Sunday, February 24, 2002
Canada executes game plan to golden perfection
By E.J. Hradek ESPN The Magazine
WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- In an all-North American Olympic men's ice hockey gold-medal final between Canada and United States, the team that truly played the North American style won.
And, on this day, that team was clearly the better team.
Canada celebrated the 50th anniversary of its last Olympic gold medal with a decisive 5-2 victory over Team USA at a packed E Center on Sunday afternoon.
By the third period, Team USA's Mike Modano, left, and Chris Drury were worn out.
Canada forwards Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic broke open a 3-2 game in the final four minutes to cement the victory. The clinching goals came just moments after a brilliant toe save by Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur on a one-time blast from the left wing circle by U.S. sniper Brett Hull.
However, on this day, a U.S. victory would have been highway robbery. And, the masked man would have been acrobatic U.S. goalie Mike Richter, who finished with 34 -- often spectacular -- saves.
The loss snapped a 24-game (21-0-3) Olympic home unbeaten streak for the United States, which dated back to a 1932 loss to Canada. Also, Herb Brooks' personal 12-game (10-0-2) unbeaten streak as U.S. Olympic coach came to an end.
From the outset when Team Canada coach Pat Quinn sent out his oversized line of center Eric Lindros, right wing Owen Nolan and left wing Ryan Smyth to start the game, the plan was typically Canadian: Gain the neutral zone, dump the puck and attack the mobile, but undersized, U.S. defense.
"We knew that they had terrific offensive skill on the backline," Quinn said. "So, we didn't want them to get involved too much. We figured we could pressure them deep in the zone, force some turnovers and get some cycling going around the net."
And, after a couple of early mistakes -- one of which led to the game's first goal by U.S. right wing Tony Amonte -- the Canadians worked their plan to perfection.
"I thought we played as well as we possibly could in the first two periods," said Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, whose defensive genius could be seen on the ice. "I thought we got better and better defensively with every game of the tournament."
When the Canadians weren't pinning Team USA deep in its own end, they were setting the perfect trap in the neutral zone. That was bothersome for the United States, which preferred to carry the puck with a speed rush into the opposing zone throughout the tournament. By shutting down the neutral zone, the U.S. attack was slowed and it was forced to resort to a dump-and-chase NHL-type game, which was not particularly suited to their personnel.
Once Team USA surrendered possession on the dump-in, it had a difficult time fighting through Team Canada's assortment of big defensemen, such as Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Chris Pronger.
"We wanted to turn it into more of an NHL game," said Team Canada center Joe Nieuwendyk, who adds a gold medal to his two Stanley Cups. "In this game, we didn't see a lot of 150-foot passes. It was more short passing and dumping."
Team USA captain Chris Chelios, who led his team in a center-ice salute to the fans after the loss, tipped his beret (a big selling item at these Olympics) to the winners.
"They played with a lot of confidence," Chelios said. "They really played their game, especially after allowing a couple of odd-man rushes early in the game. I don't think they allowed any odd-man chances after that."
Brooks, who was brilliant in his second stint as the U.S. Olympic coach, didn't feel his team ever really got their legs under them Sunday. Admitting it might be sour grapes, Brooks felt the semifinal seeding hurt his team.
"I didn't really understanding the seeding process," said Brooks, referring to the fact that his team drew Russia in the semis, while the Canadians (who had a worse tournament record) got to face qualifier Belarus. "We had a tougher road to the final and I didn't think we had our best legs today."
No, Team USA didn't have its best legs Sunday. But much of that had to do with wonderfully executed game plan by Team Canada, which won by playing a typically North American game.
Or, better said, a perfect Canadian game.
Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky admitted after the game that the Canadians had a little lucky charm under the ice at the E Center. NHL ice guru Dan Craig, who is from Edmonton and was in charge of maintaining the ice at the E center, buried a Canadian loonie (coin) under the center ice dot for good luck. After the game, the loonie was carved from the surface and given to Gretzky, who said he would pass it on to the Hall of Fame. "We got two gold medals out of it," joked Gretzky, referring to the men's and women's gold-medal performances ... U.S. forward Keith Tkachuk, who missed the last three games after suffering a severely bruised thigh, suited up for the game but looked slowed by the injury. He played into the second period but wasn't effective. He didn't play in the second half of the game.
E.J. Hradek writes for ESPN The Magazine.