Canada versus U.S., that would be a final

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:35 AM ET

The beaver will be battling the bear when the most logical opponent is the eagle.

Canada versus the Russians is passe and no matter what kind of spin you put on tonight's world junior hockey championship game between the two, you can't come up with the hard glitter of past Canada-Russia showcases.

Canada taking on the United States would have been another matter.

Vancouver fans hollered themselves hoarse at the Americans during their semi-final against the Russians Tuesday. Even considering the inscrutability of fans who can find Steve Moore responsible for Vancouver Canucks' Todd Bertuzzi breaking Moore's neck, it's only partly understandable they'd pounce on the U.S. teens.

There was Jack Johnson's post-goal elbow on Canada's Steve Downie. There is always a sort of upper-middle-class snottiness about U.S. teams that draw the majority of their rosters from that socio-economic group to hoot at.

But if that's the case, isn't it the Americans you'd want to meet for the gold?

Tonight's gold-medal game promises to be a high-intensity affair, no doubt about that. But it can in no way be compared to the run of barn-burners touched off when the gauntlet was first thrown down by the National Hockey League professionals in 1972.

The then-Soviets were the inscrutable stoics from behind the Iron Curtain in those days of the Cold War, the guys with borscht on their breath and malice in their hearts threatening to abscond with a pastime that is almost a Canadian birthright.

It was, in the paranoia of the times, the ideology of the West against that of the Communists -- or in the era's mood, the Good Guys against the Dirty Commie Rats -- for the first time on an even playing field. When Canada narrowly won, it touched off a run of subsequent national and club team encounters that blistered in their intensity.

That's all over now. It's all over because the us-them part has disappeared.

The kid playing for Russia tonight could be the kid up the street playing for a local junior team. When the Olympic players face off next month, the guy you're booing on the big red team could well be a guy whose name is on the back of the NHL sweater you're wearing.

When half the captains of Canadian NHL teams are European, times have surely changed.

Alas, they have not changed that much in terms of the Russian approach to tournaments. As usual, the lads from the steppes have been conditioned to gear their play to the gravity of the game, with their peak performance usually coming in the final.

It would be nice to say Canada arrived at the pivotal game in similar fashion, laying a beating on Finland as convincing as the one the Russians administered to the Americans, that they're in the final with a pick-em bettor's choice. You'd have to ignore a key fact to say it, though.

The Russians, with 12 returnees from last year's championship, are mainly stocked with 19-year-olds. Canada, with one returnee, are largely 18-year-olds.

A year, in terms of physiology and experience at this stage of their lives, almost represents a generation.

It also would be nice to say the Canadian kids have more at stake, except the Russians are hoping to make an impression on the NHL, too.

Outside of the goaltenders, the one guy capable of influencing the result most is Russia's big Evgeni Malkin, the second overall pick (by Pittsburgh) to NHL rookie whiz Alexander Ovechkin of Washington in the 2004 draft.

Defence-oriented Canada doesn't have that kind of one-man threat on the ice. Off it, Brent Sutter's coaching acumen is as important as it ever will be.


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