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*Hockey 2002: Go north, young man – and woman*

December 25, 2002

By Daren Smith SportsTicker Hockey Editor

JERSEY CITY, New Jersey (Ticker) – It’s been almost a decade since a Canadian team captured the Stanley Cup. But make no mistake, Canada was the center of the hockey universe in 2002.

Canada reclaimed its hockey supremacy during two rollercoaster weeks in February in Salt Lake City.

The 2002 Winter Games did not begin well for a country that had gone a half-century since its last Olympic men’s hockey gold medal. Canada was whipped by Sweden in its first game, looked unimpressive in a win over Germany and settled for a tie with the Czech Republic to complete the preliminary round.

That did not sit well with the folks back home. So Team Canada general manager Wayne Gretzky pulled a page from his nation’s rich hockey history and launched into a vitriolic defense of the team that conjured memories of Phil Esposito’s sweat-drenched plea during the 1972 Summit Series.

“I just felt that the team was feeling a little bit stressful, a little bit tight, and I just felt I had to step forward and get all the focus off the guys and turn the focus in a different direction,” Gretzky explained later.

The pieces began to fall into place as the Canadians edged Finland, 2-1, then blitzed overmatched Belarus, 7-1, to earn a spot in the gold medal game. Tiny Belarus had pulled one of the great upsets in Olympic hockey by eliminating the Swedes.

Awaiting Canada was the United States, the only unbeaten team in the tournament. History appeared to rest with the Americans, who were unbeaten in 24 consecutive contests on U.S. soil.

But Gretzky had a secret weapon. Before the Olympic tournament began, ice maker Trent Evans, an Edmonton native, buried a “loonie” – a $1 Canadian coin – under the faceoff circle at center ice.

“The Greeks built good luck hero statues of Hercules and Adonis, the Irish have the Blarney Stone and four-leaf clovers and the Canadians have the Salt Lake Loonie,” Hockey Hall of Fame curator Phil Pritchard said.

The loonie earned a spot in the Hall of Fame thanks to Canada’s 5-2 victory in the gold medal game.

Eight months after leading the Colorado Avalanche <“>http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/players/7/7/> scored two goals and set up two others for Canada. He got the go-ahead goal on the power play with 1:41 to go in the second period, assisted on Jarome Iginla <.”>http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/players/6/686/>. “Winning the gold kind of reassures Canada.”

Two days before the Canadian men ended their drought, the women avenged their only loss in major international competition with a 3-2 triumph over the United States.

The U.S. defeated Canada to win the inaugural women’s hockey gold medal four years earlier in Nagano. But Canada got even on American soil.

Hayley Wickenheiser, the Gretzky of Canadian women’s hockey, put her team in front just over four minutes into the second period, and Jayna Hefford scored the back-breaker just a second before period ended.

The NHL took off nearly three weeks to allow its players to participate in a second straight Winter Games. Once the break was over, the Detroit Red Wings <“>http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/teams/car/> in five games.

The turning point was Game Three, when 41-year-old Igor Larionov <“>http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/players/2/260/> also retired.

But the Red Wings don’t rebuild, they reload. Free agent Curtis Joseph <“>http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/teams/ott/> at $95 million, Calgary Flames <“>http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/teams/edm/> at $86 million.

Those are the teams with the most to lose as the league struggles to reach 2003-04, when its collective bargaining agreement with the NHL Players Association expires.

And that’s the story that figures to dominate the headlines as hockey begins the new year.

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