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Friday, February 22, 2002
Suddenly, everything going Canada's way

By George Johnson
Special to ESPN.com


Chalk it up to "American propoganda."

Mario Lemieux
Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and the rest of Team Canada have an easy path to the gold-medal game -- and they didn't even have to earn it.

Really, what else could it be? Why else would anyone be brazen enough to suggest that Canada's march to the Olympic men's hockey semifinals could be credited more to good luck than good management, good planning or inspired play?

The nerve.

Just because the Finns upended the Russians to allow Canada to draw them instead of Khabibulin, Bure, Fedorov et al in the quarterfinals, then Belarus turns the international hockey world on its ear by shunting the Swedes from the tournament, meaning the Canadians don't have to deal with Sundin, Alfredsson, Ohlund and the rest. You think that is reason enough to make such inferences? Pshaw! Nothing more than petty jealousy.

"Hey, in a way, we're the underdogs!" announced Theo Fleury, as Team Canada readied to face the beasts from Belarus at the E Center on Friday. "They beat the team that beat us. They cracked the uncrackable Torpedo and we couldn't. So doesn't that make them the favorites?"

That Theo, what a cut-up.

That Canada would be a mere step away from the gold-medal game on semifinal showdown day seemed the height of improbability just six sleeps ago. But now, after strong showings against the Czech Republic and Finland, the pre-tourney favorites appear to be hitting their stride at the ideal moment.

Only a few days ago they could've been mistaken for a derailed train. Today, they look like the Orient Express.

Instead of a Russia-Sweden-U.S. or Czech rundown to glory, the Canadians wound up with Finland-Belarus-Russia or U.S. Admit it, there must be some higher power at work here.

"We've gotten a little bit stronger with each game," defenseman Al MacInnis said. "It hasn't come easy, it's been a struggle at times, but we're still here, still hanging around, and there's no reason to think we can't play our best two games of this tournament in the last two."

Give Canada some marks for overcoming adversity, certainly. But the whole scenario is just so downright odd. The Canadians couldn't buy a break to save their lives when they arrived in Utah. They were taking all kinds of heat back home for a poor performance against the Swedes and a nondescript one versus the forgettable Germans. Wayne Gretzky, the executive director, was calling media conference to explain statements he made in media conferences the day before.

The whole thing seemed dangerously close to becoming unhinged. Now, suddenly, they're beset by all sorts good fortune. Good fortune they very well could parlay into ending that 50-year Olympic gold wait on Sunday afternoon.

Now, suddenly, all that talk of the tournament not starting until the medal-round, all those vague assurances that everything would be okay, are coming true. But not by design.

It's a testament to the zaniness of the Olympic tournament format that the Americans, arguably the most dynamic, consistent team here, are forced to knock off the equally potent Russians to reach the final while Canada, which has been fumbling and stumbling its way to try and find its footing, winds up with nondescript Belarus.

There's justice for you.

While the Russians and Americans beat each other up, the Canadians should be able to kill off the Belarusians without working up too much of a sweat -- a huge advantage going into Sunday's finale. Even the prohibitive underdogs themselves believe their date with destiny is done.

"A powerful team," admits Swede-killer Andrei Mezin, the Belarus goaltender. "A Dream Team, like the NBA's." He shrugged resignedly. "So they will make the decision. If they want to win, they will win. We will give 100 percent. We want to win. But, really, it is not up to us."

No, it's not. Upsets the magnitude of the one that took Sweden down happen a maximum of once a tournament, if not once in a lifetime. The Belarusians, then, have used up their quota.

The Canadians swear they won't be taking anything for granted, even if most of them don't know Belarus from Bela Lugosi. Even if most of the Belarusians play for such instantly recognizable teams as Severstal Chereports, Mettalurg Magnitogorsk and AK Bans Kazan. Even if the only NHLer, circa 2002, of the lot is Anaheim defenseman Ruslan (Don't call me Jamie) Salei.

Still, the Canadians are trying hard to make it sound as if they're in mortal fear.

"Look what happened to Sweden," cautioned Fleury, trying to stifle a yawn. Yes, just witness the carnage.

One of the Swedish newspapers Thursday, in the aftermath of the humiliation Mezin inflicted upon the vaunted Tre Kroner, ran mugshots of every player along with their salary underneath the headline: Guilty of Treason. The Canadians can expect as much, if not worse, should they suffer a similar fate.

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