Today, Canada will hold its own Olympic-size version.
Canada is crazy about hockey, and Sunday it will get a triple helping. The men’s gold medal matchups from the past three Olympics will all repeat themselves in Canada Hockey Place, with seedings for the knockout round ahead on the line.
Topping the card: the United States vs. Canada – a replay of the gold-medal game from 2002, when Canada won, snapping its 50-year gold-medal drought in the Olympics.
In Vancouver, the stakes are almost as high, with Canada seeking the one gold that the host nation covets above all others in these Winter Games.
It all sets the stage for what could be, in the worlds of one US hockey official, “the greatest hockey tournament in the history of the world” to begin in earnest.
“There is nothing in America like what we are going to see [in] … the Olympic hockey competition,” said Dave Ogrean, executive director of USA Hockey, before the Olympics started. “It’s going to be a highly competitive tournament, and we’re going to a country that rightly considers itself the home of hockey.”
A nation enthralled
Before the Olympics even began, two hockey minnows – Switzerland and Belarus – sold 15,000 tickets for each game of a two-game tune-up series in Winnipeg, Manitoba. Last week, an estimated 1 in 3 Canadians watched Canada’s 3-2 shootout win over Switzerland.
Sunday will be 12 hours of world-class hockey in Vancouver, and Canada is aquiver.
For the US and Canada, Sunday’s afternoon game is a case of role reversal from 2002, when America was on home ice in the final.
But the more relevant Olympic memories come from four years ago, when neither team medaled or even advanced past the first knockout round. For Canada, the seventh-place finish was the worst in Olympic history.
In both cases, the result form Turin was a changing of the guard, meaning that the US and Canada enter Sunday’s game with teams that bear little resemblance to those that took the ice in 2006. Both are younger and, presumably, hungrier than the veteran squads that looked slow and uninspired in comparison with the Europeans.
Canada returns only four players from Turin, the US three.
The favorite vs. the spoiler
Still, Canada remains a heavy favorite for the gold-medal match, given its vast pool of elite players. The US is seen as being in a time of transition – a spoiler, at best.
So far, both teams have won their first two games. Sunday, however, is the first real chance to see how each team measures up to its expectations.
In Canada’s case, the challenge is dealing with an embarrassment of riches. The temptation is simply to build an all-star team. But the success of Sweden and Finland in 2006 showed that even Olympic teams need grinders and role players.
The US has tried to learn that lesson. “We can’t just take the top 23 players and think that is going to work against other teams,” said Brian Burke, the architect of the US team, before the Olympics started.
“You need [defensive] guys who are going to chew up minutes and not get scored on,” said Burke. “You need shot blocking, you need face-offs, you need anything that is going to get you the puck back.”
And you need a goaltender. That is perhaps America’s one advantage over Canada, with Ryan Miller seen by many as the the most in-form netminder in the tournament. “That’s where we will stack up best,” said Burke.
A budding rivalry
While the Canadian team is built on players who are often the cornerstones of their professional franchises, the American team is built more on players who make up the supporting cast.
Teams like Finland have been able to excel using such a formula, but the cores of those teams have been playing together for years. The US and Canada, by contrast, might actually be more familiar playing with players on the opposing bench.
Since all the players in the Canadian and American rosters play in the NHL, more than a dozen Canadians will be playing against pro teammates when they face the US.
As the US has improved on the international hockey stage in recent years, that familiarity is part of what has made the rivalry more intense.
For Canada, hockey has always been about its nemesis, Russia (and the USSR before that), but the “US and Canada [rivalry] is one that has grown,” Canadian forward Jonathan Toews told AP. “The one with Russia dates back a long time. I have grown up with the American one being bigger and at the forefront."
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