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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 28, 2010

Winter Olympics: Grand finale: Vancouver Games end with hockey final


NOAH TRISTER
AP Sports Writer

VANCOUVER, British Columbia The Vancouver Olympics end today, but Canadians everywhere hope the celebration is only beginning.

In a matchup anticipated for days but never taken for granted, Canada faces the United States for the gold medal in men's hockey, by far the most coveted prize of any at these games for the host country. The Americans jolted hockey fans everywhere with a 5-3 win over the Canadians in the preliminary round last weekend, but there's a lot more at stake this time around.

"We've been building up for this for years," Canada's Jarome Iginla said. "We've talked about it as Canadians and hockey players and wanting to be a part of this team wanting to get a chance to win a gold medal. Now we've worked hard and got that opportunity and it's nice that it's coming soon."

Only five players on the U.S. team were born the last time their country won the gold. Americans who experienced that famous victory in Lake Placid 30 years ago will never forget it, but for many younger fans, it lives on only in books, highlights and an occasional movie.

If the U.S. does win, it won't be nearly as shocking as the 1980 victory. This year's team is full of NHL players who will become opponents again after leaving Vancouver. It's a far cry from the group of amateurs that knocked off the mighty Soviets three decades ago.

"It's unbelievable the amount of excitement that's going on back in the U.S. right now about our team," American Ryan Callahan said. "I think that's good for hockey all around."

It's hard to underestimate the boost Sunday's game could provide for the NHL, which is still trying to recover from losing an entire season to a lockout in 2004-05.

"Obviously, the NHL right now is trying to get its fans back a bit," Callahan said. "I think a game like this brings everybody's excitement up, and it's good for everybody to have a matchup like U.S.-Canada in the finals."

The final will be aired live in all time zones by NBC. The first U.S.-Canada game last weekend was shown on the MSNBC cable network, where it was seen by 8.2 million people, according to the Nielsen Co. That tied election night 2008 as the most-watched event on that network.

"I think it's catching on," said defenseman Ryan Suter, whose father Bob played for the 1980 gold medalists. "For hockey that's big, so we're happy and hopefully it continues growing."

Olympic hockey has changed significantly since 1980, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the addition of NHL players adding more parity. NHL players began attending the tournament in big numbers in 1998, and three different teams have won gold since. Canada beat the Americans to win the 2002 tournament at the Salt Lake City Games.

The U.S. entered this year's Olympics an underdog, but not a big one.

"You can never replicate 1980," American Brian Rafalski said. "It's just too much equality now in hockey. There will never be another one of those."

Rafalski was 6 when the U.S. beat the Soviets and then Finland to win the gold in Lake Placid, but even the oldest American player doesn't have much in the way of memories.

"I remember sitting there but not really knowing much about it," Rafalski said. "I hadn't started playing hockey yet."

For Canadians, the wait hasn't been as long since their last gold medal although in these parts an eight-year dry spell can feel like 30. Canada broke a 50-year Olympic drought by winning gold in 2002, but the team struggled in 2006 and the pressure has been high this year on home ice.

In addition to the hockey game, there's also one other gold medal to be handed out Sunday in a grueling 50-kilometer men's cross-country skiing race. After that, NBC will air the closing ceremony in prime time and the mood there might depend a lot on how things went on the ice earlier in the day.

"It is a big game, but it doesn't change the way we play," American goaltender Ryan Miller said. "It's a hockey game. It's ice, it's a puck, it's the kind of stuff we've done for years. And I'm just going to go out and hopefully tie my skates on the right way."