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James Lawton: Canadians fear return of a miracle

Canadian manhood is, barring some unimaginable disaster in the small hours of this morning, on the line today when the virtuoso Russian stick-handlers stand in the way of the ultimate climax to these XXI Olympics.

It would mean a potential ice hockey final against the United States surely guaranteed to drain the last available emotion from a nation which for 12 days now seems to have had one foot in sports heaven and another in hell.

First, though, it is the moment of the Canadian women.

Tomorrow they get the chance to strike a huge blow in the holy war against the giants from south of the border in a final against the Americans which requires not only the nerve to sustain another deluge of national expectation but also to derail the apparently unassailable progress of someone still known as a miracle man.

He is American coach Mark Johnson, one of the heroes of the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" victory over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, who insists that his defining moment will be played out here and not in the old film reels of one of the most fabled days in his nation's sports history.

"What we're doing here," the 52-year-old says, "will give me just as much satisfaction as events in Lake Placid. I answer questions about 1980, but no, it doesn't define me, it was just part of my life – a fun part, of course."

Johnson is the son of one of the iconic figures in ice hockey, Bob Johnson, who led the University of Wisconsin to years of unrivalled dominance in the college game, and what the father did for the young men of that university, the son has done similarly for the American women.

Now his coaching reputation hinges on his ability to reverse the result of the 2002 final in Salt Lake City, when the Canadian women produced a golden double alongside their male compatriots.

So far, it is so impressive. While the Canadians battled to beat Finland and their supernaturally inspired goaltender Noora Raty, who made 45 saves, 5-0 in one semi-final, Johnson's team overwhelmed Sweden 9-1 in the other. The Americans, naturally enough, faced a less than sympathetic audience, with the majority of the 16,000 crowd dressed in the red and white of Canada and chanting, "Let's go, Sweden, let's go".

Johnson, though, is happy to cultivate the motivation created by such a gauntlet of discouragement. "My players feed off this kind of atmosphere, it points them towards their goal," he says.

The American dressing-room resounds with the echoes of agreement. Veteran Jenny Potter leads the chorus, saying: "The intensity is certainly there. Hate is a strong word but there's definitely dislike, and that's why we play this game. This brings out the best in each other."

Her team-mate Caitlin Cahow is in broad agreement but expresses it in a way not often heard within the perspex barricades of a relentlessly demanding game. "I've never really felt the hate," she announces. "What Canada does makes us better. I love playing Canada. I love playing in Canada. This is about love. Thursday is the dream of a lifetime."

For Johnson, it will be one offering both great symmetry and confirmation of his belief that however hard you push your players – for himself, he still sets the harshest standards of personal fitness in iron man competition – you also have to give them a substantial ration of fun.

"I learnt from my dad," he says, "you had better have a little fun in practice – and every day. Herb Brooks [the coach who conjured the "Miracle on Ice" with a regime that might have been borrowed from a US Marine training camp] is not the model here. If it's not fun, you fear you are going to lose them."

Johnson identifies the greatest fun as scoring goals and his team's game is geared to sweeping attack conducted at high pace.

He recalls his first team talk to his first women's team with a wry smile. "I remember saying, 'there's no crying in hockey'. That lasts about three days. They cry if they're happy, they cry if they're sad. Women's hockey is more emotional. Women are also big on what I call the 'why' element. You need to tell them why you're doing a certain drill before they buy into it. Men just do it."

Meanwhile, Canadian womanhood declares itself ready to trail-blaze its way to national celebration. The evidence is certainly strong enough to feed such optimism. In the preliminary rounds the Canadians produced some withering power in a flood of 41 goals against two, a suggestion of awesome strength even in a world game which tapers off sharply beneath the twin powers. Captain Hayley Wickenheiser says: "We've been through it. We're ready for anything that comes our way."

The worry is that this may just not include another miracle bearing the name Mark Johnson.