On top of the World

Sidney Crosby lifts his team—and the nation—in what might go down as the greatest game of all time

Charlie Gillis with Nancy Macdonald
On top of the World
Photograph by Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

After the Golden Goal, when jubilant members of Team Canada had finished mobbing Sidney Crosby, when the sticks had been gathered and the players made their way to the long blue carpet for their medals, a pleasing sight unfolded in Canada Hockey Place. The crowd began bobbing, twisting, to the rhythm of the Black Eyed Peas, and for a moment, you could look around at thousands of red maple leafs—on flags, placards, T-shirts and jerseys—brought to life simultaneously, as if by a gust of wind.

Down on the ice, the man of the moment looked up and smiled. Minutes earlier, Crosby had slid the puck under U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller for what will surely count among the greatest goals in Canadian hockey history—right up there with Paul Henderson’s in 1972. Now, as he stood at the end of the line awaiting his Olympic gold medal, the crowd began chanting his name. “Cros-by! Cros-by! Cros-by!”

There are moments in sports that define an athlete, and some that define a country. But seldom do the two converge as neatly as they did in the men’s hockey final at the 2010 Winter Games, where Canada defeated the U.S. 3-2. Crosby’s goal seven minutes, 40 seconds into overtime cut short an improbable comeback by the Americans and unleashed four years’ worth of pent-up emotions, dating back to Canada’s ignominious defeat at the Winter Games in Turin. Those feelings had only deepened in the early days of these Olympics, as Canadians had been alternately pitied and mocked for various glitches, not to mention our disappointing medal haul that first week.

Now, suddenly, we were on top of the world, winners of a record 14 gold medals at our own Games and Olympic champions in the sport we invented. “In Canada, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime to play hockey in the Olympics and win a gold medal,” Crosby told reporters with the gleaming bauble still hanging from his neck. “You dream of that moment a thousand times growing up. For it to come true is pretty amazing.”

Out in the arena concourse, fans hugged, cried and high-fived. Some confessed to panic after U.S. forward Zach Parise had tied the score with 24 seconds left, sensing the prelude to an epic defeat. Others claimed they never broke faith, and indulged in a bit of un-Canadian chest-thumping. “In other years you might have thought: ‘Oh, we’re going to lose,’ ” said Brian Miklaucic of Ottawa. “Not this year. This year it was ours.”

The last-minute dramatics made a fitting end to the hockey tournament as a whole, which had featured operatic levels of triumph, humiliation and intrigue. Who would have predicted the rise of countries like Switzerland and Slovakia at the expense of established hockey powers like the Czechs and the Swedes? Who knew that the Americans were this good—not just fast but mean?

Finally, and most importantly, who would have bet on the utter collapse of Russia in its long-anticipated showdown with Team Canada?

If you had to put a banner on it, the word would be renewal. Young stars like Crosby, Jonathan Toews, Drew Doughty and Shea Weber emerged during these two weeks as Team Canada’s leadership core for years to come. In goal, the great Martin Brodeur gave way to Roberto Luongo, who backstopped his team through its last four games. And Canada isn’t the only country enjoying a new golden age, notes Steve Yzerman, the executive director of Team Canada. “We’re entering into an incredible period with the talent all around the world, the Ovechkins, the Malkins, the Patrick Kanes, Zach Parises,” he said. “The game is in a good position now.”

On top of the World
Photograph by Luis Acosta/ AFP/ Getty Images

For Yzerman and his coach Mike Babcock, for Crosby and the rest of the Canadian players, the Games had been both a victory and an ordeal. For most of their time in Vancouver, the players had been confined to the athletes’ village, so fervent was the reaction when they ventured forth. Still, Yzerman marvelled at the maturity his players demonstrated amid this cauldron of pressure and hype. And in sports, as in life, poise does not occur spontaneously. On any good team, it starts at the top.

