It's Now or Never

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Canada's Cindy Klassen (front), Clara Hughes (middle) and Kristina Groves skate towards a silver in the speed skating team pursuit

Hockey players from the NHL know a thing or two about pressure. But how do they stay cool when the reputation--even the identity--of their country rests on their shoulders? The solution, say Canadian hockey stars at the 20th Olympic Games, is to seek out the mundane. As the Olympic hockey tournament began its march toward the grand finale at the Torino Games this Sunday, Canada's finest sought out a little normality by hitting Torino's shopping malls and gorging at local ristoranti. Some players were "itching to play cards--friendly games," says defenseman Adam Foote, in a joking reference to the gambling scandal that has cast a shadow over the team's executive director, Wayne Gretzky. The Canadian superstars also grounded themselves with humility by mixing it up at the Olympic Village. "You're with the best athletes in the world," Canadian forward Brad Richards says of life in the insulated Village. "That's quite a feeling."

Late last week, the favored Canadians learned that a little more grounding was still in order. After opening wins against Italy and Germany, Canada got reality-checked by the surprising Swiss, who triumphed 2-0 on Saturday. To add insult to injury, the two Swiss goals were scored by Paul DiPietro, a native of Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, who played for the Stanley Cup- winning Montreal Canadiens in 1993.

Should Canadians, who expect nothing less than perfection in hockey, be worried? Upsets, of course, are always part of the equation in any Olympic event. And, says coach Pat Quinn, who also skippered the team at Salt Lake City in 2002 when Canada snapped a 50-year Olympic-gold-medal dry spell: "Talent isn't the only thing that wins here." Proper chemistry and discipline factor into the mix as well, and Canada showed little of either against the Swiss. Canadian forward Dany Heatley put it succinctly: "Things didn't go our way." In order to attain gold, this disparate group of players will need to gel into a team in a very short time, says Quinn. And they will have to keep their emotions in check during these patriotism-charged Games and the Olympics' pressure-cooker schedule. (To make it to the final, Team Canada would have to play eight games in 12 days.) One or two more stinkers could mean they're out; lose the quarterfinal, no medal.

Other adjustments will be needed. Because the dimensions of Olympic hockey don't match the NHL's standards, the Canadians have to get used to a somewhat different game. With the Olympic rinks 4 m wider than those in the NHL, goaltending and special teams--power play and penalty killing--become even more critical. "Bigger ice surface, totally different game," says Finnish star Saku Koivu. "The NHL guys that are big and strong in front of the net and good in the corners in the NHL don't matter so much here."

Being No. 1 also brings out the competitive juices in the opposition. "Canada has won all the tournaments the past couple of years," says Koivu, "but I know that every country that plays against them is going to be ready, because they want to beat them. They can't go forever being the top team." But while Canada's rivals are feeling motivated, they also are coping with some key losses. A leg injury suffered by Czech goaltender Dominik Hasek in the team's opener against Germany prompted NHL vice president Bill Daly to withhold the league's commitment to the Games beyond the 2010 Vancouver-Whistler Olympics. Other top players who are out: Swedish forward Markus Naslund, Czech forward Patrick Elias and Finnish goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff.

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