Incredible final makes these best Winter Games
These were the best Winter Games ever.
Just not in the way most of us expected.
What were the odds that two teams of mercenary, millionaire pros from the U.S. and Canada would breathe new life into those hopelessly romantic words that helped revive the modern Olympics more than a century ago? The ones about how competing honorably was even more important than winning?
But they made it happen.
At least for one afternoon.
Had the local heroes lost, everyone in this land of 33 million might have called in sick Monday morning. They might anyway, judging by the celebration that erupted right after rising star and soon-to-be-cast-in-gold icon Sidney Crosby pounced on a loose puck and slipped it underneath lunging U.S. goalie Ryan Miller to seal the hockey gold medal with a 3-2 win in overtime.
``It doesn't even feel real,'' Crosby said. ``It feels like a dream.''
But as more than a few of his French-speaking, sometimes-contrarian countrymen are shouting to the rooftops still: ``Au contraire!''
It no longer matters here what anyone outside Vancouver - or Canada, for that matter - thinks. Best games or not, the 600,000 residents of this jewel of a city on the country's far western edge will be stuck paying off the debt for a decade.
And nothing will erase the tragic death of a young Georgian luger even before the torch was lit. Ultimately, that will be the Vancouver Olympics' enduring legacy.
But there was never a more-fitting ending to any Winter Games than this one. The crowd in Canada Hockey Place was on its feet in a full-throated roar for the final minute of regulation, then again as alternating chants of ``USA! USA!'' and ``Go, Canada, Go!' echoed around the building to accompany the presentation of the gold and sliver medals. That's respect.
It's easy to be cynical about two teams of NHL all-stars donning their national colors for two weeks and putting forth one grand, no-holds-barred effort.
But these two squads already did that a week ago, in a preliminary-round game that was stolen by the Americans and still turned out to be the most-watched television program in Canada's history. Who knew they could play harder still this time around, even with gold on the line?
``It certainly doesn't feel good right now, but from where we came in August, when people were making fun of how many Johnsons and Ryans and everything else we had,'' U.S. forward Chris Drury said. ``No one knew our names. People know our names now.''
Man, do they ever.
But that's only one measure of how much this one mattered.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a hockey historian, stayed to the very end. Musician Neil Young turned up in the stands to watch the hockey version of his old group - not Crosby, Stills and Nash, but Crosby, (Eric) Staal and (Rick) NashActor William Shatner even beamed himself down to take in the game.
If nothing else, it's going to be tough for those who played to come down.
Barely 24 hours after the medals were doled out, players on both teams were scheduled to be back in the NHL. They'll be working and practicing alongside and against one another in different combinations. Some will be depending on former enemies as teammates for their livelihoods.
In some cases, teammates will become enemies once more. U.S. defenseman Brian Rafalski and center Paul Stastny, for example, will be on opposite sides of the Detroit-Colorado game Monday night. Making it more interesting still, Canadian coach Mike Babcock will be back at his day job, behind the Red Wings bench.
Yet the next time their paths cross, everyone who played in this game will be able to look one another in the eye and remember the magic they created. That will make even a meaningless NHL game, in the middle of a long, drawn-out season, something special.
``I just barely saw it,'' U.S. defenseman Brooks Orpik said about Crosby's game-winner, ``but I've seen him score many goals for us in Pittsburgh.
``It's disappointing,'' he added, ``but if we were going to lose, I'm glad he's the guy that won it.''
Rafalski understood what Orpik meant. Someday, the silver medal hanging from his neck might mean more than it does now.
``I'll tell you,'' he said, ``as time goes on.''
Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org