WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — In the end, the magic of Herb Brooks and the comfort of home ice were no match for the depth of Canadian talent.
The United States men's hockey team came close to repeating its gold-medal performance from 1980, the last time the Winter Olympics were held in the United States. But after a string of solid performances, the United States lost the final game, 5-2, Sunday afternoon to a determined Canadian team that peaked at just the right moment.
And Team Canada's peaks are higher than anything in the Wasatch Range.
Canada is so good, one of hockey's all-time greats can let a pass float by him because he knows one of the game's top threats is waiting to his left.
Canada is so good it got four goals from its second-best line, one that happens to feature the NHL's reigning most valuable player and its current goal-scoring leader.
"We would have liked the gold medal," U.S. forward Jeremy Roenick said. "But it didn't work out that way for us. We lost to a great opponent tonight. We lost to a lot of great hockey players. We lost to a great nation.
"We have nothing to hang our heads about. We did what we set here to do. We came here and we battled."
The loss ended the United States' 24-game unbeaten string (21-0-3) in Olympic Games on home ice. But maybe it wasn't quite home ice.
There were enough Canadians among the 8,599 fans to make their flags seen and voices heard throughout the game, especially when they sang "O Canada" in the final minute. And Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky revealed afterward that some Canadian-born ice maintenance crew members at the E Center had placed a Canadian dollar coin (known as a "loonie") under center ice for good luck.
That explains why members of the Canadian women's hockey team were rubbing center ice and kissing it after they won the gold medal against the Americans Thursday night. And it might explain why the American men couldn't get that one lucky bounce that might have made a difference in the men's final.
The Americans led, 1-0, after Doug Weight lunged to knock the puck out of the Canadian zone and ahead to Tony Amonte, who beat Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur at 8:49 of the first period.
Later, Roenick had the puck on an odd-man rush and took a shot that somehow slipped under a sliding Brodeur. But it went wide right.
Canada came back and Chris Pronger brought the puck along the right side, then passed to the middle, where Mario Lemieux and Paul Kariya were waiting.
"I knew [Kariya] was there," Lemieux said. "I just let it go."
Kariya took the puck and tied the score with 5:10 to go in the period.
It was fitting that Kariya got a chance to help Canada win after coming up short the last time Canada came this close. In 1994, he was stopped by Sweden's Tommy Salo in a shootout, allowing Sweden to take the gold medal. In 1998 Kariya had to miss the Olympics because of a concussion.
"It was tough," Kariya said. "But I'm happy that I finally got an opportunity to play with so many great players and on such a great team."
In some ways, Kariya was a good representative of the 50 years Canada spent waiting for this gold medal. And after eight years, Kariya had to wait just a little longer than everyone else to join the celebration after the game. The other players tossed their gloves and helmets toward the ceiling and let them land where they may, but Kariya--ever the neat freak--carefully removed his equipment before leaving the bench and reveling with his teammates.
"It's an unbelievable feeling," Kariya said. "It's something that I dreamed about as a kid. It's something that I had to let sink in a little bit to know what it means."
Canada went ahead late in the first period when Joe Sakic (the 2000-01 Hart Trophy Winner) whipped a pass to a hard-charging Jarome Iginla on the right side. Iginla did what he has done more than any NHL player this season: put the puck in the net.
The United States tied the score in the second period when a Brian Rafalski shot caromed off Pronger's stick and into the net. But Roenick was sent to the penalty box for tripping Kariya two minutes later, and Sakic scored on the Canadian power play.
The Canadians didn't sit on their 3-2 lead in the third period. They kept on attacking and pushing the Americans back toward their end of the ice.
"I think it was clear that we wanted to use our size and strength against a smaller U.S. team," forward Joe Nieuwendyk said. "I just think our size really wore their defense down."
The Americans also couldn't generate good scoring opportunities for their top line of Brett Hull, Mike Modano and John LeClair. They finished with four shots on goal (Hull had averaged 4.6 shots himself in the first five games).
"They were the key line," Toronto Coach Pat Quinn said. "I wanted either Mario's or Joe's line on them as often as I could, and I think it had a good effect."