James Lawton: Canadians dream of grand finale

Click to follow
The Independent Online

There might be a disgruntled muskrat somewhere deep in Manitoba or Saskatchewan but the rest of Canada has rarely been quite so exultantly at peace with itself.

For the host nation that committed itself so passionately, and expensively, to success in these 21st Winter Olympics there have been good and bad days, but nothing to compare with the one that brought a crushing ice hockey victory over the Russian team who have sometimes mocked the belief they own the game.

The Canadian men produced awesome commitment – and forechecking – in a 7-3 annihilation of the threat presented by the brilliant stick-handling of such Russian stars as Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin to win a semi-final place against Slovakia on a day when four more medals were gathered in by the hosts, gold and silver by the two-women bobsled teams and silver and bronze in speed skating.

On the hockey ice and the bobsled track it was hard to know who had put in quite the most withering performance. While the nation hung on every moment of the hockey collision, the gold medallist bobsledders Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse won by almost a second – an eternity on a track which saw British contenders Nicole Minichiello and Gillian Cooke survive unscathed a spectacular crash as they pushed beyond their limits on a third run that ended their fading challenge.

Inevitably, though, it was the hockey men who most deeply satisfied the Canadian yearning to be the best in the world. Hockey is where so much of Canada lives. You see it in the ice rinks across the land where tot-sized schoolboys show up at 6am for their designated practice time. You see it on frozen prairie ponds. You see in the ferociously competitive junior leagues as youngsters hoping to make it to the ultimate level of the National Hockey League set off on long journeys through the back country in the team bus, which has been described as the "iron lung". And you saw it, almost like a force of nature, in the assault on the Russians.

Canada's women's team were surely seeking to reproduce such passion when their played their final in the small hours of this morning against an American team coached by Mark Johnson, a star of the "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union in the Lake Placid Olympics of 1980.

Their compatriots had certainly set a most formidable standard, one bleakly acknowledged by the shell-shocked Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov, who surprisingly was not yanked off the ice in favour of his No 2 until the Canadians had scored their sixth goal in the second period.

Nabokov shook his head and said: "They just kept coming and coming and we couldn't stop the bleeding. I wish them luck, that is all. That was Canadian hockey right there. I don't like predictions, but it looks like the Canadians have got it going. They will not be easy to stop."

On this latest evidence it will be for the impressive Slovaks, and probably the Americans, who meet Finland in the other semi, in what could be a supremely climactic final on Sunday, a chore roughly akin to stepping into a landslide.

Though Canada's hero, 22-year-old Sidney Crosby, had a relatively unspectacular game – at least beside the scoring edge of his team-mate Corey Perry and the huge defensive contribution of Chicago Black Hawk Jonathan Toews – the fate of his bitter rival, Ovechkin of the Washington Capitals, was to suffer an outright eclipse. Ovechkin is a hero for many young North Americans with his exquisite stickwork and fiercely combative nature, but here he was battered into oblivion by the massive Canadian effort. Perry, as it happens, plays for the Anaheim Ducks. Here, though he swooped in like an eagle, as the Russians were swiftly broken beyond any reasonable hope of recovery.

In all this Canadian euphoria there is also the prospect of redemption, at least to some degree, in the controversial "Own the Podium" policy. The bobsled triumph brought Canada level with the United States and Germany on the mark of seven gold medals – and with a considerable power to add more. Whether this ultimately justifies the pressure brought to bear on so many individual athletes, and the expectations created across the country, is a philosophical argument that in the current atmosphere can plainly wait.

Meanwhile, Canadians have increasing reason to be jubilant about the strength and the cohesion of their team, which is beginning to shine, in contrast to the outbreak of bad feeling in the American camp, and especially the escalating row between rival women skiers, and former friends, Lindsey Vonn and Julia Mancuso. The latter is bitter about the consequences of Vonn's crash in Wednesday's first run of the giant slalom when Mancuso had to abort her run in mid-descent and then go 15 places later on a fast deteriorating course. She cranked up the growing disaffection when she said: "People are having a hard time reaching their potential because it's such a struggle for attention. You come to meetings after races and it's like a bad day if Lindsey didn't do well."

For Canadians, for the moment at least, such discord might be happening on another planet.

James Lawton nominated for award

The Independent's chief sports writer James Lawton has been nominated for the Sports Feature Writer of the Year by the Sports Journalism Awards. It is the sixth consecutive year he has been in the nominations, winning three awards.

What to watch today: Day 15

Alpine skiing (Women's slalom)

American Lindsey Vonn and Britain's Chemmy Alcott feature in the last of the women's Alpine skiing events. (6.00pm, Eurosport)

Curling

The women's medals get decided, but Great Britain will not be in contention after falling at the group stage. (7.00pm, BBC 2)

Ice hockey (Men's semi-finals)

The United States take on Finland while hosts Canada face Slovakia. (2.30am, BBC 2, Eurosport)

Comments