To win a gold medal for Canada, you must first defeat history—and a lot of hockey dogma. When Yzerman took over the job as executive director of the national men’s program in 2007, he was determined to learn from the mistakes of his predecessor, an icon whose career as an international hockey manager had not exactly ended in a shower of bouquets. Having chosen the team that won gold at the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Wayne Gretzky departed with a figurative whimper four years later after the team he fashioned was knocked out of the quarter-finals in Turin, finishing ninth of 14 teams.

Gretzky had built that team on his own concept of character, salting the lineup with rough-and-tumble players like Todd Bertuzzi and Ryan Smyth, who are a lot better suited to the marathon NHL season than the whirlwind of an Olympic tournament. When Yzerman announced his final 23-man roster on Dec. 30 in Saskatoon, it was clear he intended to turn the page. The lineup featured names more well known to fans from the annual world junior championship than from Hockey Night in Canada. Doughty. Toews. Marc-André Fleury. Duncan Keith. Mike Richards. Brent Seabrook. There were nods to experience, but they were just that—nods. Veteran defenceman Scott Niedermayer would be captain, while the towering Chris Pronger, who had played injured in Turin, would get a shot at Olympic redemption. Those two, plus Brodeur and Calgary Flames forward Jarome Iginla, were the only holdovers from the gold medal team of 2002.

As ever, players not on the list were cause for second-guessing, or accusations of bias. Mike Green, the leading scorer among NHL defencemen, was left off. So was Vincent Lecavalier, a former Olympian whose slow start to the NHL season hadn’t dimmed his star in his home province of Quebec. Yzerman’s lineup was still rich in offensive stars like Crosby, Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley. But mainly it reflected his determination to seek out a new generation of players who combine talent with grit, creating a core of national team leaders for many years to come. Corey Perry, a winger with the Anaheim Ducks who had 59 points in 62 games before the Olympics, has never been shy to drop the gloves. If you squint while watching Ryan Getzlaf, you’d swear you were looking at Mark Messier, circa 1989.

Today, Yzerman admits he did some second-guessing of his own, wondering how his youngsters would cope. “We had so many good players to choose from,” he said after Sunday’s game. “And once you get into the tournament, there’s nothing you can do.” The Canadians had come in the prohibitive favourites, with odds that made you wonder if people who bet on hockey ever actually watch it. Two dollars wagered in Vegas on Canada winning gold got you only one in return; the Russians were next at 2-1 odds, while the U.S. and the Swedes were tied for third at 6-1. That might explain why others, particularly the Americans, were able to paint Canada as the ice-borne equivalent of the Bismarck. “To play a Canadian team that’s favoured, that’s got all the talent they do, that’s a great test for a bunch of blue-collar Americans,” said U.S. forward David Backes. “Who knows how many Hall of Famers they have on that team, guys that print their all-star tickets every year?”

If Backes’s flattery didn’t raise the players’ jitters, the scene that greeted them when they arrived in Vancouver surely did. Most had landed within 24 hours of their first game, getting a single, 35-minute practice in before an early evening start against Norway. It was no Summit Series showdown—defenceman Ole Kristian Tollefsen, a bubble player with the Philadelphia Flyers, was Norway’s only player with NHL experience. Yet 45 minutes before game time, Team Canada emerged for the pre-game warm-up to find the building two-thirds full of crimson-clad supporters cheering and hoisting the ubiquitous “It’s Our Game” signs.

As the teams lined up for the opening faceoff, the roar in Canada Hockey Place approximated a jet engine on takeoff, leaving the “Hall of Famers” on Canada’s bench almost as nervous as the overmatched Norwegians. On his first shift of the tournament, the normally deft Niedermayer bobbled the puck coming out of his own end. Crosby’s first pass to Rick Nash arrived about six inches behind the big winger’s skates. Getzlaf threw a pass to the far end boards for Perry, only to have the linesman bring it back with a tactful reminder about international hockey’s no-touch icing rule. At the intermission, locked in a scoreless tie with the world’s 11th-ranked team, the players left the ice staring at their skates. Clearly they needed something—or someone—to settle them down.

