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The way it was meant to be played

Posted: Monday, February 25, 2002

A game.

Finally.

A game without whining, whispering or screams for review.

Without over-the-top displays or under-the-table deals.

Just the best athletes from two nations on the world's biggest stage, playing a game that for a few hours mattered more to one of them than anything else.

Before the opening faceoff, Brendan Shanahan, a Canadian by birth and a Detroit Red Wing by trade, said there wouldn't be a single car on a road anywhere back home.

''And if there was,'' he added, ''it will probably have a satellite dish attached to the roof.''

Back in Salt Lake City, the talk was about Russian and Spanish cross-country skiers being suspended from these Winter Games for using a performance-enhancing drug, and the French judge who poisoned figure skating pointing her finger in another direction.

But all that was put aside for a few hours here, in a minor league arena with just 8,500 seats, for a game that reminded everybody what these Olympics were supposed to be about.

For the first time in two weeks, nationalism finally felt more like a balm than a weapon.

Cold-blooded professionals won Canada's first gold medal 50 years to the day after an amateur team from Edmonton called the Waterloo Mercurys last turned the trick. The players on the U.S. side were friends and will be teammates again the moment all of them depart for their regularly scheduled National Hockey League games.

But for two hours in the middle of a Sunday afternoon, they were fierce rivals, pulling the best from each other.

''We would have loved to win, but if we couldn't, there's nobody better to do it,'' U.S. center Jeremy Roenick said moments after the 5-2 loss. ''We were playing hockey's creators.''

A moment later, someone asked Roenick whether he could imagine the pressure in the Canadian locker room before the puck was dropped.

''No, I can't,'' he said pausing. ''No I can't. Maybe they're just destined to win it every 50 years.''

The wait was etched on Wayne Gretzky's face every day for nearly two weeks. The most famous athlete hockey has ever produced -- arguably the most famous person Canada has ever produced -- served as Canada's executive director for this effort and barely survived the tournament.

After Canada started slowly, he threw a tirade about all the people snickering behind his back and how much everybody -- Americans included -- would love to see his hockey team fail. He sat in the first row of the balcony every time his nation played and looked ready at a moment's notice to chew the tips off his fingers.

''I just felt that Monday, our players were taking so much criticism. I just thought, OK, I'll take some heat off these guys, and I did,'' he said.

Across the way this time, U.S. coach Herb Brooks wore out one piece of gum after another. Twenty-two years earlier, he was behind that same bench for the 1980 U.S. team's ''Miracle on Ice.'' Nobody had to tell him what this game meant, either.

But afterward, Brooks wasn't in the mood to delve any deeper into the significance of the game. It already had taken too much emotion out of him.

''We had a tougher route to the final,'' he said. ''They had better legs than we did.''

The oldest pair on the Canadian side belonged to 38-year-old Al MacInnis, but he was practically floating on his way back to the locker room. He won a Stanley Cup with Calgary 13 years ago, but Sunday he wondered aloud whether he was too young at the time to appreciate how important some wins become.

''I took a lot of ribbing from these guys about being old. A few of them said they were surprised I missed the team picture with the 1952 team that won the gold,'' he said. ''But when we left Nagano without so much as a bronze, it dawned on me I might never get this opportunity again.''

MacInnis and his teammates made the best of it, not just because they were probably the most talented team at these Olympics or because hockey is Canada's game. But they did it most likely because all of them can remember a time when it was still just a game, when the play that thrilled you on a frozen pond somewhere wasn't the conventional one or the safest one or even the smartest one.

Trailing 1-0, MacInnis started one of those plays late in the first period. He dug the puck out from behind his own net and, surrounded by attackers, slipped it back through his crease to defense partner Rob Pronger instead of clearing it to relieve the U.S. pressure.

Seeing the ice clear ahead of him, Pronger hit Steve Yzerman on the move and he carried it inside the U.S. blue line on the right. With Mario Lemieux flying through the slot, Yzerman sent the pass across the ice and Lemieux, with a brilliant decoy move, let it slide between his legs. Flying in from the left side, Paul Kariya slapped a one-timer past U.S. goalie Mike Richter to tie the game and take a load of pressure off the Canadians' back.

Suddenly, it was just a game again.

And not just any game, but their game.

''I know the Canadian people are probably having a great time,'' Gretzky said, ''coast to coast.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org



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