Latvians Liven Olympic Hockey

By HOWARD BERGER

TORONTO (Feb. 19) – First, understand that it can never be like it was four years ago. Not even close. For Canadian hockey fans 13 years of age, or younger, the Winter Olympic Games of Sochi are likely your first. You were alive when the world came to Vancouver in 2010 and you may have even watched the most memorable best-on-best hockey tournament in our nation’s history. But, chances are you don’t recall much about it.

Consider yourself lucky… and un-lucky.

Fortunate, because you have no point of reference. Not so fortunate, because you likely have only read about Sidney Crosby’s golden goal against the United States. Or, have seen it replayed a thousand times on TV. The point I’m getting at is this: No matter what happens in the men’s hockey tournament this week in Russia – or, for that matter, in the next five Winter Olympics – Vancouver 2010 will stand alone.

Of course, you’ll have no luck convincing Kristers Gudlevskis of that today. The 21-year-old Latvian goalie was out of his mind in the Olympic hockey quarterfinals, stopping 55 shots in a 2-1 loss to Canada. Hockey fans in this country had tight sphincter muscles until Shea Weber’s slapshot from the left point – on the powerplay – broke a 1-1 deadlock with 6:55 remaining in regulation. The lights-out performance by Gudlevskis increasingly reminded me of covering the Canada-Switzerland game at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin, when Martin Gerber stoned Team Canada on 49 shots in gargantuan, 2-0 upset. Canada’s puck control was almost embarrassing today, but Gudlevskis – and a bit of well-earned luck – kept it way too close for comfort.

Now, back to Vancouver.    

In most of our lives, there will never again be a Crosby moment… when the best player on Earth – representing our country in a winner-take-all match on home soil – awakened after a quiet tournament to score the most compelling goal in Canadian hockey since Sep. 28, 1972. Only Paul Henderson can describe the jolt of energy that Crosby felt, exactly 37 years and five months later, when he beat American Ryan Miller at 7:40 of sudden-death overtime. Only Henderson, who fired a rebound under Vladislav Tretiak in Moscow to win the fabled Canada-Russia series, had authored such a glittering narrative. Paul… Sid… and nobody else.

THE DAY AFTER SIDNEY CROSBY’S GOLDEN GOAL IN FEBRUARY 2010.

First-time Olympic watchers in this country might add Weber’s name to the list, given how the Nashville Predators’ defenseman averted a calamity with his late goal against Latvia. But, even if Canada knocks off the United States – and it will not be easy – then wins the tournament with a victory Sunday morning over the Sweden-Finland semifinal survivor, there will be no credible analogy to Vancouver. Most hockey observers will forever remember Crosby’s overtime winner, but yours truly will think back to the most raucous environment for an international hockey game in my life – the 7-3 rout of Russia by Team Canada in the quarterfinals on Feb. 24, 2010. I’ve written it before and I’ll say it again: The noise throughout that match – beginning in the pre-game warm-up; through the pair of intermissions, and long past the final buzzer – out-did the gold medal game by quite a margin, proving that Russia is still the hockey menace Canadians most enjoy beating.

Too bad the menace has prematurely expired in Sochi.

LATVIAN GOALIE KRISTERS GUDLEVSKIS WAS ABSOLUTELY FRIED (TOP-LEFT) AFTER MAKING YET ANOTHER SAVE IN THE OLYMPICS QUARTERFINAL MATCH. JUST 12 SECONDS AFTER HE ROSE FROM THE ICE, HOWEVER, SHEA WEBER’S SLAPSHOT FROM THE LEFT POINT BEAT HIM TO THE SHORT SIDE (TOP-RIGHT) FOR THE WINNER IN A 2-1 TEAM CANADA TRIUMPH. CANADA OUT-GUNNED LATVIA, 57-16. CBC IMAGES

Since NHL players first competed in the Winter Olympics, there has been symmetry to Canada’s performance: Nagano 1998 – Disaster; Salt Lake City 2002 – Gold Medal; Turin 2006 – Disaster; Vancouver 2010 – Gold Medal. Clearly, it is disaster’s turn to strike for our nation, as it nearly did against Latvia. But, even if it doesn’t… even if the Canadians put the Latvian scare behind them and win a second consecutive Winter Games championship, it will not be; can not be like it was four years ago in Vancouver when Crosby scored his golden goal.

Unless you were too young to recall that seminal moment.

VANCOUVER 2010

MY VANCOUVER MEDIA CREDENTIAL. I WAS TOLD NOT TO SMILE.

MEDIA TICKETS FOR OPENING AND CLOSING CEREMONIES.

MEDIA TICKET FOR CANADA vs. USA GOLD MEDAL HOCKEY GAME.

EMAIL: HOWARDLBERGER@GMAIL.COM

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