From across the rink, with his helmet of Celtic red hair, Mike Babcock looks young enough that you can picture him in his days as a player with the Saskatoon Blades, or a star defenceman with McGill University. But up close, the 46-year-old coach is all windburn and battle scars, spouting verbiage cribbed from Reggie Dunlop of Slapshot fame. In Babcock’s world, the puck isn’t a puck, it’s a “pill.” Rookies don’t mature, they “get whiskers.” Players don’t get nervous, they “pucker up.”

On top of the World
Photograph by Brian Howell

Whatever Babcock said between periods to un-pucker his charges, it worked. He also tweaked his lineup, reuniting Crosby with Jarome Iginla and Rick Nash on a line he’d tried with mixed results during the summer training camp. That worked too, and at 2:30 of the second frame, with Canada on the power play, Iginla took a pass from Crosby and fired a laser past Norwegian goaltender Pal Grotnes. Canada never looked back, and the 8-0 final score reflected their domination of a game in which they allowed just 15 shots. Crosby finished with three assists, Nash with a goal and a helper. Iginla had a hat trick.

Still, the following evening, during a team dinner at an upscale restaurant on the city’s west side, Babcock was brooding. Over a glass of red wine, he fretted aloud about controlling the nerves of his younger players amid all the hoopla. “I don’t know how great a job we did at that last night, to tell you the truth,” he said. “When you’re at an event this big, in your own country, it’s very easy for your emotions to get away from you.” Truth was, there were moments in Vancouver when the atmosphere took possession of the coach himself—a three-time Stanley Cup finalist. In the past few days, he said, he’d been thinking about his youth in Saskatchewan, and his early days as a coach at the University of Lethbridge: “If you’d ever said to me then you’re going to be the coach of Canada’s Olympic team in 2010, I’d have said, ‘Come on.’ ”

Babcock had good reason to worry. With only two days gone in the tournament, the players could scarcely venture into daylight without causing a mob scene. Their “top secret” plans for the team dinner drew autograph seekers to the doors of db Bistro Moderne, which needed security guards and two city police officers to keep the intruders at bay. Several people tried to crash the event, claiming they had reservations. One guy claimed he’d left his bag inside, said co-owner David Sidoo. “It turned out to be the bartender’s brother.”

By then, the leadership group within the team was starting to worry, too. Concerned that the players wouldn’t have enough time for planning and practice, Niedermayer scotched plans for a team outing to one of the other Olympic events. If he sensed trouble over the horizon, Canada found it the next evening when they ran into the first of a string of hot goaltenders. Jonas Hiller of Team Switzerland withstood a 27-shot barrage in the first two periods to keep his team within two goals. The tireless Swiss eventually tied the game, sending it, improbably and entertainingly, into overtime, and then, to a shootout.

Hiller and Martin Brodeur each stopped the first three shooters the opposing team sent. Then, following a hunch, Babcock took advantage of IIHF rules allowing a team to choose any shooter it likes for the tiebreaker, sending Crosby for his second shot of the night. This time the 22-year-old from Cole Harbour, N.S., made no mistake, feinting with a shoulder before whipping in a wrist shot past the goaltender’s stick side. “We just thought he’d had a look at [Hiller] once and he’d get him the second time,” shrugged Babcock later. “It was that simple.”

Still, the close call appeared to have rattled the players’ confidence. More importantly, it had deprived the team of an all-important point during the preliminary round. Unless Canada could beat the last country in its round-robin pool, it would likely have to play an extra game to qualify for the quarter-finals. And that team was the United States.

Reflexive anti-Americanism is our Achilles heel in this country. Liberal MP Carolyn Parrish may have been tactless to declare her hatred for Uncle Sam, but let’s face it, she was hardly the first Canadian to think it. What you don’t often hear is Americans returning the sentiment—especially ones who make a living on the hard-earned loonies of their northern neighbours.

