Cue the Gretzky effect

TURIN -- If it works once, work it again. But will it work again?

Wayne Gretzky went back to the well yesterday, serving himself up to the Canadian media to take the focus off his hockey team like he did when Team Canada was in trouble early at Salt Lake 2002.

Gretzky watched practice from the bench with his son and then, with an assist from assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, went to work trying to talk Team Canada's way out of its Olympic crisis.

Only four of Canada's players were sent out to deal with double defeats, back-to-back 2-0 shutouts to Switzerland and Finland.

But unlike when he did it four years ago in Salt Lake City, where Gretzky forced the focus elsewhere to take the pressure off his players, he may have managed to do the opposite this time, effectively adding more pressure, particularly on his young players whom he identified as being the problem.

The Team Canada executive director, who picked the players, told the young ones to pick it up, then aimed his comments at the entire team. He said this should be one of the greatest experiences they'll ever have, not an excruciating, horrifying, panic-attack-producing nightmare.

"This should be the greatest week of their lives," Gretzky said. "Just enjoy this. When you're not enjoying the game and having fun, it's hard to make a five-foot pass.

"We need to raise the intensity level, raise the energy level and raise the enjoyment level. We need to get our guys re-energized and refocused."

Gretzky said Canada has to carry more pressure from home than any other country, and more this year than four years ago when our nation won its first Olympic gold in 50 years.

"I thought in 2002 the Olympics were huge, but this year it even seems to be more enormous," he said.

The pressure is turning his team into 23 Jeremy Wotherspoons. "You can feel it in the locker-room and see it in their eyes. We need to loosen the hockey club and have some fun out there."

Gretzky admitted this is not the way you want this to work. The plan is to get better every game. That clearly has not been the case for Canada in this tournament as they head into today's final round-robin game against the Czech Republic and into the quarter-final sudden-death crossover game, which follows the next day.

"The success of the Canadian teams has always been to start slow and get stronger," Gretzky said.

"We got thrown for a bit of a curve," he said of playing well enough for openers against Italy and Germany before losing one of those run-into-a-hot-goalie games against Switzerland.

"What became alarming was not the outcome of the game against Finland but the whole (aspect) of the game. Our emotional level was not at the level of the Finnish hockey club. They were better than us in the first period. They just dominated us. That's what becomes alarming. We weren't ready to play that hockey game at the start of it."

Gretzky said "I'm shocked," then downgraded it to "disappointed" when his team "didn't play with more urgency" in the game against Finland.

"We just have the sense that our team is too tight. The Finns looked just like they were enjoying the game and playing hard. That's what we have to do."

Hitchcock said it's a case of "a lot of young new players to the Olympics learning an on-the-job lesson. It's a whole new level of intensity and tenacity they've never experienced before."

The key as they head to the crossover quarter-final, which could send them home early and, considering they're Canada, in disgrace, is to prevent pure panic at this point.

"I think there's a sense of desperation, a sense of realization that a lot of our players have never seen these players play like this in North America. When they play for their own country with their flag on their sweater, in the Olympics, we're learning the lesson that they take it to a whole other level."

Hitchcock said there is panic.

"It's in trying to catch up to the emotional level. We learned those lessons early in 2002. Our wake-up call came against Sweden in the first game. Here we caught our lesson a little bit late."

But did they catch it? Will there be a 'Gretzky Effect' from this day like there was in Salt Lake? Or is this a home-of-hockey horror story to be continued?