By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 17, 2010; D05
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- By Tuesday morning, all the evidence suggested that the Winter Olympics had long since started. Canada, the host country, had celebrated its first gold. An Alpine ski race had finally been staged, wedged in between snowstorms and rain showers in the mountains north of here. Even curling, an obsession for some Canadians -- particularly those of the beer-swilling variety -- was under way.
And then, before noon on a regular old weekday meant for work, a downtown arena began to fill, 16,706 people showing up. Just as the afternoon began, an official dropped a puck, and the energy level of the entire Vancouver Olympics changed.
"I think everyone was just excited to see some hockey today," said Bobby Ryan, the American forward who scored the first goal of the men's tournament.
That was apparent from the first shift of the first game Tuesday, a game in which Team USA turned in a solid, work-out-the-jitters 3-1 victory over Switzerland. Thus, the United States instantly distanced itself from a sorry eighth-place finish four years ago in the Turin Games, a tournament the Americans opened with a lackluster tie against Latvia.
But that wasn't the only difference. In Italy, Catholicism is the dominant religion. In Canada, hockey is. The atmosphere Tuesday showed so.
"Pretty good, considering Canada wasn't playing," American forward Dustin Brown said, smiling.
That came later, and the environment only got better. The Canadian team, which has been nothing short of a national obsession -- with line combinations being worked out on bar room napkins and the biographies of each of Canada's 23 players memorized by schoolkids -- opened its tournament with an 8-0 thrashing of Norway. If there was a way to chart national productivity in the three hours after the 4:30 p.m. PST start, picture a graph that fell off like the face of a downhill ski course -- and the tension in the arena, when Norway scrapped to a scoreless tie after one period, said something about how seriously Canada will assess each game, each period, each shift.
"I know everyone expected us to score eight in the first 10 minutes," said forward Dany Heatley, who scored twice. "But they were pumped up, too."
By night's end, the Canadians' arch-nemesis, Russia, was scheduled to open with a game against Latvia. It is now 30 years after the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, N.Y., and only five members of the American team were even alive back then -- the oldest being veteran Brian Rafalski, who was 6 when the U.S. wrote one of the best stories in Olympic history, beating the powerful Soviet team en route to an absurdly unlikely gold medal.
But massive shifts in global geo-politics have a way of trickling into athletics, and so it is that the Washington area's biggest star at these Games is now a Russian -- Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, whose mere appearance on Olympic ice will likely draw boos. Russia beat Canada in each of the past two World Championships, a fact lost on exactly no one who walked through the turnstiles at Canada Hockey Place.
Both teams are ridiculously talented. Neither wanted to be the favorite.
"Every team is a dangerous opponent and it is going to be a pretty hard battle," Ovechkin said.
"I try to stay away from clichés," Canada's general manager, Steve Yzerman, said. "But this tournament is wide open."
History would suggest Yzerman's right. This is the fourth Olympics in which the NHL has allowed its players to participate in the Games. In 1998, the Czech Republic beat Russia for the gold. In 2002, Canada beat the host Americans in Salt Lake City. And in 2006, Sweden beat its smaller neighbor, Finland, for the title. That's three tournaments in which six different countries have played in the gold medal match.
For the U.S. team to get there --the Americans have won just one medal in the seven Winter Games since the unforgettable gold in Lake Placid -- goaltender Ryan Miller will likely have to play the role of Jim Craig, shutting down more skilled opponents. Tuesday, then, was a nice start. Miller, a stalwart with the Buffalo Sabres who is second in the NHL in both save percentage and goals against average, saved 14 of the 15 shots he faced.
There were, though, some unexpected developments. American flags flew throughout the arena prior to the opening face-off and after each U.S. goal -- the first from Ryan in the opening period, the second an impressive end-to-end rush from David Backes after a point-blank save by Miller, the last on the power play from Ryan Malone. Chants of "U-S-A! U-S-A!" rang clear several times.
"I thought for sure we were getting booed today," Ryan said. "I came out expecting that. I think that fans were just excited to get things under way. When we play Canada, I'm sure it will be a different story."
That game, though, doesn't come until Sunday, the final game of the preliminary round for Group A. Just more than an hour after Ryan spoke, the Canadian team took the ice, some 30 minutes before they faced off against Norway. When Jarome Iginla scored Canada's first goal two-and-a-half minutes into the second -- off the first of Sidney Crosby's three assists -- so many Canadian flags popped up in the stands, the arena looked like a maple tree.
"You know it's going to be cool," said Iginla, who had a hat trick. "But when you actually see it, it feels like a totally different place. We've been looking forward to this for a long time. It's finally here. The crowd was awesome. It actually was more red and white than I had imagined."
Late in the third period, with Canada up by a touchdown, a chant started again. "Go, Canada, go! Go, Canada, go!" Indeed, for most natives, Tuesday was the day when these Canadian Olympics finally got going.