USA-Canada hockey: No way to treat a neighbor
VANCOUVER, British Columbia—That was no way to treat friends.
Not to mention guys you'll be back working alongside in less than 10 days.
But that's exactly what made USA 5, Canada 3 so special. For two hours Sunday, in what the Olympic program listed as just a preliminary-round game, the mercenaries from the NHL forgot about paychecks and played for nothing more tangible than national pride.
This wasn't a cold war. It was the heat of battle. There hasn't been anything like it since the rest of the world kept trying to throw a wrench into the old Soviet Union's dynastic Big Red Machine.
"It's a little different, not fun I'd have to say, especially when the guys are on your team for the regular season," said U.S. winger Patrick Kane, whose four Chicago Blackhawk teammates were wearing Canada's red sweaters on this night. "But this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pretty much the whole world was watching."
International Olympic Committee boss Jacques Rogge and NHL commissioner Gary Bettman were just two of a dozen swells in attendance, perhaps grateful that the only safety issue for a change was how many people inside the arena would suffer broken eardrums.
Olympic Broadcasting Service president Manuel Romero showed up between periods and walked to his seat, wedged among some fans who had walked all the way over from Granville Island, a half-hour or so away, and others who had paid $1,200 for an $80 ticket.
By the time it ended, all of them seemed satisfied they had gotten their money's worth.
There were seven pairs of NHL teammates on the two rosters, led by five who share the Anaheim Ducks jersey the rest of the year. There were all-stars, but this was no all-star game. It was more Civil War than Pro Bowl.
The hitting on both sides was thunderous, the playmaking sublime. The beauty is that no one got a free pass.
Rick Nash, one of four Canadian bruisers who stands at least 6-foot-4 and weighs 220, led the hit parade. But in just one measure of how much skill was on display, it was Nash's vision and his deft little flick pass from the bottom of the right face-off circle that Sidney Crosby tipped in to pull Canada back within 4-3 and give the hosts a chance in the last 3 minutes.
Meanwhile, the two Yanks responsible for the bulk of the retaliating -- 6-0 Jamie Langenbrunner and 6-2 Ryan Kesler, each barely 200 pounds -- proved every bit as skillful.
Langenbrunner scored just inside the 13-minute mark of the third period by deflecting a slapshot from U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski past Canadian goalkeeper Martin Brodeur for a 4-2 U.S. lead. He and Brodeur are teammates in New Jersey and shared the Devils' last Stanley Cup.
Before moving on from New Jersey to Detroit three years ago, Rafalski won two cups playing in front of the Canadian netminder. That didn't make him feel bad about adding goals to his big assist for the Americans. And he had better hope Canadian coach Mike Babcock carries no grudge, either, because Babcock will be doling out Rafalski's playing time when the two get back to Detroit.
Beyond all those personal and professional relationships built up over the years, the two countries share a border and a common language. The only substantive differences are that Canadians are more polite and enjoy national health care.
But nobody was about to pull any punches -- in some cases literally.
"Oh, no," replied U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson, who hammered Drew Doughty, his Los Angeles Kings teammate and Canadian counterpart, behind the Canada net and then finished off the check with an elbow to the head. "It's USA vs. Canada. It doesn't matter, absolutely not."
The victory provided the U.S. team with a bye and a breather heading into the quarterfinal round. It means one less game to reach the final, but a whole lot more than that. In a motivational ploy, the U.S. team broke out replica jerseys from their improbable 1960 Olympic gold at Squaw Valley, Calif., complete with the laces at the neck and a retro patch over their hearts.
"Our next game is a survival game, too. All we've done is we get to skip a game," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said.
"In fairness, Canada probably outchanced us 2-1 (actually, 45 shots vs. 23) and our goalie played excellent. We still have a long ways to go. Canada, I personally think, is the best team, and the Russians are right behind them."
For one evening, though, none of that mattered.
"A game like this," Kane said, "is all about bragging rights."
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org