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Canada's gold rush keeps Vancouver from being a disappointment after all

By Tracee Hamilton
Monday, March 1, 2010; D01

VANCOUVER, B.C.

Whoa, Canada!

So this is why we've been seeing all these commercials urging us to mail our gold jewelry to God knows where for cash money. Those darn Canadians have single-handedly engineered a worldwide shortage with their success at these Olympics. Sunday, they topped off the jewelry box with one final bauble destined to be their most cherished -- the gold medal in men's hockey, courtesy of a 3-2 overtime victory over the United States.

The Canadians spent $117 million -- $66 million of it taxpayer money -- to win the medals race here, but waved the white flag on that lofty goal midway through the Games. Turns out they surrendered too soon. Canada did "Own the Podium," but only the top step, setting an all-time Winter Olympic gold standard with 14. (Germany had 10, the United States nine.) And once it became obvious they weren't going to own the medal table, the Canadians began touting their gold count, much as the Chinese did in Beijing.

No problem. But they also went back and counted all the fourth- and fifth-place finishes -- 23 -- then declared they won the race for . . . fourth- and fifth-place finishes. (Copper? Nickel?) They tied the United States with 49 top-five finishes. And they had more top eight finishes than any country. (Zinc? Lead? Paper? Come on!)

Let's keep it sane. Canada ends up with more gold medals than the United States, and the Americans end up with more Winter Games medals than anyone, ever -- 37. They own hockey and curling; we own Nordic combined and Shaun White. Hopefully this will avert an international diplomatic crisis and an international metals shortage.

The United States and Canada have met 18 times in Olympic men's hockey, including a 5-2 loss in the gold medal game in Salt Lake City eight years ago. It was Canada's first gold medal in its beloved sport since 1952, the last Olympics before the Soviets signed up. Despite a loonie hidden under the ice, the Canadians finished seventh in Turin four years ago, and were determined to win gold on their own ice.

They have needed few good luck charms in this tournament; their one bump in the road was a devastating 5-3 loss to Team USA last Sunday in pool play. Canada had hoped to face Russia, a hockey enemy of longer standing and deeper animus than the Americans, for the gold medal, but the loss meant a quarterfinal meeting with the Russians, followed by a semifinal against Slovakia.

Team USA's road was easier -- no play-in game, Switzerland in the quarterfinals and Finland in the semis.

Still, I had a feeling Team USA didn't stand a chance in this rematch when, while riding Vancouver's version of the Metro to the game Sunday morning, a group of guys boarded with sticks, balls, a strong aroma of beer and not one but two plastic street hockey nets. All that was missing was Wayne and Garth and "Game on!" No one on the train was annoyed to have to crawl over, under and around these nets, which filled the aisles; they all thought it was cute. (This would not be the reaction on, say, the Orange Line.) This sport is so ingrained here, it's almost indescribable.

People can, and do, talk incessantly about this country's love of the sport it invented, of hockey's importance to the Canadian psyche, and you can absorb the words and understand and accept them -- and still be gob-smacked when you experience it first hand. One-third of the country watched Canada face Russia in a quarterfinal game last week. The other two-thirds were on the streets around Canada Hockey Place afterward. I'm guessing three-thirds of the nation was watching Sunday when favorite son Sidney Crosby slid the game-winner under Ryan Miller's pads.

It had to be Crosby, of course. The Penguin was a non-factor in Canada's victory over Russia -- as was Alex Ovechkin -- and he hadn't done much against Team USA before the overtime goal that sent this country into pandemonium and delirium. Beats valium and lithium, which is where I thought we were headed.

"It doesn't even feel real," Crosby said. "It feels like a dream."

Not to Miller. The Sabres goalie had been nothing short of stellar in this tournament, entering this game with a 1.04 goals-against average. Early in the game, the crowd taunted him with chants of "Mil-ler, Mil-ler", to the tune of "air-ball, air-ball." He allowed goals to Jonathan Toews in the first period and Corey Perry in the second as Canada took a 2-0 lead.

American Ryan Kesler, the Vancouver Canuck whose relationship with his hometown fans may never be the same, cut the lead to 2-1 with a second-period goal, and that looked to be it for the United States until Zach Parise scored with just 24.4 seconds to play, tying the score and sucking all the air out of Canada Hockey Place.

Then came overtime, and Crosby, and disappointment for the Americans, who themselves looked gob-smacked during the medal ceremony. If I were Gary Bettman, I wouldn't try to tell any of the guys on this team that they can't go to Sochi in four years, and that goes double for General Manager Brian Burke.

And the Canadians? They celebrated into the night and the morning that followed, content in the knowledge that they beat the United States in gold medals, hockey and top eight finishes. Oh, and health care. Well done, Canada. Now turn out the light.

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