Commentary

What gold would mean to U.S., Canada

Updated: February 28, 2010, 10:16 AM ET
By Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun | ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Does one game have the power to change someone's life?

Ask Mike Eruzione or Jim Craig or any of the players from the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" team. Ask Paul Henderson or Phil Esposito or any of the players from Canada's Summit Series team, which beat the Russians in 1972.

Those are moments frozen in time, events that defined not just a sport but an era.

Things are different now, of course. Technology has altered how we receive and digest information. Communism and the fear of the Russian way of life, the backdrop for both of those seminal North American hockey moments, no longer exists. But does it lessen the potential for a similar kind of event to unfold on Sunday when Canada and the United States battle for gold?

"We take pride in hockey in these international events, and it would be a great accomplishment for the country, an opportunity to really feel proud about the game in Canada once again," Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman told ESPN.com on Saturday.

"The U.S. is a huge country, and I think there's a great fan base in the United States," Yzerman said. "It's just that it's a huge country with many interests in different sports. But I believe, to the hockey fans there, it has a similar importance to them. I'm sure the U.S. is rallying around it and the non-hockey fan in the United States might be paying attention to it, too. So I think a lot of good is coming out of this game itself."

United States

The day before the gold-medal game, David Backes was asked who would play him in a movie if the Americans pull off the upset of this tournament and win the country's first Olympic hockey gold medal since 1980.

"Great question. I don't know any big, goofy-looking guys that could play me," Backes said. "I'd like to play myself, if that is OK."

Now, the question was posed half in jest. But the fact anyone can speak of this current U.S. team in the same sentence as the "Miracle" speaks volumes about what is at stake in Vancouver. Sunday's gold-medal game may be the most-watched hockey game ever in the United States. Never mind Stanley Cup finals, Winter Classics, even the 2002 Olympic final in Salt Lake City -- Sunday's game has caught the imagination of a nation that rarely notices, let alone becomes mesmerized, by the sport.

Throughout Saturday's practices and availability, there was talk suggesting what we are about to watch is epic, and a win for the U.S. might well provide one of those life-altering experiences that changes everything for players, and the game.

And it is a fine line between historic and silver. Brian Rafalski and Chris Drury were on the U.S. team that lost to Canada in the 2002 gold-medal game. No one speaks of that team in terms of changing the landscape of the game or approaching reverence. They were a good team that won silver. Nothing more, nothing less.

If the Americans lose Sunday, there will certainly be no shame in it; they are the youngest team in the tournament and virtually no one picked them to be in this position. If they can run the table with their sixth straight win, it will vault them into a different place in the pantheon of sporting legends in America.

"I think every generation has their Olympic team or U.S. team that they point to. I missed 1980, but certainly had 1996 to look at," said Chris Drury, referring to the 1996 World Cup of Hockey win over Canada that was seen as a seminal moment in the history of American hockey. "I think we've captured a lot of people's attention already, and certainly a win tomorrow would maybe further that a little bit more."

Team USA GM Brian Burke downplayed his team's chances publicly from the moment he was named to build the team. But he also built a team he believed would have a chance at success in this tournament based on the roles players would play and their potential to come together.

"I think a gold medal immortalizes your team," Burke said. "I think it's the same as a Stanley Cup victory. Even if you're the eighth seed in the Stanley Cup and you win, that team is remembered forever."

We recall chatting with U.S. assistant GM David Poile at the team's orientation camp in suburban Chicago in August. Even veteran hockey writers were at a loss to identify some of the players who had been invited to the camp.

Poile talked about the possibility for another "Miracle" and how important it would be for the game. Now, Poile feels even more strongly about the impact an American gold medal would have in the States. A parent has to decide if their child is going to play soccer or football or basketball or baseball.

"What are the chances after seeing what happened this week that they may take up hockey? There's going to be some growth, and somebody's going to be affected tremendously by this," Poile said. "It'll be long past yours or my time, but someone will say, 'What happened in the 2010 Olympics, that's what got me started in hockey.'"

It's a lot of pressure to put on a bunch of kids. But here's the funny thing about this group of kids, many of whom are anonymous outside of their own NHL markets and sometimes even within those cities: They don't seem to mind the pressure.

"It's a hockey game, it's ice, it's a puck -- the kind of stuff we've done for years," said netminder Ryan Miller, perhaps the single most important factor in stealing gold on Canadian soil. "I'm just going to go out and hopefully tie my skates on the right way and play a hockey game. It's something we do every day."

And maybe that's what goes into the equation, too. When we talk about the game of a lifetime, a chance to carve out a place in American sports history, there's the idea that this is the perfect group to do just that: anonymous, perhaps, but self-confident and unafraid.

It was the case in 1980. And in 1972, when Canada beat the Russians. And in 1996.

"I don't think anybody knew how good we'd be. We didn't know how good we'd be," Poile said. "Let's call it like it is."

On Sunday afternoon, a nation waits to find out the final answer, and whether the answer will resonate in the United States for years to come.

