CALGARY -- Canada did not invent ice, but Canadians did devise ice hockey. So you can imagine the deep frustration at losing face, as well as all hope for anything higher than a bronze medal, in the Olympics Wednesday night.

The evening began with flags waving and a siren signaling merry chants that swept the Saddledome. Twelve minutes from the end, down three goals in what would become a 5-0 spanking, many spectators headed for a silent and sad ride home.

Ironically, the Canadians' chances for gold seemed to drop drastically not long after the Olympics opened. They had beaten the Soviets twice in big pre-Olympic tests but faltered fairly quickly here, losing to Finland, being tied by the Swedes and scoring only one goal in a victory over Poland.

Their trip to the medal round had been worrisome. But here they were, fighting an uphill battle for the gold and, mostly because of ABC television, doing it in prime time.

"It's just wonderful to be America's team," Coach Dave King said sarcastically. "North America's team. South America's team. Whatever."

Unfortunately for him and his team, King had all but forecast the embarrassing outcome more than 24 hours before it took place, saying:

"I don't know why they {the Soviets} are inconsistent {against Canada earlier and in going unbeaten in the pre-medal round here}, but you still have to respect them. If they have a good night, they can be awfully difficult."

Try devastatingly difficult. Try this fact: the Soviets' 5-0 success last night was a goal better than their victory in the same situation four years ago in Sarajevo. Try this omen: Canada failed to score a goal in two medal-round games in 1984.

Canada opened the affair confident it had the best goalkeeper -- and glided off after the first period with an even stronger feeling. Against the quick-trigger Soviets, 0-0 sometimes is terrific.

Twice near the end of the period, Sean Burke made wonderful saves. Grateful, his teammates came onto the ice and congratulated him.

"They're going to get some quality chances," he had said, "so if you can cut down some of those chances, you break them down to almost being like any other team."

The Soviets, meanwhile, were going without Evgeny Belosheikin, their usual goalie against North American teams, who was out with a knee injury. To eyes unfamiliar with hockey at any level, Sergei Mylnikov seemed shaky on several first-period saves, deflecting the puck instead of either catching or smothering it.

All he ended up doing was pitching a shutout. So much for brilliant early observations.

Anyway, Canada and its fans were enthusiastic at holding scoreless a team capable of scoring goals in bunches. Two Soviet power plays even had been stopped.

This period was in keeping with the Canadians' past success against the Soviets. They had won on the road, in the Izvestia Cup, and at home, in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, when Burke also was exceptional.

"We played against the big line in Saskatoon and wound up being plus-one," Marc Habscheid had nobly reminded everyone. "I'm not saying we're able to control them, but it's possible to control them -- and it gives us a little bit of confidence.

"You've got to check them tight, ride them hard."

Probably, that is why officials often had to step between Canadians and Soviets this night. If the big three of Igor Larionov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov was going to prevail, it would not be without some bruises.

There were scattered skirmishes, but nothing serious. A few times, an official would intrude on one push party, only to find another breaking out close by.

As King had feared, the Soviets were more than willing to exchange several checks for an occasional goal. And less than a minute after the Saddledome organist had finished playing "Hey, Look Me Over" to start the second period, the Canadians were behind.

Sergei Yachin's goal was one of those swift changes of fortune so common to hockey. One instant, the puck seemed to be sailing safely out of the Canadians' territory; the next, it was rattling inside the net.

Bad as that was, Soviet history suggested matters soon would get worse.

"They can really bunch their goals," King said. "When they get one on you, they can come right back and get another. They get you off your game with that second or third goal. You have to make sure, if they get one, that you don't lose your composure, not start to panic."

Panic or not, Canada found itself two goals down about seven minutes later. Several seconds after missing a short flick from close range, Viatcheslav Bykov was in almost exactly the same position, after a pass from Andrei Khomutov. He was unerring this time.

Still, had Burke not made at least two point-blank saves, the Canadians would not have had any hope going into the third period. At the other end, Canada missed two excellent chances.

No one was quite sure how Habscheid missed an in-traffic scoop shot from inside five feet on a power play. Another time, a Canadian shot slid off Mylnikov's stick and a Soviet teammate was there to clear it.

"If I had put that in {and narrowed the deficit to 2-1}," Habscheid said, "it would have given us an emotional lift. Who knows what might have happened there."

Canadians still were cheering at the start of the third period, for anything might happen if Mylnikov got peppered often enough. But another obscure Soviet scored within six minutes. Not necessarily embarrassed, two of the super Soviets, Makarov and Krutov, figured they had better become productive. And they did.