Enter Ryan Kesler, an antagonistic but effective forward from Livonia, Mich., who in his NHL life plays for the Vancouver Canucks. The day before his team’s round-robin game against Canada, the 25-year-old served up what is known in the NHL as a “bulletin-board quote”—the sort of birdbrained insult the other guys post in their dressing room as motivation for an upcoming game. The subject was Canadians, and Kesler was in a mood to ramble. “I hate them,” he said, not specifying whether he was talking about the men’s hockey team, or Canadians in general. “It’s a big rivalry. Obviously, Canadians, it’s their game. I wouldn’t say I ‘hate them.’ You have respect for the other team. But Canadians expect to win the gold and anything less is not good enough. It’s going to be fun to try to knock them off.”

On top of the World
Photograph by Brian Howell

It was not the Americans’ first attempt to stir up emotions in the dressing room down the hall. With each media availability, the U.S. players were laying on a little more of their underdog hokum, hoping to heap more pressure on Team Canada. Even GM Brian Burke, still mourning the loss of his son in a car accident, got in on the act. “You all cover hockey,” he told reporters on the opening day of the tournament. “Write it down and put it in a hat like Survivor. Who’s going to win? There’s not going to be many people that put us down.”

The Seabiscuit routine didn’t hold up to scrutiny, of course. The U.S. team featured some of the most dynamic, talented young players in the game—Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Paul Stastny. On the back end were veterans like Brian Rafalski, a two-time all-star, and emerging stars Ryan Suter and Jack Johnson. And they had Ryan Miller, whose uncanny calm between the posts in Buffalo—along with his gaudy .930 save percentage—make him a good bet to win the Vezina Trophy this year as the NHL’s best goalie. The oddsmakers had rated them even with Sweden, and when your chances are as good as the defending Olympic champion, you’re a poor excuse for an underdog.

Some of the Canadians grew irked with the trash talk—“I don’t do he said-she said,” snapped Pronger when asked about it. But instead of taking Kesler & Co. directly to the woodshed in their preliminary-round game, the Canadians faltered in the first minutes under a quick American forecheck, while their goaltender seemed to take leave of his senses. Freed from the NHL rules that restrict puck-handling by the goalies, Brodeur unleashed his inner defenceman, playing the puck off the glass just 30 seconds in, only to hit an American player and have to freeze it. On the ensuing faceoff, Rafalski took a shot from the point that deflected off Crosby and into the lower corner of the net.

Eric Staal tied it at 8:53, but 22 seconds later Brodeur flubbed another clearing attempt, batting the puck straight to Rafalski, who fired his second into the open cage. The teams traded goals again, but when Jamie Langenbrunner potted a power-play marker at 7:09 to give the Americans a two-goal lead it was clear Canada was in trouble. Miller was badly outplaying Brodeur, despite facing double the number of shots. Crosby drew Canada within one with three minutes left, and Babcock pulled Brodeur for the extra attacker, but that merely set up the final insult for Canadian fans: an empty net goal by Ryan Kesler to make it 5-3 U.S.A.

It wasn’t a calamity. But for the record 10.6 million Canadians who tuned in to watch, it sure felt like one. Canada would play a qualifier against Germany to make the playoff round, a game they won in a walk. But to get anywhere near a medal they would now have to go through the Russians. If there was one country that had Canada’s number at international tournaments in recent years—whose raw talent met and arguably exceeded this country’s—it was Russia. Nothing about this tournament was going to be easy.

When the Games officially launched on Feb. 12, everything about the Russians seemed big. Their 179-strong contingent of athletes was inflated by a vast entourage of supporters and journalists who proudly wore its red-and-white, leaf-embossed apparel (apparently IOC rules forbidding team garb in the press box have fallen into disuse). And no one defined the country’s outsized presence better than its high-rolling men’s hockey players, described by one U.S. writer as a team “jacked up on oligarchic flash.”

