WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah So many coincidental anniversaries had been pointed out. Omens had been assigned to draw parallels to previous Olympic triumphs.
But the final gold medal of the 2002 Winter Games was decided by a far more reliable factor. Canadians played better hockey than Americans.
A Canadian Olympic team that was expected to do no less brought the Olympic title back to the game's birthplace for the first time in 50 years Sunday, beating the United States 5-2 in the gold-medal game and closing out what had been a successful Salt Lake Games for both nations.
The U.S. won more medals than it ever had in the Winter Olympics. And Canada won the only medal that mattered in that country.
"This is not only for the guys in the room, the guys wearing the jersey, this is for the whole country,'' said forward Joe Nieuwendyk after his team of NHL professionals had delivered Canada its first Olympic gold since the 1952 Games. "Everyone was emotionally into it. I'm sure they're going crazy at home right now.''
Crazy reaches were being made leading up to the final competition of the Salt Lake City Games to pick who would win between two teams that had developed a deep rivalry since America beat Canada in the 1996 Hockey World Championships.
Would it matter that Team USA had not lost a game on American ice in 70 years? Or that the Americans had won the gold the last two times the Olympics were played in this country?
Which would be the more important premonition, Sunday being 22 years to the day since the U.S. won in Lake Placid or the game coming 50 years to the day since Canada won in Olso?
Instead, it was settled on the ice, not in the stars.
After dominating play at times throughout the Olympics, the Americans were outplayed from the start Sunday, barely hanging on during the first two periods when Canada had almost all the scoring chances.
When they weren't keeping the puck in the offensive end, the Canadians were keeping Team USA away from the net, forcing the American forwards wide and not letting anyone set up in front of goaltender Martin Brodeur.
And, when play came to the middle of the ice, Canada was winning most of the loose pucks.
"I think we were a little bit in between today and they played a great game,'' said U.S. forward Bill Guerin, who had scored four goals in five previous games but was held without a shot on goal Sunday. "I don't think we came up on our best today, but they did.''
"I just think it was a matter of legs,'' added U.S. coach Herb Brooks, whose team had to play Russia in the semifinals, while Canada played Belarus. "We had a tougher route than they did to get here. I don't think we had the legs we had earlier. That's sometimes the way a tournament goes.''
Sunday started to go against Team USA from the start.
Canada had two scoring opportunities in the first two minutes and an American power play starting at 3:03 in was ineffective. But the U.S. scored first when Doug Weight dived to chip the puck out of the defensive end and Tony Amonte grabbed it and broke in on Brodeur, beating him through the pads.
But the Canadians tied it 14:50 in when two U.S. forwards got caught behind the play, leading to a 5-on-3. Mario Lemieux passed across the slot to Paul Kariya, who easily beat Mike Richter.
"They played very aggressive,'' said U.S. captain Chris Chelios. "Their defensemen made the difference today joining the play and becoming a fourth player in the attack.''
Canada scored off another counter attack with 1:27 left in the first when Joe Sakic threw a pass across the goalmouth and a charging Jarome Iginla knocked it in.
The U.S. tied the score 2-2 with 4:52 left in the second period, three minutes after killing a two-man disadvantage, but Sakic scored three minutes later when he tossed a wobbly shot into a crowd on a power play and the puck deflected of U.S. defenseman Brian Leetch and past Richter.
The U.S. remained within 3-2 into the final four minutes, but was not creating opportunities. Then, with the Americans on a power play Brett Hull took a pass low in the left circle and snapped a shot toward the near corner of the net that Brodeur kicked away. Just 18 seconds later at the other end of the ice, Iginla batted a rebound out of the air and into the net to put Canada ahead 4-2.
"From there on,'' said Brodeur, whose father won a bronze medal with Canada in 1956, "we had a feeling we had it wrapped up.''
Sakic had already been named the Olympic tournament's MVP when he scored the final goal on a breakaway with 1:20 left. And both sides were also sure of the result in the final minute when chants of "U-S-A'' finally yielded to the sizable percentage of Canadian fans singing "Oh Canada.''
For the Americans, there was redemption in winning a silver after finishing fifth in 1998 and behaving worse than they played in Nagano. But for all of Canada, there would have been no substitute for winning Sunday.
The country where the game was invented had waited half a century for an Olympic gold after winning five of the first six ever awarded.
And if this team, assembled by Wayne Gretzky, captained by Mario Lemieux and containing nothing but NHL first-liners couldn't bring it home, the wait was going to seem even crueler than it had been since Feb. 24, 1952.
"I'm really happy for Canadians and very proud of our players and coaches,'' said Gretzky, who hand-selected the team over the last year and a half. "The feeling now is pretty incredible.''
"Maybe some things happen for a reason and it's not a coincidence that 50 years ago today Canada won its last gold medal,'' added defenseman Al MacInnis. "Everything that's happened during the last 12 days has been amazing. This team deserves a lot of credit. Maybe not today but down the road, we'll be a part of hockey history in Canada.''
They already were Sunday for ending such a long and empty part of it.
Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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