Canada at the Olympics: It's Time to Panic

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Matt Slocum / AP

U.S. player Jamie Langenbrunner celebrates a goal against Canada goaltender Martin Brodeur during the U.S.-Canada men's hockey game at the Olympics in Vancouver on Feb. 21, 2010

As the Canadian men's hockey team was trailing the U.S. 4-2 during the final period of Sunday's highly anticipated game at the Olympics in Vancouver, spectator Doug Brodie, a retired technical writer from Windsor, Ont., couldn't believe what he was seeing. "It's just crushing," he said. "We haven't been doing so well against Americans. [Canadian goalkeeper] Martin Brodeur, we've got to knock him out of there."

Then Brodie uttered the unthinkable. "I think the U.S.A. is going to win the tournament," he said. What would that result engender on the streets of Vancouver, the hockey ponds of Saskatchewan and the shores of the Maritime provinces? Brodie's eyes popped as he took a deep breath: it looked like he was told he had months to live.

The U.S. ended up defeating Canada 5-3 in the event that had been circled on calendars across this nation, and Canada seems ready to jump off a ledge. "Own the podium" — that rallying cry for Canada's goal of topping the medal count at the Winter Games — now seems quaint at best, stupid at worst. "The expectations are just way too high," says Doug Younger, 52, a civil engineer from Calgary. "It created a monster." Canada has nine medals with seven days remaining in the Olympics, and its goal of 30 is now unattainable. The country is tied for fourth place on the leaderboard with South Korea; America is leading the way, with 24 medals. As several American athletes have joked, it looks like Canada is renting the podium out for the month. Or just giving it away.

Yesterday had been dubbed Super Sunday because of both the U.S.-Canada men's hockey matchup and the abundance of other medal events in which Canada had a fighting chance to increase its lagging total. The day began on a dour note, as it was announced that the mother of Joannie Rochette — Canada's best hope for gold in women's figure skating, who is scheduled to compete on Tuesday — died of a massive heart attack, at 55. Then Canada won just one medal, a speedskating silver. American skier Bode Miller stole the show by taking a surprising gold in the super combined, and the evening's hockey loss just added to the misery. "This is it," says Canadian comic actor and hockey nut Will Arnett, who took in the game in a suite along with officials from the National Hockey League (NHL). "The Olympics are the setting, but it's really just a hockey tournament."

The game was played on the 30th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid. The U.S. win wasn't as unexpected as the 1980 squad's triumph over the Soviet Union, but the young team, which had been overlooked while countries like Canada and Russia were trumpeted as the medal favorites, skated faster and checked harder than their host. The venue's officials pumped up the crowd of close to 17,000 before the first face-off by showing footage of Alex Bilodeau, the Canadian moguls skier who won the country's first ever Olympic gold on home soil on Feb. 14, acing his winning run. A sports arena could not have sounded louder.

But just 41 seconds into the game, Brian Rafalski of the Detroit Red Wings, who at 36 is the oldest member of the youngest Olympic hockey team, smacked a slap shot off the skate of Canadian superstar Sidney Crosby and past Brodeur, who is probably the best goaltender of all time, giving the U.S. an early 1-0 lead. The sea of red Team Canada jerseys was stunned. The Canadians tied the game later in the period, but Rafalski responded again, sneaking a shot under Brodeur's pads, which are normally a brick wall for skaters trying to score. "A funny thing: before the game, Brian was saying he was a streaky player," says U.S. forward Ryan Callahan, who plays for the New York Rangers. "Then he goes out and bangs in those two goals."

The U.S. built a 4-2 lead until Crosby scored with just over three minutes remaining. Sid the Kid's goal set up a tense ending in which the home team pulled Brodeur to gain the man advantage. "You always peek up [at the scoreboard]," says U.S. forward Zach Parise, describing a hockey player's mentality during the late stages of a tight game. "You're looking up, looking up, wishing [the time] would go by." Canada seemed to fire a thousand shots at U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller; he either knocked them away, or America's tight defense prevented the puck from ever reaching him.

The frenetic final moments of a close hockey game are the most exciting in all of sports. Each shot, each scrum around the net on a rebound, can change everything. With 45 seconds remaining, the U.S.'s Ryan Kesler and Canada's Corey Perry skated toward a loose puck: Kesler dove, stuck out his stick with his left hand and punched in an acrobatic empty-net goal — one of the sweetest you'll ever see — to clinch the game for the Americans.

For Canada, the pain from the game was searing. "Canada's national angst meter is running at full power now," says Doug Eberhardt, a Vancouver sports-radio personality. But the country shouldn't fret just yet; Canada can still win gold in men's hockey. Although the team was less than dominant in the preliminary rounds — there was a convincing 8-0 win over Norway; a near national disaster against the Swiss, which hung with the host before falling 3-2 in a shoot-out; and the loss to the U.S. — it only needs to beat Germany on Tuesday to advance to the quarterfinals. (On Wednesday, the U.S. team, unbeaten so far, will play the winner of the Switzerland-Belarus qualifier.) And while watching the game, Brendan Shanahan, the retired NHL star who won three Stanley Cups in his 21-year career, was quick to point out that the 2002 Canadian Olympic team, which was the first in 50 years to win a gold, started slowly in Salt Lake City. "There will be a lot of second-guessing, a considerable amount of panic," said Shanahan. "But certainly there will be knowledge you can still win this tournament."

John Fennema, a consultant from Toronto who was one of the thousands of fans donning a Team Canada jersey on Sunday evening, is also trying to adopt a positive outlook. Canada still has tons of talent, and perhaps the extra qualifying game will help the team gel. Says Fennema: "It's the only comfort I've got right now, bud."