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1998 WINTER GAMES: NAGANO PREVIEW

Going Toe To Toe

The Battlefield Will Be Japan, but War for Gold Could Be Between U.S. and Its New Rival--Canada

February 01, 1998|MIKE PENNER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

America, we have met the enemy in these Winter Olympics, and there's a new Red Menace out there, one disturbingly close to home.

The Russian bear of old is in deep hibernation, supplanted by a tuque-wearing moose with Molson Golden on its breath.

The hammer and sickle have been junked and melted down, refashioned into a skillet now frying back bacon somewhere in Manitoba.

This year's Evil Empire, the insurgent threat to our very way of life atop the Olympic medals podium, is the same country that gave us Wayne Gretzky, John Candy, Neil Young and several of its finest hockey teams, where people are so polite and friendly that if you ask if they can change a dollar, they give you $1.35.

But don't let those shivering smiles fool you.

Beware when you shake the mitten-clad hand poking out of the sleeve of the plaid flannel shirt.

Canadians are out to steal our gold medals. They are planning to hoodwink us in hockey, fleece us in figure skating, swindle us in snowboarding, frisk us in freestyle skiing.

The United States would be well on its way to a double gold-medal sweep in men's and women's hockey in Nagano . . . if not for Canada.

American Todd Eldredge would be primed for glory in the men's figure skating competition . . . if not for a husky lad from Newmarket, Ontario, named, of all things, Elvis.

Jonny Moseley of Tiburon, Calif., would be bumping and running his way to a sure-fire championship in men's moguls skiing . . . if not for Canada's reigning world champion, Jean-Luc Brassard.

In no fewer than eight events at the Nagano Games, which begin Friday--it will be Saturday in Japan--and run through Feb. 22, the competition is adhering to the same plot line: Americans with gold-medal designs, confronted by all these bothersome Canadian speed bumps.

In men's freestyle aerials, American Eric Bergoust is the current World Cup points leader, with 1997 Canadian world champion Nicolas Fontaine looming as his main competition.

In women's freestyle aerials, another American, Nikki Stone, finds her path to a potential gold medal blocked by Canadians Veronica Brenner and Caroline Olivier.

Canada and the United States are formidable in the new Olympic sport of snowboarding--especially in the halfpipe event, where Americans Ross Powers, Todd Richards and Shannon Dunn will be battling Canadians Trevor Andrews, Tara Teigen and Maelle Ricker for big air and bigger air.

There is a new black hat in these Winter Olympics, and it hails from Medicine Hat.

The old dread initials from Olympics past--CCCP--now stand for Crass Canadians Crashing our Party.

This may come as news to many Americans, who never realized we had a rivalry with Canada. Not so in Canada. Last year, when Canada's Donovan Bailey beat the United States' Michael Johnson in a gimmicky 150-meter "World's Fastest Human" run-off in Toronto, the Canadian media treated the victory as if it were V-E Day and the Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup rolled into one.

Most Americans, meanwhile, saw the clip on ESPN's "SportsCenter" and shrugged, "You see that guy from the Olympics pull his quad?"

Pierre Trudeau, the former prime minister of Canada, once remarked, "Many Canadians feel like a mouse living next to an elephant."

North of the border, the rivalry is very real, fueled partly by an inferiority complex, partly by the relentless Americanization of Canadian culture, and partly by what we've done to their national pastime.

The Quebec Nordiques are now known as the Colorado Avalanche.

The Winnipeg Jets are now the Phoenix Coyotes.

The entire roster of Canadian hockey teams left in the NHL--six--is smaller than the league's Atlantic Division.

And the once-prestigious Canada Cup has been co-opted by Americans and transformed into the World Cup of Hockey--whose trophy Team USA heisted from the Canadians in 1996.

That defeat was particularly galling to Canadian fans, who took to throwing beer at the U.S. bench during a semifinal played in Ottawa and jeered Team USA's Canadian-born star, Brett Hull, with chants of "Traitor! Traitor!"

After the United States clinched the best-of-three championship round with a 5-2 victory in Montreal, the front-page headline across the top of the next morning's Montreal Gazette groused, "Damn Yankees."

"It's still a knife in the stomach," says Detroit Red Wing forward Brendan Shanahan, a member of the Canadian Olympic team.

For that reason, this Olympic tournament, the first to permit NHL professionals, has become a national obsession in Canada.

"It's our game," is the slogan one Canadian brewery has adopted on its television commercials.

Another TV ad proclaims: "The three most feared words in Nagano this winter: I am Canadian."

When the Canadian men's Olympic hockey team was announced, another ad featured a foreboding caricature of Paul Kariya and Eric Lindros glowering behind sunglasses, above the words, "Men In Red."

Clearly, Canadians are fired up.

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