Canada Faces High Hockey Stakes vs. U.S.

Wayne Gretzky looks tired.

His smile, so ready and radiant during his playing days, now seems forced.

Team Canada's executive director who browbeat the American media last week somehow isn't the same Great One who stayed for what seemed like hours after his last NHL game, fielding question after question from the exact same people.

Saturday, asked about his Olympic experience, Gretzky looked down and said, "I don't know if I've enjoyed it so much."

Gretzky and the rest of Team Canada have more pressure on it than any other team that has ever played a hockey game. Sunday, the Canadians will battle the Americans for a gold medal. It will likely be the most-watched hockey game in history. Americans will quickly forget a loss. Canadians — many of whom don't even remember their nation's last hockey gold in 1952 — won't.

"Hockey is our game," said Toronto Star columnist Paul Hunter, "and we should dominate. We still cling to that as the one way we can be the best. If not, it's a national tragedy."

Americans can absorb a loss today and then switch to an NBA game or college basketball highlights. Canadians can't.

"They've got a lot more pressure than we do," Team USA defenseman Tom Poti said. "A whole nation will be down if they lose."

Meanwhile, Team USA is just tickled with its performance in these Olympics. You've never seen a more relaxed bunch of athletes.

"There's no pressure on us," Coach Herb Brooks said. "We look at it as fun, a chance to play, and an opportunity for us."

Any medal would have erased the awful memories of Nagano, and Friday's thrilling 3-2 win over Russia guaranteed a silver as well as the fuzzy feeling of a gutsy victory in the minds of skeptical American hockey fans. The rest is gravy.

On Feb. 13, Canadian rock band Barenaked Ladies took the stage at the Olympic Medals Plaza and joked to an adoring audience about how the United States always seems to take the best of Canada for itself.

"What are they gonna take next?" yelled singer Ed Robertson.

If the answer is hockey supremacy — even for only four years — no one will be laughing.

"That's pretty much all they've got," Poti said. "If hockey's not going well, they're not happy people."

Just ask Wayne.

Eric Adelson writes for ESPN The Magazine.

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