James Lawton: The great red face-off

Ice hockey's two great stars, from Canada and Russia, are on collision course
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There was always going to be a moment when the heart and even the entrails of these 21st Winter Olympics were put on public view. And now it has happened. Canada have played their first ice hockey game in defence – and maybe redemption – of their greatest pride and their strongest sense of identity.

So far so good, an 8-0 defeat of Norway, but with the optimism there is also a terrible fear. It is represented by the Russians and their superb virtuoso left wing, 24-year-old Muscovite Alex Ovechkin, whose immediate response was an eight-goal spree of their own against Latvia.

Canada have their own superstar, 22-year-old Sidney Crosby from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, who last year delivered the National Hockey League's biggest prize, the Stanley Cup, to the Pittsburgh Penguins and earned himself not only vast acclaim, and sponsorship, but also the legend The Next One. The Next One, that is, after The Great One, Wayne Gretzky, who until now has been unchallenged as the sublime fulfilment of the national dream, the perfect hockey player.

However if you think this sounds like a gift of history it also represents pressure which is not likely to be matched anywhere in sport this year.

Here, for example, is one Canadian assertion which has gone utterly unchallenged: every Olympic medal that has been celebrated so rapturously here so far, including the golds for mogul skiing and snowboarding, would be cheerfully handed back in return for a guaranteed ice hockey victory.

Another claim: "Crosby isn't just the centre, figuratively and literally, of Team Canada – he is the defender of the faith."

Insanity? No, just one statement about quite what the game means to the Olympic hosts – and the degree of pain that came when the team trailed out of Turin four years ago placed seventh, with a 2-0 defeat by Switzerland among the disasters.

Here is Don Cherry, a former coach of the Toronto Maple Leafs, who has long dressed up in garish sports coats and splenetic rage in his television role as the conscience of the national sport: "You cannot believe what this means to Canada. We cannot be second. Second means we're failures. We cannot fail, especially when it is in our barn. We have to win because Canadians are strange people. We eat our own. Like the last time, there will be absolutely no mercy. Every guy and the coaches were just ripped to pieces. I don't know how else to describe it. We just have to win."

For Crosby the obligation was scarcely lessened when he agreed to put his name to one advertising slogan which declared, "Hockey – it's Our Game."

The trouble is that if it is not the Russians' game it is one they tend to borrow from time to time with exquisite results, and not least those produced over recent years by the man who grew up in a top-floor Moscow flat and now plays for the Washington Capitals on a level which many dispassionate observers believe is unmatched.

Even Crosby's fiercest admirers, who rhapsodise over the wonderful "motor skills" and the exquisite passing technique of their hero, have to agree that in the matter of scoring goals of improbable skill and outrageous ambition Ovechkin has for some time been in a class of his own.

He scored two against Latvia which may not have been automatically placed in the YouTube gallery which is hit upon so regularly by hockey aficionados, but as a deposit on Olympic glory they were impressive enough, two shots of clinical precision and natural flair.

The son of a double Olympic basketball gold medallist mother, and a football player father, he is capable of producing stunning dexterity in a 6ft 2in, 16-stone-plus frame. By comparison, Crosby's performance against Norway was merely admirable in its sterling application and fine passing.

From now on much of the international audience may feel it is looking in from the outside on the single most charged theme of these games: Crosby versus Ovechkin.

If the teams should meet, most sensationally in the final, the personal duel has the potential to become the hand-to-hand fight of a dangerous winter.

Crosby, like many Canadians, is unimpressed by what they see as the Russian's tendency to over-egg his moments of triumph – a favourite is to warm his hands on a hockey stick which he suggests is so hot – and provoke physically key opponents.

Says Crosby, "When we started to play each other it was more like people were celebrating two players. But it seemed like with each game he was just trying to line me up. So we start having run-ins and the media is watching. Then, with it getting stirred around off the ice, it built into more of a hate relationship."

The Russian shrugs away the charge of sinister instincts. "I play my game as it comes, I go out to do as well as I can. I do not have targets, only the net, only to score and to win."

Such was his eagerness to excel at sport as a boy he chose to run up the 10 flights of stairs to his Moscow apartment rather than take the lift. His parents noted a ferocious determination to succeed.

He is also passionate in his desire to lead Russia to gold, having declared that if the NHL decide to scrap its agreement to release players for the next Olympics – and it is believed it is about to do so – he will go his own way. This is despite the fact that he is guaranteed career earnings of more than £50m by the Capitals.

"Nothing is more important than playing hockey for my country," he says. It is an echo of the claim by the All-Canadian boy from Nova Scotia. It is also, maybe, a declaration of Olympic war.

Skater boys: The icons compared

Alex Ovechkin

Born 17 September, 1983, Moscow

Height 6ft 2in

Weight 235lbs

Position Left Wing

Shoots Right

Team Washington Capitals

NHL career games 378 (261 goals)

First selection in 2004 NHL Entry draft; Part of Russia team which won Gold at 2008 World Championships

Sidney Crosby

Born 7 August, 1987, Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia

Height 5ft 11in

Weight 200lbs

Position Centre

Shoots Left

Team Pittsburgh Penguins

NHL career games 351 (174 goals)

Won Gold at the 2005 World Junior Championships; Named in All-Star Team in 2006

What to watch today: Shelley Rudman in the skeleton

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12.00am, BBC 2

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9.00pm, coverage on BBC and Eurosport

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