MERIBEL, France -- Before they received their gold medals, before the Olympic flag was raised and the Olympic anthem was played, the kids dressed in red and the coach dressed in the gray pinstripe suit would have this moment on the big sheet of ice perched a mile high in the French Alps.
The kids tossed this old hard-liner named Viktor Tikhonov into the air, threw him up as if he were a sack of potatoes. Caught him, and tossed him again. Laughed with the old man, too.
And the old man's face crinkled up into a smile. So what if this might be the end of an era? They would have this moment, the kids in their 20s, and the old man, just turned 61.
"I felt as if I was in the seventh sky," Tikhonov said through a translator.
Seventh sky. Seventh heaven. What's the difference?
It was an unexpected triumph.
Yesterday, the Big Red Machine of hockey ruled the Winter Olympics once again. The Unified Team of the former Soviet Union defeated Canada, 3-1, to take the gold medal in the final athletic event of the Albertville Games.
Canada received the silver, its first medal since winning the bronze in 1968.
And Czechoslovakia, a 6-1 winner over the United States on Saturday night, received the bronze.
But this day, this Olympics, was about the athletes from the country that no longer exists. The travails and triumphs of the former Soviet Union provided all the drama these Games could offer.
From political chaos, a hockey team still could be created. The names may change, but the style remains the same. The Big Red Machine is a racehorse of a hockey team, galloping past opponents with precision and beauty.
So, while the Canadians were doing the old dump-and-grind, the Unified Team was sprinting up the ice, getting goals from Viacheslav Boutsaev, Igor Boldin and Viacheslav Bykov, getting a few tough saves from goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov.
And all the while, Tikhonov was on the bench, his back to the ice, talking to the team, a young team, average age 23.1. Directing traffic. Calming nerves.
For 14 years this man with the steel-blue eyes has ruled Soviet hockey. He was there in 1980 when the Soviets lost to the Americans in Lake Placid, N.Y. And he was back on top four years later in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and four years after that in Calgary, Alberta.
"The gold medal I got in 1984 is very dear to me," he said. "The gold medal in 1988 is also important. And so is this one."
He called it "a step forward for the further development of Russian ice hockey." From 1956 to 1988, the Soviet Union won seven of nine hockey gold medals, and earned silver and bronze in the other two tournaments.
Tikhonov was holding the 1992 medal of crystal and gold that hung from his neck. He was holding court with Western reporters, too. Having fun. It was the end of a tough month. The team was pieced together only 10 days before the Games began. Some of the equipment was threadbare. The jerseys were patched.
The country's best players, such as Alexander Mogilny and Sergei Fedorov, were unavailable, drawing paychecks from the NHL. Tikhonov went with kids, hungry to win, hungrier still to please scouts from the West.
"If this Soviet team could be kept together it would be a very dominating team for a number of years," Canada coach Dave King said. "I know the country is going through changes, but the ice hockey represents success. I think they'll improve with younger athletes."
But the team will be broken apart, almost immediately. Eleven players have been drafted by NHL teams. A few more are heading to Europe.
This may have been the last hurrah, after all.
But Tikhonov now tries to change with the times. Once autocratic, he is now softer around the edges. He says he is learning to deal with a new Soviet athlete, a performer who wants to go pro.
"We have lost quite a lot of good players," he said. "In order to get fresh players for hockey, we have to do a lot of work. We have to review our program."
The program looks good. Very good. The score against Canada was close, but the game really wasn't. Oh, Eric Lindros of Canada, an 18-year-old Paul Bunyan on skates, was smashing into Russians, and creating all sorts of wonderful scoring chances in the third period, and even screamed at Tikhonov.
"You try to do your best to rattle the bench," Lindros said.
"There was fighting between the players," Tikhonov said. "Mr. Lindros told me something. I told Mr. Lindros, in Russian -- and he probably didn't understand me -- 'Mind your own business.' I think as a player, he has a good future. But he has one shortcoming. He is too young. He has everything in store."
If not for Canada's Sean Burke, who made 34 saves, this would have been a Russian rout. But in the end, it was the Unified Team that was circling the ice, throwing sticks and helmets into the stands, throwing the coach in the air, pumping fists at their one tiny section of fans, which included Olympic figure skating champions Natalia Mishkutienok and Viktor Petrenko.
"Other teams had fans here who waved their flags," Tikhonov said. "We didn't have our opportunity."
But the celebration turned melancholy during the generic medal ceremony. The Olympic flag appeared, and the anthem was played. Tikhonov said he thought only of joy. Some of his players began to sing, quietly, their old Soviet anthem.
"It reflects the difficult political situation in our country," Tikhonov said. "We're supposed to play ice hockey. That is a matter for politicians. No flag and no song, that's sort of a setback for our country."
But when the anthem ended, the players circled the ice once again. They didn't want to leave. The crowd stomped in the stands of the arena without a name. Finally, the players stopped in front of their bench and posed for one last picture. Darus Kasparaitis, their wonderful defenseman, slid in from the side just as the photographer took the shot. And Tikhonov, the old hard-liner, smiled.
The Games had a perfect ending.