VANCOUVER — An icy dream dawned six months ago in a rink near Chicago, where candidates for the U.S. Olympic hockey team took the first steps of a journey that will end a few hours before the flame is extinguished on the Vancouver Games.
A week later the same dream was planted in Calgary among prospective members of Team Canada, who have shouldered the hopes of a nation that considers hockey a way of life and not merely a diversion.
The U.S. and Canada will compete Sunday at Canada Hockey Place for the Olympic gold medal, pitting NHL teammates against each other in a rivalry that has become, to Canadians' chagrin, increasingly even.
The U.S. won the World Cup in 1996 on Canadian soil. Canada won the Olympic hockey tournament at Salt Lake City in 2002. Team USA won the teams' preliminary-round match for its first victory over Canada in Olympic play since 1960, but that was a week and--for Canada--a starting goaltender ago.
"Don't get me wrong. We'd like to do it for the country and we'd like to do it for everybody involved. We'd like to do it for ourselves, first," said Canada Coach Mike Babcock, whose team faltered in its early games but steadied itself when Roberto Luongo replaced Martin Brodeur in net.
"Someone's going to be very happy and we expect it's going to be us."
Canada has the advantage of home ice--Canada Hockey Place is the home of the NHL's Vancouver Canucks--and a flag-waving, face-painting, maple leaf-wearing crowd that is sure to fill every corner of the arena.
"You come out on the ice you see everybody screaming, wearing red. It gets the guys going even more," Luongo said Saturday.
"It's fun to be part of something like that and experience something that we'll probably never get to live again."
Because of that support, because Canada has enough native talent to have entered two medal-contending teams in this tournament, Canada should be the favorite.
Not so, say the Canadians, who say they're the underdogs because they were slow to start and the U.S. went 5-0 to reach today's finale, including a six-goal first period in a 6-1 semifinal romp over Finland on Friday.
"They have a good team and they have depth," said Jarome[cq] Iginla, who scored two goals in Canada's gold-medal triumph at Salt Lake City.
Ultimately it doesn't matter who is favored.
"It's a matter of us going out there and playing. If we play as well we did in the last game in the first period, I like our chances," Brian Rafalski said. "Both these teams are capable of winning. It's going to be who can get out there and get the job done."
The way each team has been structured will determine how the job is completed.
Canada has any number of offensive options, with Joe Thornton, Sidney Crosby and Ryan Getzlaf as its top three centers on three dynamic lines. The U.S. can't match that.
But where the U.S. might have an edge is in its deliberate composition. Iginla said Canada "has four first lines." But in a short tournament like this one, winning doesn't require four top lines--it requires role players like tournament faceoff leaders Ryan Kesler (76.25%) and Joe Pavelski (69.64%) and penalty killers Ryan Callahan and Chris Drury.
Winger Dustin Brown wasn't an obvious choice for Team USA because his stats aren't dazzling. But he's a banger, an abrasive force in front of the net. And that's where the U.S. is most likely to score, not off finesse and rushes but off deflections and screens and tips.
Callahan and Drury, he said, are "very skilled in their own right but the penalty killing is their thing and they do that very, very well. They've been a key to our success on the PK. Maybe if you take one or two of those players out our PK is a lot worse than it is and we're not sitting here in this game."
Blackhawks winger Patrick Kane, the closest thing the U.S. has to a gamebreaker, said choosing specialists, and not just the most talented players, was the right strategy.
"Look at a team like Canada--they've got a ton of skill and highly talented players that they fit into different roles and that's not really the situation with our team," Kane said.
"I think our team was picked on players for the situation. Guys like Chris Drury, he's an older guy and he's there for leadership and penalty killing. David Backes on the fourth line is running over guys. And myself and Zach Parise and Paul Stastny, we're counted on to produce offense.
"It seems every player was picked for a reason and they did a great job picking it, I think."
In a game too close to pick a winner, one of those picks could make the difference today.