- The Washington Times - Friday, February 15, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY After two Stanley Cups, a pair of improbable comebacks and a hard-fought battle with Hodgkin's disease, Mario Lemieux knows all about performing under pressure.
Good thing, too.
As the medal round of the Olympic men's hockey tournament begins, no squad will carry greater expectations or incur greater scrutiny than Team Canada, which begins play today against Sweden.
A collection of NHL stars assembled by the Great One himself, Wayne Gretzky, the Canadians are on a mission of utmost national importance to end a half-century gold medal drought that has left the 31 million residents of hockey's homeland perplexed and obsessed.
"I welcome [the pressure]," said team captain Lemieux. "We know we have a real good chance to win the gold medal for the first time in 50 years. That's special for all Canadians. We know what's at stake."
For hockey-mad Canada, the stakes are simple gold or nothing. The nation regards its on-ice dominance as part and parcel of the natural order; as such, neither silver nor bronze will suffice.
Nor will a repeat of Canada's fourth-place finish in the 1998 Nagano Games, the first to feature a preponderance of active NHL players.
"Our focus is on a gold medal," said Gretzky, the team's executive director. "The great thing about hockey in Canada is that everyone expects the best."
Those expectations were shaken at Nagano. Led by the incomparable Gretzky and professional talents like Eric Lindros and Joe Sakic, the Canadians entered the tournament as an odds-on favorite, expected to bring home their first Olympic title since 1953.
Instead, they ran into Czech Republic netminder Dominik Hasek. More specifically, their pucks ran into Hasek: The MVP keeper stopped all five Canadian attempts in a semifinal shootout, and the Czechs advanced with a 2-1 victory.
In the shootout, coach Marc Crawford elected not to use Gretzky, the greatest goal scorer in NHL history. The image beamed back to Canada a forlorn Gretzky, sitting alone on the bench struck a nerve, prompting an orgy of national hand-wringing.
Canadian politicians even held a "hockey summit" to figure out what went wrong.
"There were millions of people that had a better idea [than Crawford]," said current Team Canada coach Pat Quinn. "I didn't like that we didn't get it done, and like millions of Canadians, I wanted to get it done."
Ever since, Canada has been consumed with Olympic redemption. The media crush at Team Canada's four-day orientation camp in Calgary last September rivaled the NHL playoffs. And when Canada's final Olympic roster was announced in December, it was covered live by six television networks.
"Every household in Canada will be watching [the Olympics]," said goalkeeper Curtis Joseph.
Tabbed to restore Canada's hockey preeminence, Gretzky has built a team in his own dynamic image. The roster reads like a who's who of NHL All-Stars: Lemieux, Sakic, Lindros, Paul Kariya, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer and Rob Blake, among others.
"This year they've gone more on talent, more on the top players on their teams, less of a role-type player," said center Steve Yzerman. "They'll use more of the All-Star format, as opposed to really using a format of we need this many guys to play an offensive role, this many guys to play a defensive role."
Canada's style will reflect its talent. While past teams have featured plenty of gritty role players and relied on hard-nosed, dump-and-chase tactics, the current team figures to play the puck-control game favored at the international level.
"We've found that a dump it in, chase it, let's go get 'em style doesn't work overseas," said Quinn, who also coaches the Toronto Maple Leafs. "These European teams see the tough, courageous Canadians, and we're the tough, courageous Canadians who give up the puck. Well, we don't want to give the puck up."
While Team Canada is stacked and should have little trouble scoring with four different lines, a gold medal is no lock. Nagging injuries to Kariya (finger), Yzerman (right knee), Owen Nolan (back) and Al MacInnis (right foot) are a concern, as is developing on-ice chemistry in the compressed time format of the Olympics.
Slovakia, a dark-horse medal contender, was eliminated in the preliminary round largely because last-minute NHL arrivals like Ziggy Palffy and Miroslav Satan were unable to mesh with the rest of the team.
"If you read all the management books, it's gonna be real difficult," Quinn said. There are stages to developing teams. We have five days and three games to try to shortcut the team building concept."
If Nagano was any indication, Team Canada also could be thwarted by a hot keeper a potentially painful proposition that could be compounded by Canada's own uncertainty in goal.
Canada's best option, Colorado's Patrick Roy, removed himself from Olympic team consideration in November. That leaves the team a with a good but perhaps not great trio of Joseph, Martin Brodeur and Ed Belfour.
Of course, Quinn isn't planning on another shootout.
"My goal is not to get there," he said. "I want to win it straight up, 60 minutes in regulation."
The rest of Team Canada isn't so picky. At this point, they'll take any victory they can get. So long as it's in the gold medal game.
After all, the alternative would be too painful to bear.
"It means a lot to all of us," said Lemieux, who brought his young son, Austin, to Salt Lake City. "We know it will be emotional over the next 10 days.
"That's why it's great to bring my family down. I don't think [Austin] is old enough to realize the importance of what is going to transpire."
Not to worry 31 million Canadians have that covered.


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