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At Last After a fortnight filled with North American fervor, the Games sign off with--what else?--the U.S. vs. Canada for hockey gold

We knew it would come to this, didn't we? Even before Mike
Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, lit the Olympic
cauldron at Rice-Eccles Stadium--then checked his cell phone to
find a message of congratulations from Mario Lemieux, captain of
this year's Canadian club--we knew that a U.S.-Canada hockey
final was inevitable. The two nations came into the Games
already in a bitter battle for control of hockey's grandest
non-Olympic stage. Canada produces three times as many NHL
players as the U.S. does; the U.S. is home to four times as many
NHL teams.

For four years the two nations have been lampooned for their
medalless showing in Nagano. Canada hasn't won a gold in hockey
since 1952. The U.S. drought dates back 22 years. Today, in what
U.S. center Doug Weight calls "the matchup everyone wanted from
the start," one of these rivals will revel in its long-awaited

Before these Games unfurled no one could have foreseen how
closely the U.S. and Canada would commingle. Who, for instance,
could have known that Americans would be lining up by the
hundreds to buy clothing from Canadian outfitter Roots? Or that
on the first night that Bode Miller, America's best skier, stood
at a medals ceremony he would be succeeded on stage by Barenaked
Ladies, Canada's best band? Or that a Quebecois journalist,
Francois Gagnon, would lock himself out of his hotel room,
naked, and then cover his heirlooms with a USA Today. The U.S.
and Canada, joined at the hip.

On Friday, U.S. hockey coach Herb Brooks, who works as a scout
for the NHL Pittsburgh Penguins, was looking forward to the final
when he pointed out that Lemieux, who owns the Penguins, "is a
spectacular player. And, well, Mario's my boss. So let me say
that Canada is a great team."

Some people believe the fate of today's game is not in the stars
but in the stripes. Russian players were incensed at the
officiating of Canadian-born referee Bill McCreary in Russia's
3-2 semifinal loss to the U.S. on Friday. Defenseman Danny
Markov complained so vigorously after the game ended that he was
barred from playing in Russia's 7-2 win over Belarus in
yesterday's bronze medal game. "There's not much you can do
about it," said Slava Fetisov, the Russian coach. "An
agreement's been signed to have a final between Canada and the
U.S.A. You have NHL referees. They live here, and they know the
North American players."

It is a preposterous contention, yet it was no surprise to hear
the U.S. and Canada tarred with the same brush. No individual,
and no nation, can command the sway of public favor and not
expect a backlash from those who have been overlooked. For North
Americans the Games' final gold medal comes down to a face-off
between good and gooder. For conspiracy theorists, and a growing
alliance of disgruntled nations, the gold will end up in the
hands of an evil empire, no matter who wins.

Despite their similarities, the two teams come to the final by
different means. The U.S. has barely hiccuped through the
Olympic tournament. It dominated Finland 6-0 in its first game
of the placement round, proving immediately that it could
generate and defend against the long, up-ice passes that
international rules allow but the NHL does not. The American
forwards gambled gleefully on the expansive ice (it's 15 feet
wider than standard North American rinks) and went on to whip
Belarus and Germany in the quarterfinals by a combined 13-1. The
only resistance came from Russia, which played the U.S. to a 2-2
tie in the placement round and put together a late charge in the
semifinal matchup after being down 3-0.

The U.S. comes into the final physically intact, save for a thigh
injury that will likely keep forward Keith Tkachuk out of today's
match. Brooks, who guided the 1980 team to its miracle gold, has
never lost a game in Olympic competition. A win today, and the
U.S. will have won three straight hockey golds in Games on
American soil.

If the U.S. had its most difficult test in the semifinals,
Canada got what goalie Martin Brodeur says was "the breather we
needed," a 7-1 stomping of overmatched Belarus. Canada had
staggered through the placement round. The team was spun around
in a 5-2 loss to Sweden and barely held off lightly regarded
Germany before tying the Czechs. Canada's crack roster, which is
made up of more NHL All-Stars and major-award winners than any
other Olympic team--appeared perplexed in the international
setting and allowed the Europeans to pick it apart. The
Canadians spoke courageously of improving as the tournament went
on and then delivered by playing their best in the quarterfinals
to edge Finland 2-1. "We've been trying to figure out what we
can do with the bigger ice, defensively as well as offensively,"
said coach Pat Quinn after beating the Finns. "We've condensed
the ice as the tournament has gone on. When we came here, we
were like Swiss cheese. We've worked hard to make it Muenster."

