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Canadians Fall to Finland, Lose Their Mettle

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 22, 1998; Page D1

 Jari Kurri's shot gets past Canada's Patrick Roy in the first period of Saturday's bronze-medal game between Finland and Canada, won by the Finns, 3-2. (Kevork Djansezian/AP)
NAGANO, Feb. 21 — The Olympic men's hockey tournament, having already spun terribly out of control for the North American teams, turned into a full-blown disaster for Canada this afternoon when it lost the bronze-medal game, 3-2, to a Finland squad playing without its No. 1 goaltender and the tournament's leading scorer, Teemu Selanne.

The loss left both the United States and Canada without medals in this tournament, the first to include NHL players. The Americans fell to the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals.

Russia and the Czech Republic were to play in the gold medal game Sunday (Saturday night EST), guaranteeing a 1-2-3 European finish and leaving more questions than anyone in the Canada locker room could answer. Not that the players were talking very much.

"I know a lot of people through North America are heartbroken," Canada Coach Marc Crawford said. "I think that every one of us is hurting a great deal right now. I know in the locker room after the game, you really have nothing to say to anyone. You can't put into words anything that's going to make the guys feel better or anything that's going to make you feel better."

The bronze medal game came less than 24 hours after the Canadians lost their chance at the gold medals many felt were pre-engraved with their names. They fell, 2-1, in a shootout with the surprising Czech Republic, which has become the underdog of the tournament.

Several of the Canadian players skated through today's game with hollow eyes and heavy hearts. Blocks of silence among the 9,875 fans at Big Hat arena, many of them Canadians, indicated that they felt just as bad, useless to their team even before the game began. By contrast, the Finns appeared ready to play, despite the absence of Selanne.

Selanne has been fighting a low stomach muscle pull for two weeks but was able to play in Finland's 7-4 semifinal loss to Russia on Friday. He woke up this morning barely able to walk, however, and was unable to finish warming up for the game.

Finally, he changed from his blue hockey sweater to a tie and his rust-colored team blazer, resigned to simply cheer for his teammates. By the end of the game, he was screaming at the top of his lungs, and when the Finns rushed the ice after the final buzzer, he joined them in his street shoes, as giddy as if he had played all 60 minutes.

"This will be an unbelievable boost for European hockey," said Selanne, a forward with the NHL's Anaheim Mighty Ducks. "I said before I left Anaheim that the tournament was wide open and playing on the bigger ice would be a tough adjustment for Canada and the U.S.

"Everybody said the U.S., Canada and Sweden would be the top three, and they're the ones who don't have the medals. Nobody thought we could do anything, but I knew we could if we played the way we can."

Finland was outshot 34-15, but backup goaltender Ari Sulander, playing in place of a benched Jarmo Myllys, was everywhere for his teammates. Sulander's biggest challenge came with the score tied at 2 in the second period, when Canada had a five-on-three advantage for 1 minute 58 seconds. Canada got six shots off on the power play but was unable to score, handing Finland the momentum.

Canadian goaltender Patrick Roy, spectacular in Friday's game against the Czechs, was not as sharp today as he gave up more goals than in any other game of the tournament. The winner, scored by Ville Peltonen on a power play just 17 seconds into the third period, bounced off Roy before flying into the net.

Roy also gave up goals to NHL forwards Jere Lehtinen and Jari Kurri, who skated around the rink with Finland's flag shortly before the medal ceremony. It was the last international game for Kurri and Canada's Wayne Gretzky, both part of the Edmonton Oilers dynasty of the 1980s. Kurri had not come into the Olympics with any particular expectations, however, while Gretzky had been hoping desperately for a gold medal.

He has never before competed in the Olympics and was hoping to bring the gold back to a hockey-worshiping nation that has not seen it since the Oslo Games of 1952.

"People love hockey so much in Canada; it's a way of life and it's always going to be that way," Gretzky said. "In the U.S., once you lose a hockey game, you just turn on a baseball game or a basketball game."

But if the bronze medal game was a referendum on North American hockey—and Canadian hockey in particular — the gold medal game was to be a European turf war with ideological undertones that date back almost 30 years.

At the 1969 world championships, Czechoslovakia played the Soviet Union less than a year after the Soviets sent tanks into Prague to crush a budding move toward democracy.

The Czechoslovaks, heavy underdogs, defeated the Soviets, sending a message that had citizens literally dancing in the city streets. Since then, both countries have undergone radical changes, down to their very names, but some of the old tensions remain. Czechoslovakia, which split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia in 1993, has won four silver and four bronze medals in Olympic men's ice hockey but entered Sunday's game without a gold. Almost every time it fell short, it has been to the Soviet Union or Russia.

Czech winger Jaromir Jagr is so mindful of his country's history with Russia that the No. 68 he wears on his sweater is for 1968, the year the Soviets took away all of his grandfather's land. Still, both he and teammate Petr Svoboda said a win in the gold medal game would be more important for their parents than for themselves.

"My parents used to talk about [the 1969 game] all the time," Svoboda said. "It is still a big thing for that generation."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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