted on one side of his mask, the Virgin Mary on the other. He could have plastered his equipment with icons of every saint recognized by the Vatican and it wouldn't have been enough to change the outcome - a 7-2 victory for Canada.

The next night against Germany, it was much the same. Wade Redden and Sakic opened the scoring early. Playing four on four, Simon Gagne fought off a German defender to corral the rebound of a Robyn Regehr shot, spun free and swept the puck into the net with one hand as he fell to the ice. Even the bounces seemed to be going Canada's way. Late in the second, Adam Foote's point shot missed the German net by a mile, but ricocheted off the boards right to Dany Heatley, who batted it out of mid-air and behind Thomas Greiss. The final score was 5-1, and the Canadians had outshot their opponents 90 to 32 in their first two games.

It was certainly not Salt Lake, where Team Canada opened the Olympics with a humiliating 5-2 loss to Sweden, looking slow and out of sorts on the big ice. In the follow-up two days later, they barely beat Germany 3-2. And by the time the Canadians finished the preliminaries with a 2-2 tie against the Czech Republic, there was panic back home. Of course, the quality of opposition in Turin wasn't quite the same. The Italians had no current NHLers on their roster. The Germans had five, but were missing Boston's Marco Sturm, and Buffalo's Jochen Hecht to injury. "They're our equivalent of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux," said head coach Uwe Krupp.

And despite the lopsided scores, there were some danger signs on the ice. Team Canada's defence, especially Blake and Pronger, weren't that mobile. Bryan McCabe, a power play specialist called up from the taxi squad because of injuries that kept Ed Jovanovski and Scott Niedermayer at home, was -2, had no points, and 14 minutes in penalties in the first two games. "It's a race to become a team here. There are probably six teams capable of winning the gold and it's going to be that group that pulls its team together fastest," said Pat Quinn. "Right now, we're not playing like a team, but a group of talented individuals."

The loss of Niedermayer was Quinn's biggest problem. Most of the teams in the tournament were using a one-man forecheck, setting up two forwards and two defenders in the neutral zone to slow the attack. If Canada wanted to use the speed of its forwards to advantage, it had to find a way to defeat that system. It's something the smooth-skating Niedermayer excelled at. "You've seen him many times just skate through that first check," said Quinn. "We still have some mobile guys, but not anything like him." Going forward, Canada wanted to play a possession game, carrying the puck into the offensive zone instead of dumping and chasing it in the workman-like NHL style. "We want to allow these talented offensive guys to be a little creative out there," said Quinn. But he worried that his forwards might repeat one of the mistakes of Salt Lake, cheating too far up ice, looking for the long pass, leaving Canada vulnerable to the counterattack.

Listening to Quinn, you got the feeling that he'd welcome a little adversity to help draw the team together. After all, it worked out so well in 2002. Within the first two days of the tournament he got his wish. Steve Moore filed a civil suit against Todd Bertuzzi in an Ontario court, seeking $19.5 million in damages for the sucker punch that seemed to have ended his career. Bertuzzi learned about it watching CBC-TV in the athletes' village. He had two assists in the first two games, and had been effective, throwing hits, using his big body to screen the goaltender down low. Quinn rewarded him with a generous amount of ice time. When Bertuzzi came out to meet the media after the German game, his unshaven face still bearing the souvenirs of a high stick in a match against Columbus the week before, he said all the right things. "It's something I don't want to, or need to, drag over here. This team isn't a part of it. I'm the one who is part of it and I'll deal with everything when I get back home." Does it ever get old, someone asked? "It's been a long year even though it's only half done," Bertuzzi said. "It's been tough." For him and the rest of his teammates, it was about to get a lot worse.

Cowbells are annoying. Perhaps not to cows, but certainly to humans. Most especially when dozens of them are clanging away inside a small arena, as they were when the Swiss beat Team Canada for the first time in Olympic history. Mark Streit, a rookie defenceman for the Montreal Canadiens, was dripping with sweat and overcome with joy after his team's 2-0 victory. "It doesn't get better than that. I never thought we could do that, but everything is possible in sports," he said. "Obviously little Switzerland is not that bad." Streit was one of just three NHLers on the Swiss squad. Another, Martin Gerber of the Carolina Hurricanes, collected the shutout in net. The third, Colorado Avalanche goaltender David Aebischer, was sitting on the bench. But it was a former big league grinder, Paul DiPietro - Canadian by birth, Swiss come lately - who scored both goals. All night long, the speedy Swiss out-hustled Canada, and won battles along the boards against their bigger opponents. Gerber was brilliant, turning away 49 shots. On one, a drive by Nash near the end of the second, he appeared to reach back with his glove and pull it out of the net. But the replay was inconclusive, and no goal was awarded. The real story was that the much-vaunted Team Canada offence had gone 0 for 14 on the power play.

