Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Women's hockey gold would soothe psyche

Because after all, hockey is a Canadian game

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VANCOUVER -- The formalities are over, and none too soon for women's hockey.

Team Canada versus Team USA. Winner takes Olympic gold Thursday night.

And let's be honest, these Games are not quite following the COC script, medal-wise. Here's a news flash: Uncle Sam owns the podium, with 25 medals as of late Monday night.

The Americans won the World Juniors in Saskatoon. The Americans bested Sidney Crosby and the boys on Sunday night.

So let's not pretend that the women's gold-medal final in Vancouver doesn't carry a little baggage for the home team, for the host country.

"I think we always feel that," offered Team Canada veteran Jayna Hefford, just moments after a 5-0 shutout of Finland in the semifinal at a joyous Canada Hockey Place. "You guys know as well as we do that hockey is a Canadian game and it's our job to make Canadians proud.

"They take so much pride in us and the men's team and the sledge team," the veteran of four Olympics added. "That's just our responsibility, to go out and win. We understand that."

Because as the Vancouver Games round the clubhouse turn, with several medals slipping through the host country's fingers, it's times such as these that Canadians turn to the classics; the curlers and the hockey players.

The other sports and athletes are important, sure. If that Russell daredevil Jon Montgomery wins gold riding down a sled 140-kilometres per hour face-first, it's a moment instilled in the brain. When Alex Bilodeau captured the first gold on home turf, he etched his name in Canadian history.

But given that the COC's ambitious medal projections have gone south, surely that doesn't mean the gold medals in hockey have to go that direction, too. Does it?

"I can't speak for individual sports," Hefford continued. "But the so-called pressure for us, I don't feel it. I love it. The expectation of this program over the years is to win gold. This is fun. The city is rallying around us.

"If we don't win, it's going to be a huge disappointment. But that's not different than any other year. And if we win, it's going to be the greatest Olympics ever."

Well, don't tell that to the men's alpine team or men's speedskating team. Face it, Canada is fast running out of medal hopes to cling to, and just matching the 24 baubles won in Turin is now a long shot altogether.

Yet through it all the Canadians and Americans have been on a collision course in the women's hockey tournament -- head, shoulders and helmets above the competition. Not so long ago, in fact, the Finns and Swedes were seen as threats to the Big Two. In fact, in Turin, after the Swedes shocked the world by upsetting the Yanks in the semifinal, it was seen as a sign women's hockey was becoming more competitive on the global stage.

But the Americans and Canadians destroyed all comers in the round-robin -- to the point where debates about the relevance of women's hockey at the Olympics surfaced again in Vancouver. And that was before the Americans pummelled Sweden 9-1 in Monday's other semifinal.

At least now, the anticipated final promises some drama. And not just for the future of women's hockey, either, but for the fragile psyche of a country.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2010 C2

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