USA-Canada hockey: No way to treat a neighbor

That was no way to treat friends.

And neighbors.

Not to mention guys you’ll be back working alongside in less

than 10 days.

But that’s exactly what made USA 5, Canada 3 so special. For two

hours Sunday, in what the Olympic program listed as just a

preliminary-round game, the mercenaries from the NHL forgot about

paychecks and played for nothing more tangible than national

pride.

This wasn’t a cold war. It was the heat of battle. There hasn’t

been anything like it since the rest of the world kept trying to

throw a wrench into the old Soviet Union’s dynastic Big Red

Machine.

“It’s a little different, not fun I’d have to say, especially

when the guys are on your team for the regular season,” said U.S.

winger Patrick Kane, whose four Chicago Blackhawk teammates were

wearing Canada’s red sweaters on this night. “But this is a

once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Pretty much the whole world was

watching.”

International Olympic Committee boss Jacques Rogge and NHL

commissioner Gary Bettman were just two of a dozen swells in

attendance, perhaps grateful that the only safety issue for a

change was how many people inside the arena would suffer broken

eardrums.

Olympic Broadcasting Service president Manuel Romero showed up

between periods and walked to his seat, wedged among some fans who

had walked all the way over from Granville Island, a half-hour or

so away, and others who had paid $1,200 for an $80 ticket.

By the time it ended, all of them seemed satisfied they had

gotten their money’s worth.

There were seven pairs of NHL teammates on the two rosters, led

by five who share the Anaheim Ducks jersey the rest of the year.

There were all-stars, but this was no all-star game. It was more

Civil War than Pro Bowl.

The hitting on both sides was thunderous, the playmaking

sublime. The beauty is that no one got a free pass.

Rick Nash, one of four Canadian bruisers who stands at least

6-foot-4 and weighs 220, led the hit parade. But in just one

measure of how much skill was on display, it was Nash’s vision and

his deft little flick pass from the bottom of the right face-off

circle that Sidney Crosby tipped in to pull Canada back within 4-3

and give the hosts a chance in the last 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, the two Yanks responsible for the bulk of the

retaliating – 6-0 Jamie Langenbrunner and 6-2 Ryan Kesler, each

barely 200 pounds – proved every bit as skillful.

Langenbrunner scored just inside the 13-minute mark of the third

period by deflecting a slapshot from U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski

past Canadian goalkeeper Martin Brodeur for a 4-2 U.S. lead. He and

Brodeur are teammates in New Jersey and shared the Devils’ last

Stanley Cup.

Before moving on from New Jersey to Detroit three years ago,

Rafalski won two cups playing in front of the Canadian netminder.

That didn’t make him feel bad about adding goals to his big assist

for the Americans. And he had better hope Canadian coach Mike

Babcock carries no grudge, either, because Babcock will be doling

out Rafalski’s playing time when the two get back to Detroit.

Beyond all those personal and professional relationships built

up over the years, the two countries share a border and a common

language. The only substantive differences are that Canadians are

more polite and enjoy national health care.

But nobody was about to pull any punches – in some cases

literally.

“Oh, no,” replied U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson, who hammered

Drew Doughty, his Los Angeles Kings teammate and Canadian

counterpart, behind the Canada net and then finished off the check

with an elbow to the head. “It’s USA vs. Canada. It doesn’t

matter, absolutely not.”

The victory provided the U.S. team with a bye and a breather

heading into the quarterfinal round. It means one less game to

reach the final, but a whole lot more than that. In a motivational

ploy, the U.S. team broke out replica jerseys from their improbable

1960 Olympic gold at Squaw Valley, Calif., complete with the laces

at the neck and a retro patch over their hearts.

“Our next game is a survival game, too. All we’ve done is we

get to skip a game,” U.S. coach Ron Wilson said.

“In fairness, Canada probably outchanced us 2-1 (actually, 45

shots vs. 23) and our goalie played excellent. We still have a long

ways to go. Canada, I personally think, is the best team, and the

Russians are right behind them.”

For one evening, though, none of that mattered.

“A game like this,” Kane said, “is all about bragging

rights.”

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated

Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org