As the final seconds ticked down, Zdeno Chara, the massive Slovakian who plays defence for the Ottawa Senators, stood watching a TV near the dressing rooms with a broad grin. A loss for Canada was always good news for everyone else. Chara's NHL teammates, Heatley and Redden, were not smiling as they exited the ice. Neither was anyone else wearing the maple leaf. Joe Sakic, his white jersey spotted with blood from the high stick that cut him from nose to ear and cracked his cheekbone, hurried to the trainer's room. Martin Brodeur, still wearing his mask, stared straight ahead on the long parade past the media. It would be easy to dismiss the game as a fluke, one of those nights when a hot goaltender steals a game, but Pat Quinn was fuming. He had a long list of things he didn't like from his players - too much standing around, undisciplined penalties, an offence that spent too much time moving from side to side and not enough heading down the ice. "The Swiss played a better Canadian game than we did," he said. And Quinn sent a warning to his players: "Talent is only part of this whole thing. We tried to rely on talent tonight and it wasn't enough. If we don't learn that, we'll be going home early."

The next night's game against Finland had much more of a home crowd feeling for Canada. The Torino Esposizioni was packed with fans dressed in red and white, waving flags. Ten really drunk guys wearing red coveralls identifying them as the Canadian Snowball Fighting Team tossed white styrofoam balls into the stands, plonking more than a few patrons in the head, and then deftly caught them with nets attached to broomsticks as they were angrily whipped back. When the Finns took the ice - forced to run the gauntlet between the Turin Games' two marshmallow-headed mascots, Neve and Gliz - they were booed lustily.

Roberto Luongo got the start in place of Brodeur. He was tested early when Teemu Selanne blasted a shot just 28 seconds in. By the halfway mark of the period, the Finns were outshooting Canada 10-2. A little more than a minute later, the Habs' little Saku Koivu stripped the puck off Chris Pronger, skated behind the net, and tossed a perfect backhand feed to Selanne. 1-0. Four minutes later, Niko Kapanen added another to make it 2-0. Team Canada came out stronger in the second, but they were all promise, no finish. With six minutes left in the period, Joe Thornton cut Rick Nash loose with a pass up the middle. Nash took the puck from behind his back, flipped it to his forehand, and roared in on goal. His shot hit a sprawling Antero Niittymaki in the centre of the chest. Five minutes into the third, Thornton again created a good chance, flying down the left wing, freezing Niittymaki with a fake shot, then pulling the puck around the down-and-out goaltender. The net was wide open, but Todd Bertuzzi couldn't manage to put his stick on the puck as it lay in the crease. In the frantic final minutes, Pronger took his second cross-checking penalty of the game. Even when they were handed a gift tripping call on Antti Laaksonen with 2½ minutes remaining, the Canadians couldn't score. They had now gone six periods without a goal. Gretzky, watching the game in his box, sitting near his old teammate Jari Kurri, the head of the Finnish hockey delegation, was beside himself. So far the plan to build on the strengths of the Salt Lake City team seemed to have only succeeded in duplicating its weaknesses.

When Wayne Gretzky arrived in Turin, he fretted that all the attention being paid to the men's team and his troubles might eclipse the hard work of all the other Canadian athletes. "I don't ever like overshadowing anybody," he told reporters. Those compunctions had apparently disappeared by Feb. 20, the day of the women's hockey gold medal tilt. Cindy Klassen had won her third medal of the Games the night before, but the papers in Canada were devoting considerably more ink to the failures of men's hockey than her successes. "It's time to get serious," proclaimed the banner headline in the Vancouver Sun. "Something is seriously amiss," declared the front of Toronto's Globe and Mail. With the wailing and gnashing of teeth audible all the way to Turin, Gretzky came out to meet the media during his team's morning practice.

This time, there would be no blaming the rest of the world for Team Canada's predicament. The fault lay within. "What became alarming last night was not so much the outcome of the game, but the whole gender," Gretzky said, probably meaning tenor, since the Canadian women appeared to be in a position to teach his men a few things. "Our emotional level was not at that of the Finnish hockey club.They dominated us in the first period." Gretzky then did something almost completely out of character, calling out his young superstars, challenging them to take hold of Team Canada's destiny, the way Iginla and Gagne had done in 2002. "We need this group of young guys now, we need some of them to step up and pitch in on the ice." And just in case the message wasn't clear enough, Vincent Lecavalier and Rick Nash were sent out after practice to face reporters. By the 30th variant of the question, "What are you going to do?" Nash was rolling his eyes heavenward. "Our job is to finish and to score goals, and once we do that, the pressure will be off the other guys," he said. "The difference is, I'm not finishing, I'm not getting the bounces." The big 22-year-old, who has played his whole NHL career for a basement dweller but was so dominant at last year's world championships, looked distinctly uncomfortable. "I've never really had pressure like this, to win a gold medal."

