February 28, 2006
Best team Canada ever built
'All of Canada has to be happy for these athletes'
BILL LANKHOF -- Toronto Sun
Heroes' welcome

It was difficult to figure out which was flying higher last night -- the aircraft that returned Canada's Olympic team to Toronto, or the spirit and pride of the friends, fans and family who greeted them.

Pearson Airport was rampant in red, white and the beaming cherubial faces of the best Olympic team this nation has ever assembled.

So, who ends up stealing the show. Sixteen-month-old Owen, son of Canadian hockey player Becky Kellar, decked out in his tiny Team Canada shirt. Grown men smiled. Women cooed. Cute can do that.

"It's been 30 days, six hours and four minutes since we've seen mom," said husband Nolan, "not that I've been counting."

The athletes' arrival was about 90 minutes behind schedule -- making it one of the few times the Canadians haven't hit the finish line as anticipated since the Olympics began.

GOLDEN SMILE

Jeff Buttle wore a golden smile as Canadian Olympic Committee president Mike Chambers called his bronze medal "one of the grittiest performances that I can ever remember."

Dominique Maltais, our snowboard cross medallist, was there and so was the women's gold medal hockey team, lots of moms, pops and Jason Ellis, Cherie Piper's boyfriend.

"This is super-special. I can't tell you how proud I am of her," Ellis said as he waited with roses.

"He's trying to be sweet," said Piper, giving him a hug. "I'm looking forward to spending some time at home. It's been such fun but it'll be nice to kick back for a while."

Chambers was looking very comfy for a guy who was sitting out on a limb early in the Games.

"I did the mid-Olympic press conference and a lot of people were skeptical we could hit the COC prediction," said Buttle. Then it seemed 25 medals and a third-place finish were about as likely as a goal from the Canadian men's hockey team.

"All of Canada has to be happy for these athletes. It's through some incredible efforts that the COC's goal has been reached," Chambers told an impromptu airport press conference. He didn't yell: "I told you, so!" But, he could have.

There were so many classic moments. Chambers said one of the most important may be Becky Scott's election to the athletes' committee of the IOC. "It makes sense that the other athletes wouldn't have elected a beacon against drugs if not most of them weren't dedicated to drug-free performances," said Chambers.

Classic moments like Cindy Klassen's five medals. Short-track speedskating and getting so hyped the fun police had to tell the women's hockey team to shush-it.

"We shared the same building as the men's hockey team and whenever we weren't playing we'd be in there cheering. The atmosphere was just crazy," said Vicky Sunohara, "one time they had to tell us to quiet down because the men's team was sleeping ... "

And, a skeptic might suggest they never woke up. But not Chambers. Not during a celebration of excellence Canada has never before seen.

"These are storied Games for our athletes; storied Games for our committee ... storied memories for everyone from Newfoundland to Vancouver," said Chambers.

The Games also held moments of pathos. Last night, Sami Jo Small stood smiling bravely while her heart was breaking. Unlike men's hockey, the alternate third goalie on the women's team doesn't get a medal.

'IT'S AN INJUSTICE'

"I felt so sad sitting on the (players') bench all by myself while everyone else was getting their medals. I didn't lose it during the anthem but I did later that night. I don't want to take anything away from the other girls but the hardest part is not being able to show people your medal. They have to change it before Vancouver. It's an injustice."

At least, she came home a winner, if not a decorated one. That's more than the Canadian men's hockey team can say. Some of them returned home yesterday, too -- then had to wait two hours for the luggage after a pipe burst, turning their baggage container into a block of ice.

It's like they had Charlie Brown at quarterback -- a final footnote to a heart-rending chapter in Canada's otherwise storybook Olympics.