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Canada at a Painful Loss After Its Hockey Failure

By Howard Schneider
Washington Staff Foreign Service
Saturday, February 21, 1998; Page B1



TORONTO, Feb. 20 — Imagine seeing Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley stuffed by Croatia. Imagine if in some future Olympic baseball tournament, Cal Ripken Jr. and Roger Clemens get trounced by Cuba.

Imagine that level of national self-doubt, multiply it several-fold, and it might approach the gloom Canadians felt this morning when they awoke to the news that their men's hockey team lost to the Czech Republic and lost a chance to win the gold medal.

"I taped the game [played early Friday morning EST] but I was so down I watched the figure skating instead," said Bruce Kidd, an author on the sport and a professor at the University of Toronto. "Look at it this way: If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, some other creative, energetic, international communities have taken up the Canadian game and made our lives more challenging."

This was supposed to be Canada's show, the tournament in which the best professional players in a country that not only invented the sport, but embraced it as part of its identity, were allowed for the first time to compete in the premier international venue, the Olympics.

Canada has not won an Olympic gold medal in hockey for 46 years, a fact blamed here on rules that until this year prohibited the NHL's elite from playing, and so pitted Canadian amateurs against swift-skating teams from Sweden, or the bruising ranks of the former Soviet Union.

But instead of validating Canada as the world's undisputed hockey power — "The New Red Menace" — the country's Dream Team only helped prove with finality a point many fans and observers of the sport say has been obvious for several years: Hockey is no longer Canada's game.

Not for the men.

And not for the women, whose squad also lost an expected gold medal when it was defeated by the United States.

Toronto Star hockey columnist Damien Cox was blunt in the paper's special Olympic edition today: "We sent our best, we did our best, and we still lost. And you know what? We had better get used to it," given the strides made by several European nations, whose players in the post-Cold War era are being recruited more and more aggressively by NHL scouts. In that time, the percentage of Canadians in the NHL has fallen.

Out of the running not only for gold but silver as well, the Canadian men will meet Finland for bronze, and conceivably could leave Japan empty-handed.

It is one of the few disappointments in Canada's otherwise strong Olympic showing in Japan, with 14 medals, one more than the United States, a strong performance in speedskating and a newly minted folk hero in snowboarder and erstwhile marijuana user Ross Rebagliati.

It also is an abrupt fall for a team built around preeminent NHL players such as Wayne Gretzky of the New York Rangers and Eric Lindros of the Philadelphia Flyers, and featuring a core of younger stars as well.

"I just want to say we are sorry," Team Canada member Brendan Shanahan said after the semifinal loss, capturing a despondent mood that ran through both the locker room and country.

Foreshadowed earlier in the week when the women's team lost, and tearfully watched as their underdog U.S. opponents skated the Stars and Stripes around the arena, this Canadian defeat left the aging Gretzky hanging his head like the wallflower at a high school dance, and left millions in this part of North America frustrated at their loss of dominance on the ice.

Now, it appears, the world has pulled even, a condition that has been on Canada's mind since it was defeated by the United States in the 1996 World Cup, and that is now even less debatable. In recent years, the big hockey stories here haven't been about Stanley Cups won, or great games played, but about pedophiles preying on young fans and players; financially strapped pro teams decamping for the United States; and violence in some junior league games of a level that has led to criminal assault charges.

In newspaper columns, on radio shows and in office discussions, there was plenty of dissection of what happened and why-about whether, for example, it was wise to leave a veteran such as Mark Messier off the Olympic team, and brave speculation that if stars Paul Kariya and Joe Sakic had not been injured, the Canadians would certainly have won.

There was admiration for the enigmatic and seemingly unbeatable Czech goalie, Dominik Hasek of the Buffalo Sabres, a man one local commentator has dubbed a "human Gumby" for his puck-stopping contortions.

And a little grumbling about the shootout format used to break a 1-1 tie after three periods of regulation play and one 10-minute overtime.

"You might as well just flip a coin," to decide the outcome of such even games, said Anton de la Riviere, a banker who was lunching at Wayne Gretzky's restaurant in downtown Toronto.

All around him were signs of the expectations built around this tournament. "Canada is Hockey" shirts hung behind the bar, and a souvenir shop offered special edition clothing "to celebrate Wayne and Team Canada's quest for gold."

Plans for the Saturday night gold medal final had already been set: "Be Here to Cheer on Wayne and the Boys."

Only trouble is, their last game will by then be long in the past, a bronze medal match that skeptics fear the team may lose for lack of motivation.

"I just woke up . . . and I'm hung over," said one caller to a Toronto sports radio station. "And I didn't even touch a drink."

© Copyright 1998 Washington Post Company

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