While you're watching the men's hockey tournament at the Salt Lake City Olympics, please find some pity in your heart for your neighbors to the north. Despite first-place predictions from Sports Illustrated and the Sporting News, Canada's national team will once again fail to capture the gold. Afterward, amid the rending of jerseys and gnashing of mouthguards, Canadians will conclude that the skill, the speed, and the teamwork of the sharper European squads triumphed. And they'll be wrong on every count.
Skill isn't the Canadians' problem; spryness is. The still-wondrous Steve Yzerman has a bum knee; Mario Lemieux has been a part-time player all year; Al MacInnis still has the NHL's hardest point shot but not much else; and Eric Lindros, perhaps wary of registering his eighth career concussion, skates like he's balancing a cup of hot cocoa on his head.
Fortunately, there's a solution: Wayne Gretzky, the team's general manager, could fly to Colorado and beg goalie Patrick Roy to join the team. Roy recused himself from Team Canada before the tournament because, many sportswriters suspect, he wasn't guaranteed the starting spot over Curtis Joseph and Martin Brodeur. Roy might be arrogant but in this case he's right. He's the one player with the specific combination of skill and intimidation to steal a gold medal from the Europeans.
Without Roy, Team Canada looks balanced enough to beat anyone over a long season. But that's just the problem: The Olympic gold-medal tournament isn't a long season. It's a pitiless, weeklong test of wills where the slightest psychological advantage can carry a team for the rest of the tournament. Roy has what baseball announcers like to call a closer's mentality—he only gets really interested when the season or a title is on the line. He's won the Stanley Cup four times, the first two by leading mediocre teams through the playoffs, and had a Mariano Rivera-quality streak of 10 overtime wins in a row in 1993. And nobody plays postseason head games better. Other goalies curse and slash their opponents; Roy, supremely confident, grins, chats, and occasionally flirts. In the 1993 Stanley Cup final, after pilfering a sure goal from Los Angeles Kings sniper Tomas Sandstrom, Roy sat on the ice and winked at him. It was as close as hockey comes to a homoerotic moment, and Sandstrom, clearly unnerved, was shut out for the rest of the series.
Roy's biggest advantage in Olympic play is mechanical. He can warp his knees at ungodly angles to maintain his butterfly stance. That allows him to play deep in the net—a style that's usually disastrous for NHL goalies, but perfect for international play, where the ice surface is larger and the style of play more lateral. By contrast, Joseph tends to play the puck instead of the angle of the shooter. That plays into the hands of the Europeans, who love to make deep crossing passes to draw the goalie out of the crease. Brodeur's greatest virtue—he can handle the puck better than anyone who's ever played—is also negated by the larger international rinks.
Roy has a third advantage over the others: stamina. Why will that matter during the Salt Lake tourney? Well, the NHL front office refused to shorten the league's regular season, or even cancel its meaningless All-Star sham, to accommodate the Olympics. So Olympic athletes will play the entire gold-medal tournament in one week, allowing for little rest between starts. Roy is better suited to carry the load. When he's on his game, he can play most pucks without flinching. Joseph's punishing style takes a heavier toll. In his last international tournament, the 1996 World Cup, he wilted in the final game against the Americans. And given the larger ice size, the lack of speed of the Canadian backcheckers, and rules that favor offense, the Canadian goalie is bound to see a lot of rubber during the Games.
Why didn't Roy win the gold for Team Canada at the 1998 Olympics? In the semifinals that year he lost an overtime shootout to Dominic Hasek of the Czech Republic by one goal. Canada's likely to play the Czechs again this year, but Roy can win a rematch, even against the mighty Hasek. First, he didn't really get outplayed in 1998. Hasek benefited from a superbly coached defense, and he got away with throwing his stick during a penalty shot, an obvious foul that escaped the referees' attention. Second, Hasek's spectacular NHL numbers have slipped the past couple of seasons. Roy's, on the other hand, have remained relatively constant, in part because of his late conversion to diet and conditioning.
Unfortunately, the draft-Roy movement is probably a lost cause. Gretzky is about as likely to beg Roy to play as he is to lace up the skates himself. Roy put Team Canada in an impossible situation with his demands, and Gretzky refused to favor one goalie at the expense of another. So they both did what they do best: Gretzky passed and Roy closed the door.