"The real tournament starts Wednesday" had been a Team Canada refrain since they arrived in Turin. The Olympic quarterfinals were on Wednesday, Feb. 22 - lose and you're out. All that mattered in the round robin was getting enough points to get into the playoffs. That had been the lesson Canada learned in Salt Lake - don't sweat the small stuff. Peak at the right time, win three in a row, and you go home with the gold at the Olympics. On Tuesday night, Team Canada played its final qualifier against the Czechs. After losing goaltender Dominik Hasek to injury nine minutes into their first match, the Czechs had been easy pickings, dropping games to Finland and the Swiss. Tomas Vokoun, originally scheduled to be the backup to Hasek's backup, or "emergency goaltender" in the quaint officialese of the Olympics, started against Canada. He gave up three goals in the first - two of them soft - and was yanked at the end of the period. In the second and third, the Czechs stormed back, scoring two goals and outshooting Canada 26-8. Gretzky had called on the young guys to step up, but it was veteran goaltender Martin Brodeur who won him the game, making more than a half-dozen highlight-reel saves. Bryan McCabe was brutal, taking two bad penalties. Nash spent much of the night nailed to the bench.

Earlier that day, Swedish coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson came under heavy fire for remarks he'd made on television, suggesting his team might throw its final game against Slovakia so it could play Switzerland in the quarter-finals, rather than the winner of the Canada-Czech match. "It's like choosing between the plague and cholera," he said. It was hard to see what Gustafsson was worried about. Plague did manage to beat cholera 3-2, but neither team looked much more dangerous than a bad case of athlete's foot.

The Russian big guns - Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Ovechkin, Maxim Sushinsky, Evgeni Malkin - are so fast and skilled that it's scary. They are also so young that they still have zits. In the quarter-final, it was Ovechkin, flying madly around the ice all night long, who finally broke open the 0-0 tie 1½ minutes into the third, with Todd Bertuzzi in the box for interfering with a Russian defenceman 200 feet away from his own net. Pronger whiffed on an attempt to clear the puck, and Darius Kasparaitis swept it toward Viktor Kozlov. Kozlov took it behind the net and fed it in front to Ovechkin, who put a shot past Brodeur for his fifth goal in six games. The on-ice celebration was epic, and for Canadian fans, endless. Afterwards, in the mix zone, the 20-year-old Ovechkin, looking even younger as he clung to a white stuffed bear a fan had flung on the ice, tried to express what the win meant to Russians. "Everybody in my country is jumping, I think. And everybody drinks lots of vodka."

Team Canada had some injuries. Gagne and Redden were hampered by groin pulls, the broken bone in Pronger's foot - which had threatened to keep him out of the Games - was still bothering him. There were also some complaints about inconsistent refereeing - what wasn't a penalty one night was the next. Quinn said his team had been "stiffed" on a Joe Thornton goal that had been disallowed in the second, because it was ruled to have crossed the line after the whistle blew. The reality, however, was that mighty Team Canada was held scoreless for 11 of its last 12 periods, by three goaltenders who weren't even starters at the beginning of the NHL season. They had gone 0-for-8 on the power play against the Russians, and capitalized on just five of their 40 man-advantages in the tournament.

The recriminations back home were already starting, with the lists of should-have, could-have players - Staal, Crosby, Dion Phaneuf, Jonathan Cheechoo, Patrick Marleau - being compiled on barroom coasters. A day when Canadian women had won a remarkable four medals - golds for Cindy Klassen and Chandra Crawford, silvers for Kristina Groves and the women's short-track team - was now instead guaranteed to be remembered for one giant failure. Gretzky, who seemed to have aged 10 years in the past few months, alluded to the toll the job had taken on his health. He said he was uncertain of whether he should, or even wanted, to take another run at gold in Vancouver. He spent a lot of time talking about how badly his players felt, and tried to deflect some of the criticism they were sure to face. "Canadian hockey is not dead. Let's not panic here," he said. "This country will be back in 2010 and we'll hold our heads high."

The country will learn to forgive, and eventually, forget. For some fans it took less than an hour. When Team Canada left the rink to board their bus, a group of 10 young men from Grand Prairie, Alta., were waiting for them. They had spent thousands of dollars on tickets for the playoffs, all the way up to the gold medal game. That dream was over. Now all they wanted was autographs.

Maclean's March 6, 2006