Originally created 02/24/02

Hockey teams fool themselves



SALT LAKE CITY - These are the times when athletes start lying to themselves.

Friday night and all day Saturday, hockey players from the United States and Canada have been trying to believe that the little voice in their heads knows more than the big feeling in their stomachs. It's just a game, they've insisted about today's Olympic hockey final - that thing they put around the winners' necks here is just another trinket we play for.

It's fine if they want to say that. It's just not what they've been saying all along.

For the months since they were named to their national teams, the National Hockey League players participating here kept insisting the Olympics would mean something to them. It was a tough sell for professionals, who were thought to be above such a profitless pursuit.

But they went on and on anyway, about the opportunity to represent their country, about how honored they would be to wear the uniform, about how this was something they couldn't buy with their big salaries.

Now that they are one game away from being in the only place any of them wanted to end up here, they're trying to go the other way. They are trying to tell themselves that today is just another skate, an ordinary 60 minutes with a net at either end of the ice.

It's the simple psychology of sports: build something up until you have to break it down.

It's a nice try, but it's not going to work. Not for the players and not for anyone else.

Because today's game is not an ordinary game.

Maybe they were lying before, saying what they thought fans back home wanted to hear. But now they're telling themselves stories when they say nothing will be different, that they'll just get dressed one skate at a time this afternoon.

"It's pretty easy," Canada's Joe Sakic said about preparing for today after his team advanced to the finals. "I've done it my whole career. You worry about the game, not what it means."

"You just keep doing whatever it is you've been doing," added Canada's Paul Kariya. "You just keep preparing. It's no different."

Even Wayne Gretzky, the general manager of Canada's Olympic team and pretty much the voice for all of hockey got in on the act, saying simply,"a big game is a big game."

Yeah, and begnets are begnets, same in North Dakota as New Orleans.

By hockey's nature, the last game of the Olympics is not the greatest game a player can reach. The Stanley Cup has too profound a hold on youngsters who grew up treating it like a chalice for anything to exceed a chance to win it.

But today is the next best thing, certainly a rare setting. And it's more meaningful than any World Championship final or college championship game any of these guys could have played.

For many of the Americans, this is the only chance they'll get for the rarest victory in their sport. Sixteen of them are 30 or older, and the United States hasn't reached a gold-medal game in 22 years. They won't just come back and try again next season if they lose the way they do in the NHL.

But in America, we can live with not having won a hockey gold in 22 years.

In Canada, they're acting as if somebody stole Quebec and won't give it back. It was 1952 the last time they won the Olympic gold in hockey, their own sport. And they are beside themselves in anticipation.

It's as if football was in the Olympics and we hadn't won it for five decades, losing to teams from places like, well Canada, who we pretty much taught how to play the game.

Canadians are the Cubs fans of the Winter Olympics. And they think today is next year.

It's almost enough to make you feel sorry for those players. Every guy on Canada's team grew up watching Olympic hockey - and watching his country lose in it.

Now, the responsibility to reverse that belongs to every player today - coincidentally, 50 years to the day since Canada won its last Olympic title.

"I don't know that we'll win (today), but we'll be there," Canada coach Pat Quinn said."That can be an awful albatross, carrying the hopes of our nation, because somehow in Canada we expect more. It's nothing but gold."

So that's all there is riding on today.

But it's just another game, right?