For Canada and the U.S., the Olympic hockey world is turned on its head

By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post staff writer
Tuesday, February 23, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C. -- Sunday, as the citizens of Canada streamed out of the country's bars and restaurants and into a night that suddenly seemed chillier than it was a couple hours earlier, they were largely quiet. A murmur of frustration replaced the celebration that had previously surrounded the Vancouver Olympics. Yes, Canada has failed to win a medal in Alpine skiing, a sport in which it held high hopes. Yes, the Canadians have struggled in other areas in which they expected to succeed, from short-track speedskating to skeleton.

But Sunday night, the Canadians lost in hockey. To, of all teams, the United States. Now, the presumed gold-medal matchup with Russia cannot happen. Now, the Canadians, ranked second in the world, must face Germany for the right to even move into the quarterfinals. Now, the entire tenor of a gripping hockey tournament -- for some Canadians, the only event that matters this year, when the Olympics are at home -- has changed.

"The pressure started on Canada when the Games were awarded here," said Brian Burke, the general manager of the U.S. team. "That's how long it's been going on. The pressure on their team is tremendous. I'm not making that up or playing that card. That's what it is."

The men's hockey tournament continues Tuesday, a day in which the four-game schedule -- with the winners advancing to Wednesday's quarterfinals -- shockingly includes Canada. An indication of the angst came Monday, when Canadian Coach Mike Babcock announced he would bench Martin Brodeur, one of the best goalies of all time, in favor of Roberto Luongo, who plays for the hometown Vancouver Canucks.

The surprise top seed after the preliminary round? The United States, which joined Sweden as the only team to win all three of its preliminary-round games in regulation. The Americans gained the top seed because their goal differential was greater than that of Sweden. They now await the winner of Tuesday's game between Switzlerand, which the United States has already beaten, and Belarus.

Even if the sixth-seeded Canadians advance by beating Germany, they will do so to play third-seeded Russia on Wednesday. Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, rivals in the NHL with the Washington Capitals and Pittsburgh Penguins, were supposed to carry this tournament until the end. Now, the energy could reach a peak by Wednesday night -- and on Thursday morning, either the host Canadians or the Russians will be eliminated. Either can win a medal; both cannot.

"It is probably not where we wanted to come in," Crosby said Sunday night, after the 5-3 loss to the United States. "But that is where we are now."

There is no discussion of a thrilling, intense Olympic hockey tournament without reflecting back to 1980, to Lake Placid, when the young Americans upset the mighty Soviet Union en route to one of the most improbable gold medals in Olympic history. Monday was the 30-year anniversary of that 4-3 victory, and though nearly everything about that tournament is different from this one -- start, of course, with the fact that the American team then consisted of college kids, and now it consists of NHL players -- there is one dynamic that might remain the same.

Then, the Russians were so heavily favored that when they were unexpectedly pressed, they collapsed. Now, the Canadian team is so talented -- and its home country is so counting on a gold medal on home soil -- that the pressure might be similar.

"They're going to be remembered as great hockey players that failed in the Olympics," Jim Craig, the goaltender from the 1980 American team, said Monday. "They're already great. When we were there, we were unknown. I think that's the really nice part about an amateur coming into this thing: People don't know about them. . . . But the NHL players are under a great deal of pressure because they're making money and they're already established, and now they're representing their country, and anything less for any of them is tough."

What's left of that 1980 tournament, that game against the Russians, are the images, the memories, and the characters. Between periods of the Americans' opening victory over Switzerland, the scoreboard above the ice at Canada Hockey Place showed an interview with Mike Eruzione, the captain of that squad, and the Americans in the stands waved their flags and cheered.

But Craig also said there are some similarities between what he saw from the Americans in Sunday's victory over Canada and what he saw 30 years ago. The most notable: Ryan Miller, the goalie from Michigan whose day job is to tend net for the Buffalo Sabres, ably played the role of Craig, saving 42 of 45 shots. And though the American team is made up of professional players, this is a decidedly younger group than the United States brought to Turin four years ago. They have, it appears, some camaraderie.

"I was really surprised upon getting here and just seeing how close a lot of the guys already were on our team," U.S. forward Chris Drury, in his third Olympics, said Monday. " . . . A lot of these guys had a lot of good chemistry already built in, even more so than I saw in August in our [training] camp."

Those two elements -- the chemistry and Miller -- are about all that has satisfied Burke to this point. Speaking Monday at the U.S. women's victory over Sweden, Burke lamented the fact that Canada had nearly twice as many shots as the Americans on Sunday, and he questioned the consistency of the effort given by some members of his squad.

"No one's taking any bows now," Burke said. "I am not pleased with how we've played to this point. It's nice we've gotten to this position, but if we don't crank it up, this all goes for nothing."

The same could be said for Russia, for Canada. When this country awoke Monday, its outlook on the hockey tournament -- and on the entire Olympics -- had changed. But the potential spoilers, the Americans, understand it could change right back.

"You didn't see Canada's best game [Sunday] night," Burke said. "You didn't see Sweden's best game [Sunday] night. Everything gets ratcheted up now. We've got to ratchet it up too, or all this goes for naught. They don't hand out any medals for finishing first in the preliminary round."

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