Canada

The opening lines from the song "Fireworks" by Canadian rock band The Tragically Hip captures a day forever branded in Canadian history: Henderson's game-winning goal in the 1972 Summit Series against the former Soviet Union.

If there's a goal that everyone remembers, it was back in ol' 72.
We all squeezed the stick and we all pulled the trigger.

Think about those lines, and think about an entire country trying to will its hockey team to Olympic gold Sunday.

While a win for Team USA would also be gigantic, both in terms of the growth of the sport in that country and its impact on American kids everywhere, it doesn't fully compare to what it would mean in Canada. We're talking monuments and stamps and, yes, more songs.

"Hockey is not a sport in Canada. It's a cult, it's a religion," Burke said Saturday. "It's why I love living and working in the NHL in a Canadian city [as GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs]. I love the pressure that's on the players and the coach and the GM, and I didn't feel that pressure in Hartford. It wasn't the same. We had to create that pressure. So the Canadians view this as their game and they view this game [Sunday] as planting a flag on a peak. So it's huge."

If Canada wins, it will transcend sports. It will be mythologized in a country whose national identity is forged with the sport it invented and shared with the rest of the world, and now fiercely protects with other countries rivaling its success.

Yzerman has already helped deliver one of the biggest moments in his country's history, helping Canada snap a 50-year gold-medal drought at the Olympics eight years ago in Salt Lake City. The songs and the movies haven't come out yet on that one, but the relevance of the accomplishment and its impact in Canada is still felt.

"I would say 2002 was probably my favorite memory," Team Canada superstar Sidney Crosby said Saturday after practice. "I remember watching that game, I remember the pass that went through [Mario] Lemieux's legs, and [Joe] Sakic scoring late to seal it. That was a big game."

Crosby said even though he wasn't born for the '72 Summit Series and was barely alive for the '87 Canada Cup, he also likes to revisit those highlights. The latter, a titanic three-game tilt with the former USSR, is the favorite hockey memory for any Canadian under the age of 40.

"Probably Lemieux's goal from Gretzky is the one that sticks out, the 3-on-1," Canadian captain Scott Niedermayer, 14 years Crosby's senior, said Saturday. "It was pretty exciting to watch that in the Canada Cup."

Now, it's these players who could be immortalized in Canada.

"As a kid you always dream about getting these opportunities," said Crosby. "But at the same time, as a player going into it, you want to just do everything you can and make sure your game is the best it can be. If that allows you to have that opportunity, then it'll happen."

In other words, there's enough pressure on these players already without having to fill their minds with thoughts of what this will mean, how it would go down in history, and whom would play them in the movie.

Yzerman, for example, said he honestly wasn't focused on the 50-year drought in 2002. That's not how you focus on the task at hand.

"I don't know if at the time we really put any thought into the 50-year drought or anything, we just went there with the idea of 'Let's go out and play, let's go and win,'" Yzerman told ESPN.com. "All you can do is do your job, and I don't think you can look at all those other things and bear the weight of all that. You just try and go win a hockey tournament like you've done your entire life."

Jarome Iginla knows how to deal with this pressure. He played with Yzerman in Salt Lake City and the team was under huge pressure to snap the country's long drought.

"At that time, there was tons of talk. 'It's 50 years you guys haven't won a gold medal, 50 years!' That's all we'd hear," said Iginla. "And we had the opportunity. This one is at home. They both have their storylines."

It's doubtful anything can ever top 1972 for Canadians who are old enough to remember it. That series had political overtones that made the hockey seem secondary. Canada's way of life was under attack. It was the Cold War. People remember exactly where they were when Henderson scored in Game 8.

"I was in Leaf Rapids, Manitoba," Canadian coach Mike Babcock said Saturday. "I remember in school my teacher was Mr. Jeffries. We didn't have a TV in the classroom, so he just ran back and forth down the hall to tell us what was going on. I was a kid starting to play hockey and I really liked hockey. It's a fond memory, but there are lots of great memories over the years of hockey and winning.

"The Americans, I imagine the 'Miracle.' My kids [who are born in the U.S.] watch that and think it's great, but I don't think it's that great. It all depends on what you're into,'' Babcock added with a laugh. "Sports are a funny thing. You never know if you're ever going to get this chance, and if you ever do get this chance, you want to make the most of it."

There will be a winner and a loser Sunday. A young American team has the chance to write a new chapter for what has long been a fringe sport in the U.S. A Canadian team full of stars in its prime hopes to overcome incredible pressure in the home of hockey and become overnight legends.

"Regardless of the outcome, Monday morning people in Canada and the U.S. have to go to work, win or lose," Yzerman said. "It's sport, and people enjoy it and people take pride in it. It's the most popular sport in Canada. But this Olympics has been a tremendous success for Canada and for the city of Vancouver. Regardless of the medal outcome for Canada [Sunday], I think this city has really shined and Canadian people have really shined and left a great impression on the world."

Scott Burnside and Pierre LeBrun cover the NHL for ESPN.com.

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