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Sunday, February 24, 2002
Canadians reclaim their game

Associated Press

TORONTO -- It wasn't just the first Olympic gold medal in men's hockey in 50 years, or the pride in claiming the title of world's premier hockey nation that set off Sunday's honking, cheering celebrations across Canada.

It was beating the United States, convincingly, in the final match of the Olympics that made the moment particularly memorable for Canadians everywhere.

The 5-2 victory, almost certainly watched by the largest television audience in Canadian history, provided a new generation with a memory like the one their elders have held for three decades -- since Paul Henderson's last-minute goal clinched the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviet Union.

"I'm not going to forget this day. You couldn't want anything more," shouted Bradley Fletcher, 36, in a jam-packed Sports Cafe in Toronto. "It's not really about hockey. It's about Canada and the United States. We're Americanized, but this is our game. It's our one last vestige of what we are."

Out on the streets, an impromptu parade of honking vehicles, filled or surrounded by flag-waving celebrants, clogged traffic, but nobody seemed to mind. Tens of thousands of people had gathered within an hour after the final whistle.

It was much the same across the country. From Newfoundland to British Columbia, from southern Ontario to northern Yukon, revelers counted down the last 30 seconds and then leaped and screamed for joy wherever they watched.

The General Motors Place in Vancouver was full of thousands of people who watched on big screens. Others crammed sports bars, restaurants, living rooms and any other place where there was a television to watch.

Firefighters at one Ottawa station made a celebratory lap around the block, sirens and lights blazing.

In Montreal, crowds of celebrants filled the streets, forgetting any separatist feelings that might exist to cheer the quintessential Canadian moment. Several fans climbed atop a bus on Ste-Catherine Street and sprayed the crowd with beer.

"In two golden weeks of triumph, the game that we have always called our own, that we have shared with the world, has become ours again," Prime Minister Jean Chretien said in celebrating gold not only in men's hockey but women's hockey, too.

"In the past two weeks, in homes and schools, at work and at play, Canadians have once again been united in a way that only hockey can bring us together," Chretien said. "And their victories have triggered a nationwide party of celebration."

At Toronto's Sports Cafe, Fletcher almost got doused with beer when someone toppled his table by celebrating the first Canadian goal.

"This is our 1972," Fletcher said, referring to the Summit Series in which the first national team comprised of professionals fought back to defeat the Soviets, then the amateur hockey powerhouse. "You do not forget a day like this."

Renee Bryant-Valvassori won't forget, because she was the only one wearing an American flag. She said the hostility was much more than good-natured ribbing.

"It was brutal," she said.

Still, Bryant-Valvassori, 38, who was born in Waukesha, Wisc., never flinched.

"I am so proud," she said of wearing the U.S. flag. "I just held my head up high."