It's Game On, Canada!

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Hockey player Danielle Goyette leads the Canadian team into the stadium during the opening ceremony for the 2006 Winter Olympics

Just before the opening of the Torino Games, the two top officials of the Canadian Olympic Committee (C.O.C.), Chris Rudge and Michael Chambers, each talked at some length about efforts to boost their nation's medal totals. With that out of the way, the assembled media then homed in on the real story of the moment: Wayne Gretzky and his possible connection to an alleged North American sports-gambling ring. Should Gretzky, the executive director of Canadian men's hockey, stay away from Torino? If the Great One did show up, would his (unsubstantiated) connections to the controversy tarnish the Olympic ideals? And might the whole affair distract the other athletes? Chambers, the C.O.C. president, tried to minimize the affair. "It's not a big story in Torino," he said, insisting that it was of interest only to North Americans.

He wasn't fooling anyone. Gretzky is still the biggest name in hockey, and the controversy surrounding him threatens to engulf the Games in a manner similar to that of the Salé-Pelletier figure-skating-judging scandal in Salt Lake City four years ago. According to press reports, Gretzky's wife Janet Jones bet more than $100,000 on football games through a New Jersey-based bookie ring allegedly financed by Rick Tocchet, Gretzky's assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes and good friend. Another report alleged that police wiretaps had caught Gretzky discussing the scandal with Tocchet. Gretzky has denied wrongdoing: "I did nothing ... that has to do with anything along the lines of betting."

But the Games must go on, and with Canada's men's hockey team having righted a Nagano wrong by winning the gold medal in 2002 in Salt Lake City, the focus in Torino--pre-Gretzky, anyway--was supposed to shift at least slightly to the rest of the country's Olympic athletes. The C.O.C. is challenging its skiers, skaters and sliders to lift Canada to third place overall at this year's Games, up from fourth in Salt Lake City. With the Vancouver-Whistler Games on the horizon, the C.O.C. views Torino as an early indicator of whether Canada has any hope of achieving No. 1 status in 2010. "We understand that's raising the bar, but low expectations in life mean low outcomes," Rudge says. That's a shift from the old Canadian attitude, Be the best you can be.

The first big win for Canada came Saturday evening, when 5-ft. 3-in. Jennifer Heil of Spruce Grove, Alta., won the women's freestyle moguls competition, thereby refuting, for the moment anyway, Rudge's remark that Canadians tend to gag "on the big day." Under bright lights accented by the moonlit sky at Sauze d'Oulx, top-ranked Heil performed a 360 off the first jump and her trademark backflip with iron cross (skis crossed, tips down) off the second. "I've been feeling the pressure pretty much the last eight months," said Heil, 22. "The most important thing was to be in the moment and just let it all out." At the 2002 Games, Heil placed fourth, missing a bronze medal by one-hundredth of a point.

For Canada the quick medal win set up a no-excuses Olympic Games. In a key run-up to Torino, Canada finished second to Germany in medals in the World Cup, and it has top competitors in almost every field. Speedskater Cindy Klassen has a shot at three or four medals, and the skating team overall could win seven. Among other favorites: skeleton riders Mellisa Hollingsworth-Richards and Jeff Pain have dominated World Cup circuits this season; cross-country skiers Beckie Scott and Sara Renner have won seven World Cup medals; and the men's and women's curling and hockey teams are all but shoo-ins for medals, each a favorite for gold. The only question is whether the public and press can shift their attention away from Gretzky and over to the Games.