VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Now this was exactly how the Olympics are meant to be experienced. Forget for a moment the outcome -- Canada 2, United States 0 -- or that the Canadian women's hockey team had just stomped an exclamation point on their third straight Olympic gold. It was a convincing, rollicking win, led by a pair of fearless youngsters who chose a fine time to leave their fingerprints on one of sport's greatest rivalries.
But before Canadian goalie Shannon Szabados, the author of a stunning shutout, could drape the flag with its golden maple leaf around her shoulders and skate joyous circles around the Hockey Place ice, and before the irrepressible Marie-Philip Poulin could begin to grasp the magnitude of her two goals, and before the winners got a little naughty during their rowdy celebration, a ripple began to make its way through the jam-packed stands.
They began to cheer loudly, maybe not all 19,000 of them but a good chunk of the crowd, and they clapped and then clapped some more, and the astonishing thing is, they were mostly red-bedecked Canadians standing and applauding each individual American player as a silver medal was fastened around her neck. Good sportsmanship is nothing new at any Olympics, but there was something touching about this moment as it stretched into several long minutes.
Maybe it's because the hockey crowds in the last few days have sometimes acted as if they could use a trip to the penalty box. As the men's tournament reaches fever pitch, fans from all parts of the world have become nastier with their taunts. Or maybe the classy tribute seemed surprising given the ancient and intense and not-always-nice rivalry between these two dominant teams.
Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympian who's been a fierce anchor of Team USA's defense since the inclusion of women's hockey in the 1998 Nagano Olympics, stood on the blue carpet, tears welling as another gold medal bid came and went to the Canadians. Then came the audible 'USA' 'USA' chants, and Ruggiero craned her neck, and if she saw what I saw, she had to be deeply moved at the amount of Canadians who had joined in the cheer. They did the same for Jenny Potter and Julie Chu and Natalie Darwitz and Molly Engstrom and on down the line, saluting competitors who for many years drained every ounce of grit and soul into the sport.
Eventually it was the Canadian's turn to party, and wow, what a time they had. Long after the sweat had dried on the first gold medal won by a Canadian hockey team on its own soil, Team Canada was still in the rink, soaking in the love and taking turns skating with the flag. Thick masses of fans crunched against the glass, trying to grab snapshots and memories of this extraordinary team that had just played an astounding 60 minutes.
They took the celebration a bit too far, according to fuddy-duddy Olympic officials, who weren't thrilled when the Canadians later emerged from their locker room for one more round of pictures. Still in pads and uniforms and flaunting gold, some players began swigging from bottles of champagne, guzzling beer and smoking cigars atop the ice. Rebecca Johnston climbed aboard the ice-resurfacing machine and tried to take it for a victory spin. Haley Irwin poured bubbly into the mouth of Tessa BonhommeIt, a Girls Gone Wild moment, PG-version and fairly harmless considering. But the IOC has threatened to investigate, and apologies will probably be required. Tone down the dominance, tone down the revelry -- that seems to be the message the IOC is sending to women's hockey.
Lost in the clamor of cowbells and visions of naughty players having fun while wearing flags as if they were Superwoman capes was Canada's near-perfect performance. The gold was earned on the steady back of Szabados (pictured) and her dazzling 28 saves, and on the lightening stick of Poulin, but mostly it was won because the hosts played a sizzling, tremendous, ego-free game that kept Team USA consistently at bay, even when the Americans had a couple of 5-on-3 power plays.
"It was a great atmosphere and we don't have that many opportunities to come out and play for a crowd that was cheering on like that in women's hockey, so that was amazing," said Potter, after Team USA picked up its second silver medal to go with a gold (1998) and a bronze (2006). "Even though it was pro-Canadian, it was a great feeling and a great atmosphere to go out there and play a game that you love."
What a shame the puck was dropped under an ominous cloud, with International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge warning women's ice hockey officials they better improve the parity of competition or face expulsion from the Games. Team USA and Team Canada, ruling superpowers, are equal on almost every level -- the U.S. is two-time defending World Champions, the Canadians own the Olympics -- and all the other countries skate wobbly in the shadows. Entering this tournament's final contest, the U.S. had routed opponents by a combined score of 40-2, while the Canadians had a 46-2 edge.
"There is a discrepancy. Everyone agrees with that," Rogge said hours before Thursday's gold medal game. "This may be the investment period for women's ice hockey. I would personally give them more time to grow but there must be a period of improvement.
"We cannot continue without improvement."
It's not North America's fault other countries refuse to invest money and resources in women's hockey. Throughout the tournament there were calls for the Canadian and American teams to stop being so mean to their mismatched opponents, to maybe hold off scoring so many goals. Nobody ever dare told the men's Dream Team to play nice and quit dunking on the Angolas of the world during America's stretch of Olympic basketball domination.
There's also the matter of certain patriarchal countries treating their girls like fragile flowers, rather than encouraging them to play sports. If Rogge and his fellow IOC pals wanted to, they could pressure leaders of European athletic organizations to join the 21st century. As Rogge said, we cannot continue without improvement, a broad statement that ought to apply to world issues beyond hockey.
Wayne Gretzky was amongst the fans crammed into seats and so were Michael J. Fox and Prime Minister Stephen Harper, and they surely all left murmuring about Poulin, the 18-year-old whose pair of first-period goals rocked the house. She's been compared to Sidney Crosby, which is just silly, because Poulin deserves to be admired for her uniqueness. Not long after Canada weathered a 5-on-3 power play, Poulin scored on a one-timer from Jennifer Botterill, the puck flashing past the glove side of U.S. goalie Jessie Vetter. Poulin struck again, less than three minutes later, on another one-timer that again floated glove side.
At the other end was Szabados, putting on a spectacular show of her own. She stonewalled the Yanks with fancy glove work, particularly in a 14-save second period, when Team USA couldn't capitalize on another two-man advantage. Szabados sprawled on her stomach and knocked pucks out of the air as Canada's defense sacrificed bodies and blocked shots in what was an unreal, surreal stand.
"When you give your whole life to something and you come up short, as a team, it's awful," Ruggiero said, swallowing hard. "It's a little different than playing on the men's side. You really give your life to it. You make lots of sacrifices to win the gold medal."
Thirty years ago Thursday, Team USA coach Mark Johnson was stuck in the middle of a real live miracle, as the plucky Americans beat Finland for hockey gold in a little rink in Lake Placid. He's seen the view from both sides, and now all he could do was tip his cap and hope women's hockey will have another shot in Sochi, in four years. "It stings when expectations are high and you come up short," Johnson said. "It hurts, but certainly I think we are better off than we were 3 1/2 years ago. They are coming home with a silver medal. That's not a bad thing."
As the final seconds ticked toward Team Canada's third Olympic gold, the players rushed to their goal, to mob Szabados. They tackled her with such breathtakingly, frightening force, the net was knocked aside and Szabados ended up with a knot on her head. It was bedlam, a pile of hugs and tears and pure joy, and what a shame it will be if the Olympics were to lose this scene.
"Women's hockey is in the Olympics. It belongs here and it should stay here," said Canada captain Hayley Wickenheiser, a brilliant gold talisman hanging from her neck.
From a skybox high in the rafters, members of the men's Canadian hockey team peered down at the mayhem unfolding all across the ice. They watched calmly, intently, perhaps taking mental notes. The noise was at an ear-piercing roar, with most everyone in the stands dancing and waiving Canadian flags as the fireworks caused the air to glow. Can Crosby's Team Canada possibly match this moment? Will they follow the women and hurl themselves into Olympic lore? No pressure, guys, no pressure at all.