Led by Alexander Ovechkin, the effervescent winger with the Washington Capitals, and Evgeni Malkin, a six-foot-three, 192-lb. centre with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Russians were many people’s picks to win the gold. The lineup was filled out with NHL stars like Sergei Gonchar and Pavel Datsyuk, plus nine players from Russia’s new Kontinental Hockey League. But its plot lines all revolved around Ovechkin, hockey’s unfrozen caveman who has been the NHL’s MVP the last two seasons and is known to mock the comparative blandness of his long-time rival, Sidney Crosby. (Crosby, playing to type, only recently acknowledged the existence of the rivalry.)

In Vancouver, Ovechkin turned up the hype to 11. In his first game against Latvia, he took to the ice wearing skates with golden laces and a muppet-like cartoon creature airbrushed on the blade holders. The Russians manhandled Latvia, 8-2, but in Olympic hockey, one-man bands almost never carry the day. So it was with the Russians, who two nights later sent Ovechkin out three times in a shootout against Slovakia, only to have him lose control of the puck twice and hit the goaltender, Jaroslav Halak, once. The result was a shocking 2-1 preliminary round loss, and some open bickering on the Russian bench.

On top of the World
Photograph by Todd Korol/Reuters

So in the run-up to the most anticipated game in four years, neither team was feeling invincible. And when the hockey historians look back at this much-ballyhooed showdown, they will probably find that the key to its stunning outcome lay not in those 60 minutes but in Canada’s previous, already-forgotten qualifier against Germany. In that match, Babcock struck upon the line formulations he used against the Russians, and that carried him through to the end of the tournament. For the first time since the Games began, he took Rick Nash off Crosby’s wing and moved him to a line with Toews and the grinding forward Richards. The shuffle reverberated throughout the lineup, as Eric Staal took the left wing with Crosby and Iginla, while Brenden Morrow joined Anaheim teammates Getzlaf and Perry. Only the all-San Jose line of Thornton, Heatley and Patrick Marleau stayed intact.

Babcock’s biggest move, though, was to change goaltenders, lifting the Olympic gold medallist and World Cup champion in favour of Luongo, whose resumé is noticeably short of championship runs. How he would perform in a big-game situation was an open question, but the move pleased Canuck fans, who howl “Luuuuuu” every time their hero touches the puck. And the immediate result was an old-time drubbing against the Germans. Staal finished the game with three assists. Richards had a goal and a helper. Toews got an assist and was impressive at both ends of the rink (in an added quirk, Shea Weber, who can shoot the puck at more than 103 mph, was credited with a goal after blasting a shot clean through the net; arena officials later checked it to find nothing but black marks on one of the spaces in the netting).

The subtleties of Babcock’s decisions are easily overlooked, because they boiled down to the emergence of those young players in whom Yzerman had placed his faith six weeks earlier. For days, reporters had hectored the coach about which winger might best complement his top forward pairing of Crosby and Nash. Instead, Babcock had swapped Staal for Nash, keeping Crosby and Iginla together (a fortuitous move, as history would show). And with success came happiness. “It’s starting to feel more comfortable,” said Staal after the game. “We feel more like a team every time we’re on the ice.”

They were certainly more like a team than the Russians. Ovechkin and company arrived that Wednesday night to find Canada Hockey Place crackling with tension as thousands of their own fans had paid the $2,500 scalpers were asking for the chance to watch a modern classic. Russia had both recent and ancient history on its side—it had won the last two world championships, and had lost only once to Canada in the Olympics since the first Winter Games in 1924. Yet it was the Canadians who flew out of the gate, hitting every white jersey in sight, forcing Russia’s smooth-skating defencemen to throw away the puck for fear of getting creamed. The game wasn’t three minutes old when veteran defenceman Dan Boyle broke down the left side, sending a gift-wrapped pass to Getzlaf for a tap-in. Boyle then scored himself at 12:09, Nash followed up 44 seconds later, and the rout was on. With each goal, a guttural, tooth-rattling roar rose from the crowd. When the smoke had cleared, the score was 7-3.

