Winter Olympics: Czechs ensure gold will elude Gretzky after shoot- out win

THE Czech Republic, conquerors of the stellar United States ice hockey team, yesterday accounted for another of the game's giants when they defeated Canada 2-1 in a shoot-out after overtime in the semi-final.

In so doing, they also reduced one of the game's greats, Wayne Gretzky, to a silent, dejected figure. The greatest scorer in ice hockey history will probably never win the one major prize he does not already possess: an Olympic gold medal.

"It's devastating. It's the worst feeling in the world," Gretzky said yesterday, talking slowly as he choked back tears. "Truth of the matter is, this probably is my last international competition. I guess a gold medal wasn't on the cards for my career."

After Dominik Hasek had thwarted Canada's Brendan Shanahan, the Czechs mobbed their goaltender in celebration while the Canadians consoled their goalie, Patrick Roy. It was about a minute before Gretzky moved. Then he slowly got up and joined his team-mates for the post-game handshake.

He had his first chance at an Olympic gold medal because the NHL, for the first time, let its players participate. Now, the best he can do is win a bronze today. "Words can't even describe how bad I feel," said the 37-year-old Gretzky, who holds or shares 61 NHL records and has won four Stanley Cups. "Each and every time I put on that Canadian sweater, I'm proud. This is so tough."

His American NHL colleagues clearly found defeat tougher still. United States players smashed windows and damaged Olympic village rooms in the wake of the team's early exit from the tournament, police and tournament officials have announced.

However, officials were not planning to file criminal charges but will seek financial compensation for damages from the incident, which took place less than three hours after the "Dream Team" lost 4-1 to the Czechs in the quarter-finals.

Olympic village officials had tried to assess the damage on Wednesday night after the US delegation leader reported the incident, but respected a request that they wait until the athletes had left the village. Exactly how many players were involved and the extent of the damage was not certain, a spokesman added.

This was not the first case of vandalism at these Games: the Austrian snowboarding world champion, Martin Freindanetz, had his Games accreditation revoked by delegation officials after trashing his hotel room in the wake of a disappointing Olympic showing.

Having a smashing time yesterday, in the strictly legal sense, was the Italian Deborah Compagnoni, who went into the Olympic record books when she won the women's giant slalom for her third gold medal in three successive Games.

The 27-year-old won in a combined time of 2min 50.59sec to finish more than a 1.5sec ahead of second-placed Alexandra Meissnitzer of Austria as she became the first female Alpine skier to manage such an Olympic run.

Compagnoni won her first gold in the Super-G in Albertville in 1994 and then took the giant slalom two years later in Lillehammer before yesterday's success.