TURIN, Italy -- Canada's best Winter Games, or the beginning of the downfall of a national icon?
The XX Winter Olympics, starting here today, promise to be an intriguing combination of athleticism, patriotism and -- thanks to the emergence of the NHL gambling scandal -- potentially a whole new level of cynicism toward big-money professional sports.
As low-paid and largely anonymous athletes from sports like speed skating, curling and luge attempt to bring home the most glittering collection of medals in Canadian history, no less than Wayne Gretzky faces the tarnishing of his image as Canada's foremost hockey hero.
Whether or not Gretzky accompanies Team Canada to the Olympic tournament to fulfill his duties as executive director of men's hockey, the ongoing investigation could well attract as much attention as the team's quest for a second straight gold medal.
As for the other sports, well, they'll likely find themselves pushed even further to the background than usual upon the arrival of the NHLers Tuesday.
For now, at least, it's hockey and not figure skating that's embroiled in scandal.
And better them than us, says skating medal hopeful Jeff Buttle of Ontario.
"If we can make it through the Olympics without any scandals, we'll be alright," Buttle said yesterday.
Gretzky may be alright too, of course, if the investigation proves he knew nothing of the illegal operation allegedly financed by his Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach, Rick Tocchet.
If it proves his wife, Janet, did not place bets totalling some half a million dollars, as has also been alleged, The Great One may emerge unscathed, altogether.
Like the competition itself, we'll have to wait and see.
In addition to results sheets, we'll be keeping our eyes on the court dockets and police transcripts.
SHOULD BE FUN
An athlete in Turin steps onto the podium, a suspect in the NHL steps into a prisoner's box.
One handed a medal, one read his rap sheet.
Keeping score should be fun, too.
Canada was shooting for an all-time high 25 medals here, while as many as a dozen NHL players have been reported to be illegally gambling.
Anybody know what the over-under is on both?
As high as the Olympic stakes are for the competitors, they're much higher for Tocchet and Co.
Puts a whole new spin on the thrill-of-victory-and-agony-of-defeat thing, doesn't it?
It also opens the debate about whether millionaire athletes whose dreams are of pro contracts and Stanley Cups should even be rubbing shoulders with those who hold tightly to the Olympic ideal.
"The argument could be made," Canadian men's curling rep Brad Gushue said, not committing, either way. "I'm pretty excited about the fact we could get a chance to meet Joe Sakic and Martin Brodeur and all those guys. Then again, these guys are making a lot of money and maybe wouldn't think as much about this event as an amateur athlete."
Gushue's right-hand man, New Brunswick's Russ Howard, has no trouble with NHLers playing in the Games -- now if they'd only stop stealing all the attention.
"It's not fair, because we've done as well in curling over the years as the hockey has," Howard said. "There's almost as many curlers in this country as hockey players. So it's always boggled my mind the coverage hockey gets."
It appears it will only get worse in Turin.
To borrow Howard's own catch-phrase, the spotlight on hockey is about to "hurry, hard!"
Let the Games begin.