This time, mercifully, it was not the Canadians leaving the tournament under a cloud of recriminations. Back in Moscow, the press began piling on Russian coach Vyacheslav Bykov and his cast of preening superstars, prompting a sarcastic rebuttal from the coach. “Let’s get the guillotine or gallows out, yeah,” he snapped to Sovietsky Sport. “We have 35 people in the squad. Let’s cut them all up on Red Square.” Some suggested the players had indulged too heavily in the Vancouver nightlife, others that Bykov was under Ovechkin’s spell (the 24-year-old played a team-high 21 minutes without getting so much as an assist). But it was a headline in Pravda that told the story best: “The Red Machine runs into a Maple Tree.”

Dan Boyle isn’t sure where Slovakia is. “Used to be part of Czechoslovakia, so it would have to be near the Czech Republic,” he grinned the night before his team’s semifinal against the tiny landlocked republic. But he knows what its hockey players are made of. They showed their mettle in that shootout win over Russia, then went on to beat Norway in a qualifier and stun Sweden—the defending Olympic champions—with a 4-3 win in the quarter-finals.

By the time Canada met them in the semifinals, they’d emerged as the sleeper team of the tournament—ironic considering the wealth of NHL talent in their lineup. How a team with stars like Marian Gaborik (eighth in NHL scoring), Zdeno Chara (last year’s Norris Trophy winner) and Pavol Demitra (10 NHL seasons with 20 or more goals) slips under the radar is a mystery. But the Slovaks did it in Vancouver. And if the game against Canada was anything to go by, it was their character, not their talent, that everyone underestimated.

Boyle and his teammates did not take the Slovaks lightly so much as take a late-game nap. They leapt out to a 3-0 lead, all three goals coming with one or more of Canada’s big forwards crowding goalie Jaroslav Halak’s crease, a game plan devised after Canada’s associate coach, Ken Hitchcock, watched hours of video footage of the Slovaks. But then, in the last half of the third, the team sat back and let the Slovaks take over. With 8:25 left—and fans in Canada Hockey Place, ominously, chanting “We want gold!”—Slovak defenceman Lubomir Visnovsky poked the puck past a sprawling Roberto Luongo, reviving hope on the Slovak bench. A goal by Michal Handzus during a scramble in the crease drew the Slovaks within one.

On top of the World
Photograph by Scott Gardner/Canadian Press

Then, with 10 seconds left, Luongo was forced to summon a miracle. Halak had left for the extra attacker and Demitra had set himself up off the left post during one final flurry. As if guided by an unseen hand, the puck bounced Demitra’s way and he smacked it toward the net while Luongo was down. Somehow, the goaltender caught a piece of it with his trapper, sending it in an arc across the crease and out of harm’s way. “I hit it good,” Demitra said later, shaking his head. “I don’t know how Lu could have made this save.”

Suffice to say, it wasn’t the prelude Canada had in mind for Sunday’s gold medal classic against the U.S. “You can’t win if you stop playing,” Babcock said tersely. “In a tournament like this, the teams are just too good.” The Americans, by contrast, had dispatched the Finns 6-1 in their semifinal, scoring all six goals in the first period and never looking back. It was hard to imagine them letting anyone back into a game, or letting Canada off the hook should it replicate its effort against Slovakia.

In the media and on the streets of Vancouver, all talk had turned to hockey. Scalpers were commanding $4,000 for prime tickets to the game. Bars downtown were taking reservations just to watch it on TV, and the Sunday Province was packed with advance coverage. One story quoted Kesler predicting he’d score on his Canucks teammate Roberto Luongo if given an opportunity. “He has a couple of areas I think we can exploit,” said Kesler, unbowed apparently from the boos he’d received for his earlier remarks. “And I’m sure not going to keep any secrets [from teammates]. We’re going to get in his face and make it hard for him.”

