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    Tuesday, February 17, 1998

    Nothing meaningless about wins

    By AL STRACHAN -- At The Olympics

      When Team Canada came here, it knew it could lose the first three games and still advance to the next round.
     While no one expected Canada to do that, there were those -- even some on the team -- who thought a 1-2 start was quite possible. But no one thought it would make any difference.
      Once Canada got immersed into the Olympic surroundings, however, the whole approach changed. Suddenly, the tournament was no longer in the long-range planning stages. Now it was very real and the world's eyes were on Nagano.
     And all of a sudden, it became important to get off to a good start. There was a new style of game to be implemented. There were seedings to be considered. But most of all, there was pride at stake.
     Nationalism is the essence of the Olympic Games and with all the athletes from all the sports in one place, there's a tremendous amount of peer pressure. It's not as if you're in San Jose playing for the Sharks and you're eliminated from the Stanley Cup playoffs, giving a few people cause to be upset for a day before they concern themselves with something else.
     Lose at the Olympics, even in the early games of the tournament, and you're going to have it rubbed in, not only from the country that beat you, but from every country in the tourney.
     So all of a sudden, those games that seemed so meaningless back in North America became important, not only on their own behalf but also for their impact on future games.
     John LeClair of Team USA was one of the few to go against the grain. "I never believed that the first games didn't mean anything," he said. "You want to win all your games. You don't want to lose. You want to get that winning feeling going."
     All of this is a way of saying that Canada's 3-0 start shouldn't be taken lightly because they were "meaningless" games. The opener against Belarus was a foregone conclusion -- as is the next game against Kazakhstan. But that win against Sweden was a significant psychological victory over a squad whose players had been telling anyone who would listen that they were finally ready to beat Canada.
     And then came the game against the Americans, a team that dearly wanted to prove its World Cup victory was no fluke.
     But the game turned in the first period when Canada killed off a 5-on-3 situation for a minute and 40 seconds. "That was a huge kill for us," Team Canada coach Marc Crawford said. "It was a momentum changer."
     But there was more. When Rob Zamuner came back on to the ice to put the teams at equal strength, the Canadians went on the attack and Wayne Gretzky made a lovely pass to set up Zamuner for the opening goal.
     The Americans tried to fight back in the second period but this time, Steve Yzerman and Keith Primeau combined for a short-handed goal. Now the lead was 2-0 and the Americans were reeling.
     Joe Sakic made it 3-0 before the period ended and in the third, Primeau popped his second of the night to wrap it up. Brett Hull, who couldn't beat Patrick Roy on a series of chances during that 5-on-3, finally did it when it didn't matter any more, and Canada came away with a 4-1 victory.
     As a result, when people here start talking hockey, the conversation usually begins with two points. One, they love the spectacle. Top notch hockey on the large ice surface without all the skill-killing that goes on in North America is magnificent to watch. Two, they're in awe of Canada's strength.
     The Canadians have won nothing, although their crossover-round match against Kazakhstan is almost as good as a bye. But they look like the gold-medal favorites -- which they weren't when the tournament started. They've adapted their game to the large rink and they've revived the usual pride that accrues to hockey teams that represent our country.
     The Americans are the World Cup champions but the Canadians are determined to regain their status as the world's top hockey nation.
     There are other teams capable of claiming that status for themselves. But they haven't done it yet and the way the Canadians are playing, they won't do it in the immediate future.