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Wednesday, February 20, 2002
Canadians find their game as the real Games begin

By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com

SALT LAKE CITY -- Wayne Gretzky doesn't regret anything he said. Should Canada fail to beat the Finns on Wednesday night at the E Center, though, he might find himself regretting what he did, or didn't do.

Should Canada fail to beat the Finns and there will be no redemption for Nagano, no relief for the national psyche, no giddy end to the 50-year Olympic wait.

Should Canada fail to beat the Finns and the howls about not choosing Patrick Roy among the first eight in order to soothe his massive ego and the old-boys make-up of the team and the "Where the hell was Joe Thornton?" cries and the relative inexperience of the management group and the choice of Pat Quinn as coach will clog the air, and the airwaves.

Canada-Finland is a game fraught with potential disaster. At the going rate, Gretzky may obliterate the Sale-Pelletier record for the most press conferences at one Winter Games. He held one again Tuesday, to explain the tirade of Monday likely triggered by his own unflinching critique of his team on Saturday ...

Oh well, you get the drift.

In an Olympics that should feature Mario and Joe and Chris and Paul in its headlines, Wayne has upstaged them all. That definitely wasn't the game plan coming into Salt Lake.

"I was upset that every time I walked into the building there seemed to be another unjustified rumour about our team," the executive director said Tuesday, trying to explain the Olympic-sized rant less than 24 hours earlier to what he considered unfair criticism by the U.S. media ("American propoganda" as he put it) and a hard -- but hardly uncommon -- cross-check to the small of Theo Fleury's back by Czech defenseman Roman Hamrlik. "We've taken an awful lot of lumps in the last eight days and I'd had enough of it, to be honest.

"Most of it was just ... silly. It made me angry. I was protecting our team.

"That last one about Mario being unhappy or returning home -- and I don't know where it started -- really stuck in my craw."

Whether the outburst was merely, as he maintained, an emotional release of pent-up frustration or in actuality a ploy to divert pressure away from his players and onto himself with the elimination round upon them is still unclear. What's inarguable now is that it's up to the Canadian players, over $120 million (in U.S. funds, no less!) in talent, to step up to the plate.

This is the day, as they have lectured us over and over and over, that the men's Olympic hockey tournament actually begins.

Or, they neglected to add, ends.

That taut 3-3 tie against the defending Olympic-champion Czech Republic has renewed hope that the Canadians -- pre-tournament favorites to end the half-century gold scarcity -- might yet pull lightning down from the scrappy Utah sky.

Mario Lemieux, looking achy and infirm throughout the Swedish debacle, seemed reborn against the Czechs. Paul Kariya, whose virtually matchless skating ability should be tailor-made for this ice surface, showed signs of emering from the doldrums. Michael Peca, Owen Nolan and Theo Fleury have left it all out on the ice in the three games thus far.

But there are definitely a lot of concerns yet to be addressed. Unlike the Americans, who have adapated seamlessly to the larger ice surface, Canada has instead chosen to actually shrink it, falling back on the more familiar North American dump-and-chase style after being smoked by the Swedes and pressed by the lowly Germans. Eric Lindros has yet to make an impact on this team, or this tournament. The same goes for Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. That Norris Trophy-laden defense of Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis and Rob Blake aren't overwhelming anyone. Already the consensus No. 1 goalie, Curtis Joseph, has been supplanted in net by Martin Brodeur and, in fact, spent the Monday night watching from the stands as the No. 3 man in the rotation.

And the continuing Gretzky saga droning on makes it appear from the outside as if the whole thing is becoming slightly frayed. All that said, the Canadians are more than up to beating the Finns and from there, who knows?

The most interesting matchup in the quarterfinal will pit Peca against San Jose's Finnish Flash, Teemu Selanne. Selanne has already scored three times with 16 shots on net in Finland's three starts, while Peca is arguably the most tenacious defensive player in the game at the moment. He'll be in Selanne's face, in his head for at least 60 minutes, and likely in his nightmares for weeks to come.

"Any time you have a superstar player like Selanne, you've got to be concerned," emphasized Gretzky. "We've gotta play him hard, make his night miserable. This team is going to play hard and we need to be physical from the drop of the puck."

The Finns won't be pushovers. That impressive 3-1 victory over the powerhouse Russians on Monday night proved that decisively.

"We're going to have to play well defensively," emphasized Brodeur, who obviously has a vested interest in that area of the ice. "We play guys like Selanne so much, we know how dangerous they are. Some of their top players are dominant in our league and, don't forget, the Finns beat us for the bronze medal last time.

"We've been criticized this week but we knew we had five days to get going, and now everything counts."

Just watch. The anguished look on Gretzky's face tells the tale -- being up in the stands and in charge is a helluva lot harder than being down on the ice and control.

Officially, the Canadians were given yesterday off, no on-ice session, no media availability (although, in the conspiracy-theory world of Olympic journalism, speculation was rife that Quinn had called a secret practice at the Acord Arena) to spend with their family members attending these Games.

The world, Gretzky maintained Monday, can't wait to see the Canadians lose. Which, quite probably, is true. But that's nothing new. He's been living that for decades.

This time there were to be no excuses. No time change. No travel. No adapting to different foods or a different culture. This team was built on speed and offence, two ingredients found wanting four years ago in Nagano. This time they would not fail.

"I was just sticking up our team," he told the media late Tuesday afternoon. "I believe in the integrity of Canadian hockey and our country."

The country believes in him.

But be warned: There is nothing more ferocious than a lover scorned. And Canadians, as gods and Great Ones alike are well aware, love their hockey.

George Johnson of the Calgary Herald is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.