A Devastating Defeat

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SHAUN BEST/REUTERS

Canada's Joe Thornton (left), Jay Bouwmeester (center) and Bryan McCabe absorb their 2-0 loss to Russia

Dany Heatley dribbled a soft pass to Jarome Iginla in front of the Russian net that the former leading goal scorer in the National Hockey League would normally bury into the goal. Instead, Iginla struggled momentarily to control the puck, then banged it once, twice, and again at Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. When the whistle blew, the puck trapped, Iginla stood in frozen disbelief. That missed opportunity in Wednesday's loss to Russia summed up an Olympic tournament of utter frustration for a Canadian team that could neither relax, nor cope with the high-paced European game.

Speaking in a flat, weary drone, Wayne Gretzky used the word "devastation" at least seven times in his post-game news conference, as though he was talking about the aftermath of a forest fire. "The pressure of representing this country in hockey in any international competition is extremely high," said Gretzky, Team Canada's executive director. "There are no words to describe how devastating a loss like this is."

Canada and the United States, gold and silver medalists in Salt Lake City four years ago, both went out in the quarterfinals at Torino. As defending champion, Canada played the 20th Olympic Winter Games tournament as though doubled over by the weight of those expectations back home, displaying grim expressions, old legs and an impotent offense. By contrast, Russia embraced a youth-infused, why-not-us swagger, allowing its forwards to freelance and its goaltender to compensate as needed. Fittingly, sensational newcomer Alexander Ovechkin scored the winner as Russia eliminated Canada 2-0 on Wednesday; Sidney Crosby, his competition for NHL rookie-of-the-year honors, presumably watched at home.

Let the bloodletting begin. Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson could be headed to the Toronto Maple Leafs or another NHL team in an executive capacity. Pat Quinn could certainly not feel secure about his future as coach of the national team. And Gretzky all but announced his resignation. "I feel tremendously responsible," he said. "Quite honestly I'm going to reassess where I fit in, and what I'm going to do in the future. Hockey Canada is wonderful and our country is great. I love it dearly, but I'm human. It's tough and nerve-wracking...Moving forward, your health becomes more important than anything and it's been a really rough three months for me." Within that span of time, Gretzky's mother and grandmother died. His wife Janet was reported to have bet in a gambling operation allegedly financed by Rick Tocchet, his assistant coach in Phoenix.

Yet Gretzky dismissed distraction as an excuse, which then left him facing questions about the suitability of Canada's roster for the Olympic Games. The tried-and-true roster, earning nearly $100 million in NHL salaries and including 19 players with 2002 Olympics and/or 2004 World Cup experience, failed to score a goal in three of the last four games. Canada lost to Switzerland, Finland and Russia by identical 2-0 scores. Switzerland? "Took a lot out of us," Gretzky said.

Finishing third in the round-robin stage brought the consequence of facing Russia in the crossover quarterfinal. At the Torino Esposizioni--a barn-like arena typical of the Olympics that may have reminded many of the players of their junior hockey heritage--Canada couldn't convert eight power play opportunities. Three of five power play goals in the tournament were scored in the opener against Italy. "They have good coaching, but the offensive power, maybe they left it at home," said NHL veteran defenseman Darius Kasparaitis.

Depleted by key pre-Olympic injuries, the defensive corps lacked the mobility to fully counter the waves of speedy Russian and Finnish forwards giddily exploiting rinks four meters wider than the NHL's. Highly regarded Calgary rookie Dion Phaneuf was one of the faster defensemen left off Canada's roster. "I suppose we'll get second-guessed on the roster but these young men played their hearts out," Quinn said.

Up front, Gretzky and Quinn favored veterans over high-scoring youth such as Crosby and Eric Staal. Prototype NHL power forward Todd Bertuzzi, who'd hoped to redeem himself at this tournament for breaking the neck of Colorado forward Steve Moore in 2004, hardly seemed a factor. Moore filed a multi-million dollar civil suit against Bertuzzi at the onset of the tournament. And Quinn lacked faith in the younger players he did carry, notably remarking how Columbus forward Rick Nash seemed "in awe" of the situation. "Nobody could make me feel worse than I feel right now," Quinn said, referring to the anticipated criticism. "We didn't meet our expectations. Whatever criticism goes with that is part of the job."

Players were asked the same question repeatedly in the post-game interviews. Why couldn't Canada score? "I'm sure there will be a lot of people dissecting that over the next few weeks," tight-lipped defenseman Adam Foote said. "But as a player, I don't think that's my job."

In the 1990s, culminating with a no-medal performance at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, Hockey Canada analyzed the problems with the sport's development at home and adapted some European techniques to improve the style of play. But the Europeans learned how to hit like Canadians and yet continued to develop their own fluid game. During the Olympics, former Italian skiing sensation Alberto Tomba noted that hockey is identified with Canada in the same way as soccer is to Italy, and skiing to Austria. But today hockey is also a prominent sport in Finland, Sweden, Russia, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and other countries. And none of them appeared at all intimidated by Canada. "We did it, and we beat a great team," Ovechkin told reporters after Wednesday's game. "Everybody in my country is jumping and drinking lots of vodka."

In Canada, they're crying in their beer.