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House party

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  February 20, 2010 03:55 AM

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VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Please don't tell Team Canada about this, because it's sure to be the biggest scandal here since -- as I'm sure you recall -- that curler got busted using an electric broom a few years ago. The devious fellow's name escapes us, but rumor is he's now living a life of shame and solitude as a chimney sweep in Moose Jaw.

Oh, all right, so we just made up the part about the disgraced curler; you know we just like to test you on Olympic minutiae from time to time. But we assure you that the following is as true as Sidney Crosby's slapshot: Wayne Gretzky --- owner or co-owner of 61 NHL records, ultimate Canadian icon, and terrified pick-up-truck-riding torchbearer -- autographed the athletes' mural at the USA House, the exclusive downtown sanctuary for US Olympians, executives, benefactors, and their families.

Yep, on a wall celebrating the feats of the red, white, and blue, his flawless signature -- the Great One has great penmanship -- is right there in a metallic script. The famous number 99 is etched over the final letter "y", which looks curiously like a hockey stick, with the message: Thanks Vancouver 2010. If it's not an official act of treason to stop by the house of the nation owning the podium so far -- let alone leave a lasting acknowledgment of your presence -- then nothing is. Eh tu, Gretzky?

Good thing for him that they'll all blame it on Mrs. Gretzky here. Better thing for him? That his signature is immediately beneath -- and smaller than -- that of suddenly notorious halfpipe bronze medalist Scotty Lago, who stopped by the house Thursday night. "He was very down to earth," USA House public relations staffer Ally Clark said of the Seabrook, N.H., native. We suspect the USOC used a different choice of words behind closed doors after Lago got TMZ'd Friday.

Lago picked a cool spot to have some of his fun, though you might not know it from outward appearances. The USA House is located in a centralized spot on the corner of Seymour and Nelson Streets, less than a mile from from both downtown and BC Place, where the medal ceremonies take place. Yet in a sense it is tucked away. There is no advertising or acknowledgment on the building that this is the place where US medalists come to celebrate and be celebrated with their family and friends (athletes are given tickets for 25 guests, but can buy more); there isn't a Team USA logo to be found. The tall, wide windows are adorned with with snowflakes rather than US flags or colors, and the only way passersby might notice that the brand-new building is the site of something special is the in-progress chalk mural of Winter Olympic Hall of Famers that is barely visible through a street-level window.

"We just don't publicly display that this is the USA House," said Nicole Sather, an event coordinator for the USOC who led us on our tour. "We do keep it discreetly. But obviously people find out."

Among the houses for the individual nations here, only the US and Russia facilities are closed to the public. The appearance of the USA House is a stark contrast from the Slovakia House a few blocks down Seymour Street, which is painted in the colors of the nation's flag and has a Chara-sized hockey puck near its entrance. The USA House is not even party central on its own block. The Irish House, just across Nelson Street, is rocking and rollicking into the early hours of the morning.

"The Irish House is so loud you can feel the vibrations over here," said a USA House staffer. "The only time I've heard it louder in here is when Evan Lysacek came in Friday night for his celebration with his arms raised."

Which would have been a mesmerizing scene all by itself. But there was this added element: Lysacek, fresh from winning the gold medal in the men's free skate, and his entourage arrived while a group of snowboarders, including Lago and halfpipe gold medalist/rock star Shaun White, were enjoying the premises. The snowboarding crowd meets the skating crowd. Imagine partying during that collision of diverse worlds.

"Last night it was shoulder to shoulder, a lot of people and a lot of excitement," said Clark.

There are three floors to the USA House. The third floor is private, reserved as a place for the Whites and Lysaceks and their companions to unwind, exhale, revel in their medals, and savor some peace. The USA House had 1,200 visitors on special passes Wednesday; very few get to see the third floor.

The first floor is where the chalk mural (not to be confused with the photo mural Gretzky and Lago signed on the second floor) by artist Tracy Lee Stum is in progress. Artwork produced by US Olympians lines one wall -- discuss legend/painter Al Oerter was apparently a true Renaissance man -- along a hallway that leads to a gift shop, where you can purchase the Ralph Lauren and Nike gear you see the athletes wearing during various ceremonies. If you've been hunting for a Team USA Polo pullover sweater, they do take Visa. Just $395.

The real magic happens on the second floor in the Bud Lounge. As you might have suspected, that's where the bar is located, and catered food is provided when the staff gets word that a medal winner will be stopping by that night.

But there might be a bigger draw than the bar -- a 103-inch high-definition television, which is hooked up to a Nintendo Wii video game system. When you recognize this, an ultimate meta moment seems entirely possible, and you can't help but ask:

Could freshly-minted gold medalist Shaun White have spent part of the previous night trying to win a gold medal on his own "Shaun White Snowboarding: World Stage For Wii" game?

"No," says Sather. "Just Mario."

To be clear, she means Super Mario, not Mario Lemieux. But if Gretzky could stop by this place, well, nothing is out of the question.

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