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Canada abuzz as hockey game vs. U.S. looms Sunday

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — On the official Winter Olympics schedule, it lists Sunday's Olympic men's hockey game between Canada and the United States as Preliminary Round, Group A, Game 17. In other words, a routine early-round matchup. But the buzz around this city and the $2,000 scalpers are getting for tickets are proof this game is anything but routine.

Canada's national pride is on the line, and nothing but a win over Team USA and a gold medal next Sunday will heal the four-year-old scar this hockey-loving nation has been nursing since leaving the Turin Olympics red-faced, without a medal of any color. Fans here don't just want the hockey gold, they yearn for it.

The Canadian Olympic Committee spent $100 million in the hopes home athletes would "Own the Podum," but midway through the Games, it's the United States atop the medals standings. Canadians can grudgingly live with that, so long as they win the gold in hockey. They must own the puck.

Even before Olympic visitors leave the airport and head into the city, they get hints of Canadians' passion for hockey. When they exchange currency, they may notice that the back of the Canadian $5 bill is a drawing of children playing hockey along with a quotation in French and English from Roch Carrier's short story, "The Hockey Sweater":

"The winters of my childhood were long, long seasons. We lived in three places — the school, the church and the skating rink — but our real life was on the skating rink."

Once they get to downtown, every third person on the street is wearing a Canada replica hockey jersey with a giant maple leaf on the front, and, more often than not, Sidney Crosby's No. 87 on the back.

If they turn on the TV set in their hotel room, before long they will hear a commercial that declares: "Let's make sure the world knows whose game they're playing."

Up at Whistler Village, a crowd of thousands gathered around an outdoor jumbo screen to watch Canada's game against Switzerland on Thursday night. One fan wore a box on his head with a red siren on top, like the one atop a hockey goal. When Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins' young star and Canadian idol, made the winning shot for a 3-2 shootout victory, the place went wild.

The atmosphere is expected to be even more electric at Canada Hockey Place on Sunday.

"We're the enemy (on Sunday), and we know that," said U.S. general manager Brian Burke. "It's going to be a crazy crowd. It's going to be a zoo in there. I think that's the way it ought to be. We've just got to be ready to play, tune that stuff out.

"The pressure's not on our team, it's on Canada."

The winning team earns a bye to the quarterfinals.

Despite being loaded with NHL stars, the Canadian team struggled to beat Switzerland, while the U.S. had an easy 3-1 win over the Swiss. It remains to be seen whether this inexperienced U.S. team (average age 26.5) is a true medal contender. The Americans have speed, and an excellent goalie in the Buffalo Sabres' Ryan Miller, but not much experience in big games. The collective U.S. roster has won seven Stanley Cups, while Canada has won 13 and seven Olympic gold medals.

Martin Brodeur is expected to start in goal for Canada, but if he falters, local hero Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks will get the nod.

This is just the third time the neighboring countries have faced off in men's hockey since 1996, when the United States upset Canada in the World Cup. The last time was in Salt Lake City at the 2002 Olympics, when Canada won 5-2 for its first and still only men's hockey gold in 50 years.

"We've got a lot of young guys who haven't really played in huge games like Stanley Cup finals, and this is going to be huge," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "It's going to be on every TV in Canada and a good number in America. Anyone who is a hockey fan will be watching.

"It's going to be a great day for hockey."

The U.S. vs. Canada game is part of a Super Sunday hockey triple-header. Rivals Russia and Czech Republic play in the early game in a rematch of the 1998 Olympic final; and Sweden and Finland, the 2006 Olympic finalists, have a rematch in the late game.

Kaufman reports for the Miami Herald

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