U.S., Canada on different paths since Salt Lake clash

On the night he was named to the 2006 U.S. Olympic team, veteran Doug Weight described the aching feeling of watching the Canadians don gold medals in Salt Lake City four years ago.

It might have been as painful an on-ice experience as many American players have experienced. Yet if they were honest with themselves, many U.S. players would tell you that if they have a chance to stand on the ice at the end of the gold-medal game in Torino, wearing a silver medal, they'll be exultant.

Such a basic truth -- unspoken though it might be -- doesn't reflect the Americans' desire to win. They will tell you they are going to Torino to win America's first men's hockey gold since 1980. But the reality is that the U.S. team that takes the ice Feb. 15 against Latvia will do so in a vastly different place, both talent-wise and psychologically, than the 2002 Salt Lake City team.

So, too, does the Canadian team that will begin its gold medal defense Feb. 15 against Italy. The two paths followed since that late afternoon game in Salt Lake City tell vastly different stories about the two North American hockey giants.

Both Canada and the U.S. had misplayed their entries in the Nagano Olympics in 1998; neither gold-medal favorite managed to collect a medal of any shade in the first Olympics that all NHL players were eligible to participate in.

The American disappointment in 1998 was punctuated by the boorish behavior of some players who destroyed dorm rooms in the athletes' village following their ouster from competition. It was an embarrassing turn that took some of the luster off the Americans' seminal victory over Canada two years earlier at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, a victory that rivaled the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" in terms of importance to the American hockey program.

An American win in Salt Lake would have rivaled those victories, but it was not to be.
After besting the powerful Russians in a thrilling semifinal game, the United States fell to Canada in the gold medal game, giving the Canadians their first gold in 50 years.

It was a victory that sparked spontaneous celebrations in cities and towns across Canada.
In Toronto, downtown traffic was stopped for hours as celebrants wandered the streets waving Canadian flags. In bars and community centers and homes, fans stood and sang "O Canada" as the Canadian flag rose into the rafters in Salt Lake City. On the ice, the Canadian players openly wept.

Just days before, the nation was in an uproar as the Canadians began the tournament with a desultory loss to Sweden and then eked out a one-goal win over lowly Germany.

Everyone from executive director Wayne Gretzky to head coach Pat Quinn to starting goalie Curtis Joseph was flayed in the Canadian media. The backlash prompted Gretzky's famous, "the world is against us" tirade, a clearly orchestrated outburst designed to take some of the pressure off of his team.

From that moment on, the Canadian team has moved forward to the gold medal, and beyond, with nary a misstep.

Two years later, the changing of the guard from Salt Lake City would begin with the assembling of a powerful young team at the World Cup of Hockey. Young players such as Dany Heatley, Joe Thornton (a controversial absentee in Salt Lake), Martin St. Louis, Brad Richards, Wade Redden, Shane Doan and Vincent Lecavalier helped Canada to an undefeated run through the tournament.

Lecavalier, the last addition to the roster when Steve Yzerman bowed out, would score the biggest goal of the tournament, an overtime winner against the Czechs in the semifinals.

The faces of Yzerman, Eric Lindros, Mario Lemieux, Al MacInnis and Paul Kariya have blended seamlessly with the faces of Robyn Regehr, Rick Nash, St. Louis, Richards. Since Salt Lake City, Canada has also won two gold medals and a silver at the World Championships. But regardless of the successes enjoyed by the Canadian program over the past four years, it has not diminished the hockey nation's thirst for success in Italy. Indeed, each new success seems to feed the nation's desire for more, and it has become almost a mantra for every Canadian team at every level. Anything less than a gold is failure.

"I think the pressure to win again is there. The way that hockey is played in Canada and the way it's respected, they expect to win the gold medal and that pressure is there," explained Colorado defenseman Rob Blake, who will be taking part in his third Olympic tournament. "Obviously, winning it for the first time in 50 years takes off some of the losing streak or, you know, the winless streak of the gold medal. But the pressure to win again and again is always going to be there with Canada."

That the next generation has been exposed to such a dynamic, and has embraced the challenge, bodes well for the coming days in Italy.

Such a transition has not been as smooth for the Americans.

After watching the Canadians celebrate in Salt Lake City, the U.S. program has stutter-stepped toward the future.

Perpetual U.S. goalie Mike Richter retired after a series of concussions, leaving the role of heir apparent unfilled, even as the days tick away to the start of the Torino tournament.
Iconoclastic head coach Herb Brooks was killed in an automobile wreck in August of 2003. The U.S. team at the World Cup of Hockey in 2004 relied heavily on players from 1996 and 2002, but the team seemed disinterested in the competition and was eliminated by Finland in the semifinals. Coach Ron Wilson, brought back after his stints behind the bench in 1996 and 1998, benched Brett Hull, who in turn blew off reporters and fans.

When the American junior team won its first World Junior Championship in 2004 behind players such as Ryan Suter, Zach Parise and Al Montoya, it appeared the next generation was about to arrive. But they haven't arrived quite in time for the Torino Games.

Parise and Suter are both maturing in their rookie NHL seasons and were not selected to the U.S. team. Phil Kessel, Jack Johnson and a handful of other top American-born prospects may be in the mix at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver. Other Americans enjoying breakout years, such as Paul Mara in Phoenix, Dustin Brown in Los Angeles and Tim Connolly in Buffalo, were given consideration, but ultimately passed over in favor of more familiar players such as Bill Guerin, Derian Hatcher and the relic-like Chris Chelios, who just turned 44.

The U.S. goaltending situation remains an enigma with the best American net minder, Ryan Miller, relegated to the taxi squad because rules required teams to announce their rosters before Christmas, and Miller was just returning from a broken thumb.

But it would be a mistake to suggest this team is merely a throwback to the glory days or that it has no direction.

Quietly intense Peter Laviolette will be behind the bench again after leading the U.S. to a surprise bronze medal at the 2004 World Championships and a heartbreaking shootout loss in the quarterfinals last spring to the eventual world champ, Czech Republic.

Although he doesn't have the profile of Wilson or Brooks, Laviolette's credibility is undeniable. That will be crucial, given that few experts give this American team a chance to medal. That shift in perception will also be crucial to the dressing room dynamic. For the first time in years, the Americans will not be thinking about a dream matchup with Canada for a championship; they'll merely be thinking about competing.

"If you have your choice, you always want to go in as an underdog," U.S. general manager Don Waddell said. "Guys will rally to that. There's a lot of rallying points."

Many of the players on this U.S. team will be unknown to the casual American fan. But it is this group -- with players such as Mike Knuble, Erik Cole, Brian Gionta, Jordan Leopold and John-Michael Liles -- on whom success or failure will depend. If these players can accept that challenge, the torch truly will be passed for American hockey.

"I remember watching back in 2002, the amount of skill and talent on the ice; it was great hockey. I think that will be a real treat for everyone, just to get the best players in the world competing against each other," Laviolette said. "But everybody was over there with the expectation of being the best and bringing home the gold medal. With that comes disappointment, because only one team does that, and there is six or seven teams that realistically have a chance.

"Everybody gears up for this. I don't think anybody goes into it saying fourth place would be nice."

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.