When, in 1998, the Canadians lost to the Czechs in a semifinal
shootout and then dropped the bronze medal game to Finland, the
boldface headlines reporting the death of hockey in Canada were
not regarded as exaggeration. "Our guys play for a country that
feels that anything less than gold is failure," says Quinn. "That
can paralyze any team. There's this fear: 'Oh, no, what if we
fail?' We've talked about it, and we can't let that fear get to

The world got a glimpse of Canada's fear, as well as its
loathing, when Wayne Gretzky, the team's executive director,
addressed the media before the elimination round. He unspooled
an angry rant that was an attempt, he later said, "to protect
our team." Gretzky was unhappy about the negative things that
were being said and written about his struggling team.
Discussing a nasty cross-check that Czech defenseman Roman
Hamrlik had given to Canada's Theo Fleury in that night's game,
Gretzky said that "if we do that, we're called hooligans. If a
European does, it's O.K." Aspiring to even greater martyrdom,
Gretzky also claimed that "no one wants us to win but us." He
then went on to blame "American propaganda" for reports that
Quinn was losing his grip on the team.

The bad press, of course, came straight from hockey's homeland.
The U.S. press doesn't care enough about the backwaters of
Canada's locker room to even look there, and that is where we
find the cultural divide in this final. Sure, the U.S. wants to
win the gold, but a silver would do nothing to diminish this
nation's good cheer. The U.S. has already won more medals than
ever before at a Winter Olympics. More important, it has pulled
off the Games smoothly, despite the logistical quagmires that
the threat of terrorism has caused.

For Canada, these may go down as the Roots Games, but a loss
today would send painful and lasting reverberations through the
roots of Canada's game. "I know a lot of people are going to
watch this game in the U.S.," said Canadian forward Brendan
Shanahan on Friday, "but there won't be a car on the road
anywhere in Canada [today]. Unless the car has a satellite dish."

Viewers worldwide will see a rejuvenated Lemieux, who paced his
NHL schedule to prepare his aging body for the Olympics and
whose pair of artfully executed goals against the Czech Republic
sent Canada on its way to recovery. Lemieux has played most of
his shifts between Paul Kariya and Steve Yzerman, and the trio
constitutes the best and most entertaining line in the world.
Quinn said after the semifinals that Canada still has only about
"nine or 10 guys going," a group that includes forwards Fleury
and Joe Sakic.

The U.S. has relied on a range of contributors. John LeClair was
the team's best forward early in the tournament. Bill Guerin set
the tone against Russia. Jeremy Roenick saved the semifinal when
he slid into the goal mouth and took a puck in his gut to save a
potential game-tying shot. "It's going to be all of us playing
together, for one jersey," says forward Scott Young. "We're going
to come out skating and be aggressive and support the puck.
That's the way we've played since we got here."

The dynamic offenses in this game (plus defensemen on both squads
who are effective at passing and shooting) create an intriguing
subplot: the showdown between Brodeur and U.S. goalie Mike
Richter. Brodeur wrested the goaltending duties from Curtis
Joseph, Canada's starter against Sweden, by playing terrifically
in the third period against Germany. He made a sensational,
game-saving lunge to glove a goal-bound puck against Finland.
Richter, who stopped a dizzying 17 shots in the third period
against Russia, has been the U.S.'s top goalie.

In the NHL, Brodeur and Richter play less than 15 miles
apart--Brodeur for the New Jersey Devils, Richter for the New
York Rangers--and today recalls the fabulous seven-game series
they played against each other in the 1994 Eastern Conference
finals. Richter won Game 7 of that series 2-1, in double
overtime, and the Rangers went on to win the Stanley Cup. Since
then Brodeur has won two Cups himself. "This game is kind of
like a Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final," says Brodeur, "except
if you lose that game, you don't get a thing. Here you still get
a silver medal to hang around your neck."

Then he pauses. "But a silver," he adds, "is not what we came
here for."

COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Defenseman Eric Brewer (3) has given Canada a lift, scoring twice and taking six shots on goal.

TWO COLOR PHOTOS: DAVID E. KLUTHO (2) The U.S. home winning streak will be defended fiercely today by Roenick (left, hitting the glass) and Mike Modano (9).

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID BERGMAN Canadian outfitter Roots has struck gold in Salt Lake; now can Canada's esteemed hockey team do the same against the U.S.?

For North Americans, the Games' final gold comes down to a
face-off between good and gooder.

"There won't be a car on the road anywhere in Canada [today].
Unless the car has a satellite dish."