NAGANO, Japan - There is no turning back for Team Canada. Without a win in the Olympic hockey tournament, there may be no going back.
In the history of team sports, has there ever been a squad so burdened with other people's expectations? Has there ever been a team so enormously talented and so easily tarnished?
''It's gold or nothing for our team,'' defenseman Chris Pronger said Tuesday. ''Everybody in Canada will be extremely disappointed if we don't win. It's the national pastime, and there's a lot of pressure.''
Best on the ice
The best thing about this Olympic hockey tournament is that it is comprised for the first time of the world's finest players. The worst thing is that it leaves the Canadians no more room to rationalize. The National Hockey League's decision to shut down its season and send its stars to the Winter Games deprives America's northern neighbors of their last excuse for Olympic failures.
If Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros can't get it done, where else is there to turn? What if the cavalry shows up to save the day, only to find they're overmatched?
''We'll just stay right here,'' said Canadian defenseman Scott Stevens, ''and play in the Japanese league.''
This is the scenario that worries the folks in Moose Jaw and Medicine Hat, in Flin Flon and Oxbow. Hockey is a big deal in many countries, but in Canada it defines the national character. No single sport serves that function in the United States, unless it is litigation. ''We expect more of ourselves than I think the American public does,'' said U.S. defenseman Mathieu Schneider, a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs. ''The Canadian people don't expect anything less than a gold medal.
''Just look at the junior team that had a poor showing this year. Even before they were eliminated from gold medal contention, they lost one game and there was just great controversy throughout the country that Canada's hockey was slipping. I think that's very unfair at times, but that's Canada.''
The team to beat
Relative to the rest of the world, Canadian hockey has been slipping for decades. It had to. Canada dominated the early Olympic hockey tournaments with amateur teams - much as the United States did in Olympic basketball. But as the sport spread internationally, Canada's edge started to evaporate.
After winning six of the first seven Olympic hockey tournaments between 1920 and 1952, Canada has not won one since. In 1972 and 1976, officials chose not to compete in the Winter Games rather than send callow kids to face seasoned Soviets. In 1992 and 1994, Canada settled for a silver medal.
The nation's frustrations ought to end here. Gretzky and Lindros are the sport's ranking icons, and the Canadian lineup also includes such luminaries as Ray Bourque, Joe Sakic, Brendan Shanahan and Steve Yzerman. Patrick Roy will be in goal. A man could keep himself in Molsons betting on that bunch.
The Canadians are clearly the team to beat in the Olympic tournament, but the format does them no favors. Once the preliminary rounds are over, the process is single-elimination. One goalie at the top of his game could change the character of the competition, and cause the Canadian team to go home in disgrace.
''At the same time,'' Schneider said, ''as you look down their roster there's a lot of guys who play well and who play better under that kind of pressure. I think at times you'd like to compete against a team that doesn't have that kind of pressure on them.''
How well the Canadians handle the heat will help determine how high they finish. How high they finish may decide whether they go home.
''We played in Toronto just before the break,'' said Canadian wing Joe Nieuwendyk, of the Dallas Stars. ''As soon as you get off the plane, you can just feel it around town. . . . Down in Dallas, in the last month or so, I didn't feel that sense with the American team. They're still trying to figure out who's going to coach the Cowboys.''
Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.
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