A country eagerly waits for more hockey gold

Updated: February 7, 2006, 11:44 AM ET
By George Johnson | Special to ESPN.com

Who will be the next Canadian Idol?

Joe Thornton? Dany Heatley? Rick Nash? Eric Staal?

Auditions start Feb. 15 at the Olympic Palasport in Torino, Italy, the town that gave the world Fiat. We await the results with anticipation.

The rewards, it goes without saying, will be beyond their wildest imagination. But be warned. The judging is guaranteed to be even tougher than Simon Cowell on a fractious day.

Wayne Gretzky
AP PhotoAfter Team Canada ended their gold-medal drought in 2002, Wayne Gretzky knows nothing less than a repeat will do.

Nothing less than stopping the show cold will do.

Ask Jarome Iginla how his world changed Feb. 24, 2002. Those two goals in the emotionally charged, championship-deciding victory at the E Center transformed the once shy kid from a broken home in Sherwood Park, Alberta, from a local icon to a celebrity of national renown.

For us Canadians, this is the Super Bowl, the World Series, the World Cup of soccer and Mardi Gras all rolled into a two-week shinnyfest. Oh, they've been good enough to schedule speedskating and figure skating, bobsledding and people on skis toting firearms, too. Renewed financial resources, a commitment beyond the usual and an aggressive Own the Podium program has helped Canada assemble a Winter Games team unlike any seen for many years. Unless the whole thing falls apart, this team will far eclipse the 17 medals accrued in Utah four years ago.

But as much as cross-country ace Beckie Scott, World Cup bobsled king Pierre Leuders, slalom ski king Thomas Grandi or speedskaters Jeremy Wotherspoon or Cindy Klassen might bring, as much as they might achieve, in reality, one medal will shine most brightly.

There's an Extra ad campaign hogging TV time, bus shelters and billboards here: Win with Quinn. And it's pitching more than gum.

The Stanley Cup might be our holy grail and the majority of players contesting it might still hail from such far-flung outbacks as Moose Jaw and Antigonish and Port Coquitlam, but only one Canadian-based team (the Calgary Flames two springtimes ago, remember?) has survived long enough to reach a Stanley Cup final in the past decade. No Canadian entry has actually won the thing since the '93 Montreal Canadiens.

The Olympic Games, now, are a different beast altogether. In Torino, the Canadians are favored. This is a team the entire country -- regardless of geographical bias, long-simmering team rivalries or the disenfranchisement of a city that has gone nearly four decades without a finals appearance, let alone a championship -- can wrap its arms around and embrace.

In arguably the most exhilarating national sports moment since Paul Henderson's grainy-image heroics in 1972, the conception of the "rouge'' in three-down, wide-field football or the switch from push to corn curling brooms, the 2002 gold-medal confrontation against the U.S. smashed all Canadian records for television viewership, averaging 8.7 million and maxing out during the postgame celebrations at 10.46 million, more than one-third of the country's population.

Not even Anne Murray specials in the 1970s pulled 'em in like that.

Thousands spilled out onto streets in Toronto, tying up traffic. They celebrated on Parliament Hill in Ottawa -- the nation's capital -- underneath the Peace Tower, hugging and singing. There was much chest pounding and flag waving and In-Your-Face-ing going on across the country from tip to tip.

Very un-Canadian-like behavior.

If this selection process didn't carry the same sense of breathless anticipation as four years ago, a recent rash of injuries sidelining top defensemen -- Ed Jovanovski, likely Scott Niedermayer -- has triggered a Who'll-Play-Scarlett-O'Hara type debate on who should be the replacement(s). Jay Bouwmeester? Scott Hannan? Calgary super-rook Dion Phaneuf? Inquiring minds want to know.

There's no doubt the country will stop, hold its collective breath and prepare to pop its cork in celebration again. But it's asking a lot to expect time to stand still twice running.

There's no 50-year drought this go-round. And those in charge in Italy undoubtedly will be asked to check diligently for unwanted coins left to freeze in the ice at the Palasport. Part of the lure of Salt Lake City was the adversity that team overcame. Canada was picked apart by Sweden in its opener and had to claw its way through from there. Quinn's bunch saved its best for last, for the Americans. The rest, for those without selective memory, was a struggle, even spurring Wayne Gretzky to call a news conference at one point to take some of the heat off his boys.

For those of another era -- the MTV/X-Box/multiplex generation -- the coronation at Salt Lake City, the fulfillment of a half-century quest, cannot be topped. This was their '72, their Summit Series. The touchstone for a generation.

Canada embarks on an Olympic men's repeat with a different shape. Much of the leadership of the Salt Lake team has gotten old, retired, moved on. No Yzerman. No Mario. No MacInnis. No Nieuwendyk. But the depth of talent, the quality, remains staggeringly high. So deep that Sid the Kid didn't make the cut. Neither did Patrick Marleau. There was no room for Paul Kariya. Or Alex Tanguay.

Three of the league's current top six scorers -- Staal, Heatley and Thornton -- will don the Maple Leaf in Italy. Joe Sakic is as dependable a big-game player as any of his era. The line of Thornton, Nash and Simon Gagne finished 1-2-3 in scoring at the 2005 World Championships and is a helluva way to start setting up attacking units. Martin Brodeur has become this country's international goaltender of record.

Canada's deeper in talent than any team on the planet. As usual, Gretzky and Co. have put together an intoxicating blend of the sublime (Heatley, Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards), the tried-and-true (Chris Pronger, Rob Blake, Iginla, Gagne) and the truculent (Kris Draper, Shane Doan).

They certainly have the artillery to repeat the feat. As enthralling as it's bound to be, however, replicating that very particular feeling might prove far more elusive.

A country waits.

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

George Johnson, a columnist for the Calgary Herald, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.