If Sidney Crosby can still be Sid the Kid at the age of 22, then he is also the Golden Child.
With a medal around his neck and a smile plastered on his face, he took a Canadian flag for a spin at Canada Hockey Place just as his teammates had taken a nation on an emotional three-hour whirligig. Crosby had earned a standing O Canada, but the open secret of these Olympics was that he had been unexceptional. He had not scored a point in the two previous games. Near the end of regulation in the gold medal game on Sunday, he failed to cash in a breakaway that would have dumped the U.S. into a cavernous two-goal hole. Team Canada general manager Steve Yzerman would later praise Crosby for doing all the little things, but some people are destined to do the big things on the biggest stage.
Crosby is one, blessed with an incomparable sense of narrative. So when he suggested 45 minutes after the epic Olympic final—Canada 3, United States 2—"it could have been anybody else in [our dressing room]" who scored that soul-soothing, Armageddon-preventing goal at 7:40 of overtime, he was only technically correct. Crosby collects goals, assists and moments. In a compelling match that needs only to marinate in memory to be elevated to among the best ever, it wasn't anybody else who scored. It was the Golden Child.
The decisive play started along the boards when Crosby chipped the puck past U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski to Jarome Iginla. Crosby jumped off the wall, wheeled toward the net and, as he left Rafalski a stride behind, screamed, "Iggy! Iggy!"
"He was yelling pretty urgently," Iginla said. "There are different pitches of yell. You could tell he had a step." Iginla, wearing defenseman Ryan Suter like a 44 regular, slipped a pass onto Crosby's stick for the wrist shot heard, at the very least, from British Columbia to Newfoundland.
For a nation that never has been humble about its hockey ambitions, this was, in Canadian terms, a Paul Henderson where-were-you-when? In the U.S., defining events have more gravitas—the moon landing, 9/11—but it is a reflection of Canada's role in the world that its frozen-in-time moments of the last half-century involve frozen water. Henderson scored the game-winner against the Soviet Union in Moscow in the finale of the 1972 Summit Series, a goal that stopped time. Now at 2:53 PST in the most-watched hockey game in North America since the Miracle on Ice in 1980—it drew 27.6 million viewers on NBC and a staggering 16.6 (about half the country) on CTV in Canada—Crosby had done the same. He had written a new story for those who had experienced "Henderson scores for Canada!" only through the gilded memory of their parents.
"You're just happy he's on your team," Canadian center Joe Thornton said. "You're happy he was born in Canada. Thank God."
The queue at Earls Restaurant & Bar on Vancover's Hornby Street began to form around 6 a.m., even though the establishment would not open until 10. The gold medal game was a civic event—hockey is the thread that sews together the patches of Canada's cultural quilt—that begged to be shared among those of the maple-leaf persuasion. Although the face-painted communicants on the sidewalk were obliged to skip church on Sunday, they were free to while away the pregame hours outside Earls, flipping to the Vancouver Province's letters to the editors page.
Robert Bernath, of Agassiz, B.C., had written this:
Our father, who art in Canada Hockey Place, hockey be thy name. Thy will be done, gold to be won, on ice as well as in the stands.
Give us this day our hockey sticks and forgive us our penalties, as we forgive those who cross-check against us.
Lead us not into elimination but deliver us to victory.
In the name of the ... fans, Canada and the holy puck.
Canada's hockey crusade in Vancouver was not for bragging rights but proprietary ones. The puffed-chest notion of entitlement—"It's pretty obvious it's the world's game," coach Mike Babcock said, "but we still think it's ours, and I'm a bit of a redneck"—chafed American players like 25-year-old Ryan Kesler, whose day job is playing center for the Canucks. Kesler had gone so far as to say he hated Canada or, more properly, its smug sense of hockey superiority. While strolling the Yaletown district after the U.S.'s 6--1 semifinal dismantling of Finland last Friday, Kesler says he was, in that fabulous hockey phrase, chirped by fans. "Not PG," Kesler said. "R rated. They're passionate, but it's a little annoying when you're trying to hang out with your family."
There was more conspicuous respect for Team USA goalie Ryan Miller, who was on the receiving end of only rare chants of "MILL-ER!" The tournament MVP, Miller is a 6'2" beanpole with a preternatural calm that, U.S. general manager Brian Burke suggested, made him the anti--Denis Lemieux, the flopping and frustrated goalie from the movie Slap Shot. Miller, who finished with a superb .945 save percentage, credited his father, Dean, with teaching him to play the position without ornamentation. Recalls Ryan, "My father used to say, 'SPORTS ILLUSTRATED isn't here taking pictures. Make the glove save and just move on.'"
This is the power of the Olympics: In a period of two weeks Miller went from Sabres stalwart to international star. When Team USA beat Canada 5--3 in the round robin, his life went viral. The phrase Do you believe in Miller-cles? was trending on Twitter. His friends told him a Jonas Brother—it was Joe—tweeted him, then Alyssa Milano. He appeared on Ryan Seacrest's nationally syndicated radio show, during which he was asked about his girlfriend, actress Noureen DeWulf. "It's been a little surreal," said Miller. "I've been used to hockey being a cult sport that people just want to pay attention to at their convenience."
Maybe Vancouver 2010 changes that dynamic. If Zach Parise's opportunistic goal with 24.4 seconds left in regulation had led to a U.S. victory instead of merely setting up Crosby's star turn in overtime, this could have been the tipping point that brought hockey in from the American cold. As Burke says, "A gold medal immortalizes a team." A silver can tarnish in the four years before Sochi, when NHL players might, or might not, be going.
Crosby's golden goal may become the ultimate Olympic men's moment, in an even grander sense. According to a senior NHL official, more than three quarters of owners want to abandon the Olympic experiment and oblige players to tend to their league knitting in 2014.
"It's like the two-handed economist," says Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz, who had four players in the final: the brilliant Patrick Kane, who assisted on both U.S. goals on Sunday, and Team Canada members Jonathan Toews, voted the best forward in the tournament, and defensemen Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook. "On the business side it's like closing your bar at nine o'clock on New Year's Eve. But ... it's really excited our fans, the players and the city of Chicago."
"Do not forget one thing—the ratings of the final of the Olympic Games are way higher than the ratings of the final of the Stanley Cup," IOC President Jacques Rogge told SI. "So this is a fantastic promotion for hockey in North America."
While more Americans now know Miller and Parise, the NHL has never been able to forge more than a transitory link between the Olympics and its game. And Wayne Gretzky isn't sure anything else is even possible. "The reality is, this is a two-week high," Gretzky, a former Canadian Olympian as both a player and a general manager, said over coffee last week. "Does [the Olympic break] hurt the NHL a little bit? Yeah. But I don't think it's going to hurt anybody in the big picture.... It's also a question of honor. The Russians honored us by sending their best to Vancouver, and they should have the same from us. Russian people deserve to see the best Canadian players. The last time they had that chance was 1972." Henderson's year.
The contentious issue will percolate until NHL owners come down on the side of balance sheet or ice sheet, the magical place where Crosby snatched a small piece of forever from a group of Americans who played with speed, toughness and honor. In a world fixated on searching for the next big thing, hockey should savor an incandescent moment that might well have been the last big thing.