On game day, the lower bowl of Canada Hockey Place was once again a sea of red jerseys, speckled with flags and signs (one young woman held up a placard that read “Sid, Check Out My Soft Hands”). Gordie Howe was in the house. So was Prime Minister Stephen Harper and a host of celebrities, from William Shatner to Michael J. Fox.

It took a while for the teams to work out the nervous energy, resulting in erratic play that tested both goaltenders. Less than five minutes into the game, Miller got a pad down to stop Doughty, who had snuck past the U.S. defence to take a pass from Staal. Four minutes later, Luongo narrowly avoided a goal by freezing the puck against the post with his skate. By then, however, Canada was applying the body with gusto, and at the 12:50 mark, it paid off: Toews smacked in the rebound off a shot by Mike Richards.

The goal brought the crowd to life, and Team Canada fed off its energy into the second. At 7:13, Perry caught a break when U.S. defenceman Ryan Whitney tried to stop a centring pass from Ryan Getzlaf, teeing up the puck for the Peterborough, Ont., native to hammer into the open net. On this night, no one seemed inclined to jinx the game by chanting “We want gold.” A good thing, because the two-goal lead was short-lived. Five and a half minutes after Perry’s goal, Patrick Kane got a shot away that Kesler—who else?—tipped under Luongo’s arm.

After the game, Babcock would make it clear his team had not tried to sit on its lead. Teams who are ahead stop initiating play because no one wants to make a mistake, he explained; it boils down to instinct. Whatever the reason, the third was all U.S., as the Americans poured eight shots on Luongo in their bid to tie the game. With 1:35 left on the clock, and the play advancing toward Canada’s end, Ron Wilson made the bold move of pulling Miller early. Canada succeeded in clearing the puck twice, but in the final minute, Joe Pavelski won a draw in Canada’s end, and the scramble was on. Getzlaf stumbled, leaving space for Kane to circle off the boards and let go a shot. The puck hit Langenbrunner’s skate and squirted toward about nine inches of space between Luongo’s right foot and the post. All Parise had to do was poke it in.

To feel a crowd drained of joy in such short order is an awesome thing. IOC protocol requires that the building run the same sound-and-light celebrations for both teams, so when the Americans tied with 24 seconds left, the arena’s giant foghorn went off for the benefit of a few hundred American fans. It seemed a mockery of the goals that had come before.

On top of the World
Photograph by Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press

The question now was whether Canada could recover, and who, if any, of the players would step up in the four-on-four overtime. It had not been Crosby’s best tournament. “He was great at times, and other times good,” was Yzerman’s cryptic assessment of his star forward in the aftermath. But the torch had been passed, and Crosby is a player who takes his place in the lineage of great Canadian players seriously. Gretzky or Lemieux or Joe Sakic would have felt beholden to score that goal. So should he.

Seven and a half minutes into the overtime, in a harmless looking play begun by Jarome Iginla, he saw his chance. Iginla had reversed the flow of play after the U.S. defence had broken up a rush, and was carrying the puck along the boards to Miller’s right, heading back toward the blue line. “I could hear Sid yelling ‘Iggy! Iggy! Iggy!’ ” he later said. With that, Iginla spun around American defenceman Ryan Suter, falling to his knees as he swept the puck into the middle of the ice. Crosby’s contribution amounted to two touches of the stick: he moved it from his backhand to his forehand, taking a shot that caught Miller completely off guard, slipping directly between the goaltender’s feet. “I wasn’t really aiming for anything,” he said. “I didn’t see it go in the net. I just heard everyone screaming.”

No wonder. For so many here, and across the country, it was the goal that made the whole Olympic exercise worthwhile—the crowds, the hassle, even the money. As Crosby left the “mixed zone” where athletes do their media interviews, a few dozen of the blue-jacketed volunteers who made the Games run gathered to watch him go. For three weeks, these people had served food, hauled garbage and squired visitors around Canada Hockey Place. Now they lined the pathway to Team Canada’s dressing room, and as the young player passed, they gave him a round of grateful applause.