Canadians can't wait for return of Winter Games

Two years from Tuesday, Vancouver opens the 2010 Winter Olympics, and to many Canadians, it will feel like the Games are coming home.

Unlike 2006 host Torino, Italy, Canada has a legacy of embracing its winter sports. Italy finished in a tie for ninth in the medal count in its own Games. That won't do for Canada, which is mounting a big push to win the medal count in 2010.

"It's exciting to have a Winter Games in a winter nation," said Cathy Priestner Allinger, a member of Vancouver's Olympic organizing committee and the 1976 speedskating silver medalist for Canada. "It's really important to this country."

Visually, it could be a stunning Olympics if the weather cooperates. While Torino drew comparisons to industrial Detroit, Vancouver is a coastal city with white-capped peaks starting at sea level and rising dramatically over the ocean. Drivers along the newly expanded Sea to Sky Highway can look down to the water from a road carved into a cliff as they make the two-hour trip from downtown to Whistler, the site for alpine and Nordic skiing and the sliding sports (luge, skeleton and bobsled).

Vancouver will be the largest city (population 2.1 million) and the warmest (average February temperature is 40 degrees) to host a Winter Olympics. Fog can enshroud lower Whistler Mountain, but the upper mountain can remain clear. Rain is a near certainty for the month; that's one reason why the 2010 Games will be the first to hold its opening and closing ceremonies indoors, at BC Place in downtown Vancouver.

Unlike Torino or Athens in 2004, Vancouver has not dawdled. The final competition venue -- the Pacific Coliseum at Hastings Park, host to figure skating and short-track speedskating -- is scheduled for completion by the end of this year, 14 months before the flame is lit. Some venues, like ski jumping, have already held competitions, and the first international event at a 2010 venue is set for this weekend when World Cup freestyle aerials and moguls take place at Cypress Mountain. A major test is a World Cup alpine skiing event on Feb. 19-24 in Whistler, where athletes get a preview of men's super-G and women's downhill Olympic courses.

After Beijing, Vancouver will provide a blast of fresh air to the Olympic scene. Here's why you should be watching the 2010 Games two years from now:

1. It's Canada
Not since Norway's Lillehammer in 1994, in what was considered the best Winter Olympics, has a Winter Games and a nation's culture been so entwined. Unlike Italy, or even the United States, Canadians truly know how to do ice and snow. After all, the country is the world's second-largest in land mass after Russia, and a lot of it is frozen during the winter.

Hockey started here and remains a source of national pride despite the fact that U.S.-based teams have been winning the Stanley Cup lately (the last Canadian team to win it was the Montreal Canadiens in 1993). Canada makes up for that with its seven Olympic golds, 13 medals overall, in men's hockey (more than any other nation). And that's not even counting the Canadian women, who have won gold in two of the past three Games.

It's not just hockey, either. Canadians seem to go nuts over just about any winter sport: skiing, skating, sliding, even curling. About 94 percent of the world's curling competitors live in Canada, according to Olympic historian David Wallechinsky. Canada, a surprising third-place finish overall in the 2006 medal count with 24 medals behind Germany (29) and the U.S. (25), is mounting an unprecedented push to top the list in 2010. Canada committed $110 million from public and private sources for its "Own the Podium" program to fund athletes, and it's already paying off with increased success for Canadians on the international circuit this winter.

2. Apolo Ohno
He grew up in Seattle, 110 miles from Vancouver. Ohno nearly retired after the 2006 Games, where he medaled three times, including gold in the 500 meters. But the chance to compete so close to home lured him to try for a third Olympics. He has five medals (two gold, one silver, two bronze) in wildly unpredictable short-track speedskating, which ties him with legendary long-tracker Eric Heiden as the most-decorated U.S. male winter Olympian. After 2006, Ohno proved he could do more than go left in tight circles. His celebrity status got a boost from his spin as champion of "Dancing with the Stars."

3. Skiercross
It's the ski version of snowboardcross, which made its debut in Torino (snowboarders hurtle shoulder-to-shoulder down a steep course of sharp turns, rollers and big jumps. First to the finish wins). Snowboardcross was wildly popular in Italy, where American Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogged her way from gold to silver after falling before the finish. In skiercross, new in 2010, racers go faster, jump higher and have more moving parts to tangle. Result? More mayhem, and probably less hot-dogging. Daron Rahlves, who won more World Cup downhill and super-G titles than anyone in U.S. ski history, converted to skiercross after retiring from traditional racing and is trying to earn a berth in the Games.

4. Skating's new names
Move aside, Michelle Kwan and Sasha Cohen. Figure skating's fresh-faced youngsters have time, and timing, on their side: Mirai Nagasu, 14; Rachael Flatt, 15; Ashley Wagner, 16; Caroline Zhang, 14. They swept the top four places at last month's U.S. Championships. All but Wagner are too young to skate in next month's World Championships, but good enough to generate buzz about American medal chances in 2010. Kimmie Meissner, the 2006 world champ, was the Olympic heir apparent to Kwan and Cohen. But Meissner, 18, recently changed coaches after finishing a shocking seventh at nationals. If the kids continue to develop and Meissner finds her game, that could make for an intriguing U.S. lineup for Vancouver.

5. Time zone
Vancouver marks the Olympics' return to the North American time zone for the first time since 2002. NBC has to be hoping for improvement after poor TV ratings in Torino, partially blamed on subpar results by hyped U.S. athletes (an injured Kwan and medal-less Bode Miller) and tape-delayed prime-time broadcasts, which sometimes meant viewers watching an event 12 or more hours after finding out who won.

6. Atmosphere
While Beijing is expected to play before a full house each day this August, the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, the birthplace of the Olympics, was plagued by empty seats at many venues. So was Torino, where sponsors and partners purchased blocks of tickets, but then didn't show. Priestner Allinger expects seats to be packed for Vancouver's ceremonies and all events.

"We're committed to have a strategy in place to have every seat full and every ticket sold at Games' time," said Priestner Allinger, adding that the committee is developing a ticket redistribution plan in case of no-shows. As for TV ratings, viewers are tuning out. Torino was the least-watched Winter Games since at least 1988 (Calgary), with the closing ceremony on NBC watched by 14 million viewers, half that of that night's "Dancing with the Stars" finale. The Winter Games found itself behind shows like "Lost," "Survivor" and "Desperate Housewives" in the ratings on some nights. Priestner Allinger believes pre-Games buildup, promos and Internet involvement, along with the favorable time zone and the new sport of skiercross, will help get viewers to watch again.

Meri-Jo Borzilleri, a freelance writer based in Bellingham, Wash., is a contributor to ESPN.com.