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Sunday, February 28, 2010
Hockey supremacy back in Canada

By Pierre LeBrun
ESPN.com

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Canada's Games were always about Canada's game.

In a country where hockey defines its national identity, the 14th and record-breaking gold medal of the 2010 Winter Olympics was the one that really allowed the party to start. It also allowed the country to exhale.

"Being in Canada, that's an opportunity of a lifetime to play in the Olympics here and try to win a gold medal," said Sidney Crosby. "You dream of that moment a thousand times growing up."

Sidney Crosby
Sidney Crosby's overtime winner gave Canada its first Olympic gold medal on home soil.

Who else, of course, would deliver a goal of this magnitude, capping a thrill-a-minute 3-2 overtime win over an equally deserving Team USA squad to wrap up arguably the greatest hockey tournament ever played?

The pressure on Team Canada heading into overtime was unheard of. Anything but gold would be a complete disaster, especially after giving up a 2-1 lead with 24.4 seconds left in Sunday's finale.

Canada needed a hero. Enter Sid the Kid. The Pittsburgh Penguins superstar knifed a low shot past Team USA goalie Ryan Miller 7:40 into the extra session to ignite the mother of all celebrations.

The legend, indeed, continues.

"He's such a young person, and to have the weight of the country on his shoulders, it's not necessarily good enough to win, he's got to lead the team," said Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman. "That's a lot to put on a young player."

Many a team would have been rattled after a goal as gut-wrenching as the one that forced overtime. But Canada dominated in the extra session and Crosby came out for overtime and had some of his best shifts of the tournament. The great ones rise to the challenge.

"We said coming into the dressing room after they scored in the third, that it's just going to feel better now in overtime," said Canadian forward Eric Staal. "It sure did. It was pretty awesome. And none better than him to score. He's the face of hockey in Canada."

Paul Henderson in 1972. Mario Lemieux in 1987. Sidney Crosby in 2010.

"I've dreamed of this moment. It's pretty incredible," said Crosby, who captured a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold medal in just eight months.

"Hockey is Canada's game and people will remember that goal for a very long time," said Staal.

The pure joy and pride that then followed, capped by "O Canada," underlined what this means to the country that brought this great game to the rest of the world. It wasn't just the 23 players and 17,748 fans on attendance singing the anthem at the top of their lungs. It was all of Canada.

"Knowing that there's 32.9 million people that are also singing with you, it's the best feeling that you can possibly have as a Canadian," said center Joe Thornton, grinning from ear to ear. "It's such a spectacular feeling. To win a gold medal in your own country, you'll never forget it. This is such a great moment."

There was much talk about the unbelievable pressure facing Canada in these home Olympics, and it showed at times with some nervous play, particularly when it nearly blew a 3-0 lead and held on for a 3-2 semifinal win over underdog Slovakia. But the players also drank up the Canadian passion and pride and were fueled by it.

"The excitement you saw, the fun they seemed to be having everywhere you turned, whether at the hockey rink or on TV at the other events, that really spilled over to us and we used that to help push us over the top," said captain Scott Niedermayer.

Eight years ago, Canada snapped a 50-year gold-medal drought in Salt Lake City. That ignited street celebrations from coast to coast. To win Olympic gold on home soil? This country may not sleep for a week.

"I remember watching when they won gold in Salt Lake," said standout defenseman Duncan Keith. "I was one of the guys driving around going crazy and honking. So now to be part of the team is pretty special in a different way."

Imagine Brazil winning soccer's World Cup on home soil. Imagine the pressure, but also the elation of winning it.

"This country loves hockey, loves this sport, and loves everything about hockey players," said Staal. "For us to be able to come here in Vancouver in this environment and deliver is pretty awesome. For me to be part of that is definitely an honor."

Has a hockey arena ever been this loud? We doubt it.

"To see the way that building was tonight and see the passion Canadians have for hockey and everything in general, it's a ton of pride," said Crosby. "We're proud to represent that."

For Yzerman, it's an "incredible relief." For 18 months, he has stressed over this process and especially his player selections. His roster was picked over and chewed up every single day since Dec. 30, when it was announced.

"In October 2008, we became a staff and began our preparations," said Yzerman. "And we've been thinking about this day and dreaming about it daily for 18 months or whatever it's been. It's an incredible relief when our goal was just to win. Regardless of how well we played, we had to win."

Can it be any better if you're Canadian right now? The Olympic Games were a huge success, your country broke an Olympic record with 14 gold medals, and hockey pride has been restored after the 2006 Torino debacle.

Take a bow, Canada.

"I think this Olympics has been an incredible success," said Yzerman. "I was born in Canada, grew up in Canada, actually born out here in British Columbia, and I think if Vancouver was a secret around the world as to what a great city it was -- that secret is out now. But once again, Canada had success at the Olympics, but we've always been humble, we've always been gracious, and I hope we remain that way.

"Let's not get cocky, let's not get overconfident," added Yzerman. "It's hard winning. It really is. What we just experienced here, we should really appreciate these moments because it won't happen every Olympic Games."

No, it won't. But it happened on home soil, and nothing will ever be sweeter than that.

Pierre LeBrun covers the NHL for ESPN.com.