Gold-medal game is rematch of 2002
Sure, there was that Scandinavian sibling snowball fight in the final in Torino in 2006. And it was a good one, with Henrik Lundqvist stoning Olli Jokinen in the final seconds to win gold for Sweden over Finland.
But four years before that, it was Canada vs. U.S. for Olympic gold in Salt Lake City.
It was Herb Brooks back behind the American bench with some eerie parallels – 22 years to the day after beating the Soviets in the penultimate game, they did it again to play two days later in a win-for-gold game. And it was Wayne Gretzky sitting on pins and needles as Team Canada GM, having rallied his troops with an "everybody is out to get us" speech to the media earlier in the tournament.
It was Mike Richter of the New York Rangers in the American net and Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils in the Canadian net in just the latest of their personal duels at 175 feet. And it was Mario Lemieux, resplendent in his final performance wearing the maple leaf, against Brian Leetch and Mike Modano and Chris Chelios and the rest of the Brian Burke-dubbed "greatest generation" of American hockey players trying to recapture the glory of their World Cup triumph from six years before.
It was Canada desperate to end a 50-year Olympic gold medal drought and it was the United States anxious to maintain its magical mastery of Olympic tournaments played on American soil.
"Oh yeah, I remember where I was," a then-14-year-old Sidney Crosby said Saturday afternoon, smiling after leaving the ice following Team Canada's practice. "It was an exciting time. I was home in Nova Scotia watching. I'm always a proud Canadian. But that day, I was extra proud. That's a time I'll never forget.
"And we've got a great opportunity now, one we all want to take advantage of at home."
This time, the Canadians will have the home-ice advantage – and they'll be facing a very different type of American team.
Far younger than that highly-accomplished 2002 club, Team USA has just two players who participated in the Salt Lake City Games – Detroit Red Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski and New York Rangers center Chris Drury. Soaking it all in back then, they're now being counted on to provide the leadership – along with captain Jamie Langenbrunner of the Devils -- for their young American teammates.
"From what I remember, we were a lot older, a lot more experienced," Drury said. "A lot of those guys had already played in one Olympics and had won the World Cup."
Canada also has turned over much of its roster since and has just four current players from the team that won gold in 2002 – Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Jarome Iginla and Chris Pronger.
Like this time around, the teams took very different routes to the 2002 Olympic final.
Canada suffered a stunning 5-2 opening-game loss to Sweden, only edged qualifier Germany by a goal and tied the Czech Republic in an unimpressive three round-robin games in which it was outscored 10-8 and had to make a goaltending switch from Curtis Joseph to Brodeur.
The U.S. team, in contrast, went 2-0-1 in pool play, tying Russia and trouncing Finland and Belarus by a combined 14-1.
Then the tournament went haywire.
Belarus pulled off perhaps the second-most stunning upset in Olympic history after the Miracle on Ice by beating Sweden in the quarterfinals. That gave Canada a far easier path to the final – a game against the satisfied and overmatched Belarusians that was a predictable 7-1 cakewalk – while the Americans had to battle the Russians again.
Team USA pulled out that emotional and physical semifinal, played on the anniversary of the Miracle victory and with Brooks running one bench and legendary Russian defenseman and 1980 veteran Slava Fetisov running the other. But the 3-2 victory left the Americans battered and drained.
Two days later, Richter tried to prop up his teammates. But the Joe Sakic-led Canadian onslaught was too overwhelming.
Rafalski scored a power-play goal late in the second period to somehow pull the Americans even despite territorial domination by the Canadians. But Sakic (2 goals, 2 assists) scored with 1:41 left in the second to restore Canada's lead at 3-2.
Brodeur made a toe save on World Cup hero Brett Hull with 4:50 left in regulation and Canada still holding that 3-2 lead. That was the Americans' last gasp. Forty-five seconds later, Iginla scored off a rush to make it 4-2 and the Canadians, though not on home ice, were home free en route to a 5-2 victory that stands just behind the fabled 1972 Summit Series vs. the Soviets in the nation's international hockey lore.
"It's going to be remembered for a long time," then-Canadian center and now Team Canada GM Steve Yzerman said afterward. "I've got to imagine the whole country was watching. It's a proud moment for everyone."
Sunday afternoon, it's Canada vs. the United States for Olympic gold again. With two largely new casts of characters but connections that resonate through the generations.