NAGANO, Japan — Oh yeah? Well, our gas is cheaper.

And our taxes are lower. And our money is worth more. And our radio stations don’t have to play Gordon Lightfoot once an hour …

Keep telling yourself all the advantages America has over Canada, and pretty soon you won’t even mind that when it comes to Olympic hockey, The Great White North owns The Little Black Puck.

Oh, for a while there, we tried to kid ourselves. For about five minutes, we wrapped our doubts in red, white and blue, tried to act as if we really believed that Jeremy Roenick, Adam Deadmarsh and Mike Richter are as good as Eric Lindros, Joe Sakic and Patrick Roy. After all, we told ourselves, they’re all in the NHL, right?

Sure. And Robert Duvall and Tom Arnold are both in the movie business. That doesn’t mean they play the same parts.

And neither do our hockey teams. This was painfully apparent Monday, not long after the puck was dropped in The Showdown For North American Bragging Rights. Following consecutive penalties, Canada suddenly found itself with three men to the U.S.’s five.

A two-man disadvantage? Danger! Fear! Chaos! Right?

Wrong. The Canadians held off the American barrage with the ease of Superman catching bullets in his teeth. No matter how many tee shots Brett Hull tried, they went off Roy, around Roy, or above Roy.

Then, to make matters worse, as soon as the Canucks returned to full strength, they raced down the ice and scored a gorgeous goal themselves. Wayne Gretzky
— remember him? He’s Canadian? — faked a slap shot, shot a pass, and Rob Zamuner directed it in for a goal.

That was the game, folks, if you really want to be honest.

Unfortunately, there were still 2 1/2 periods left.

Tonya’s chances are better

The final score was a lopsided 4-1. What a shame. Because this showdown began with such fanfare and hype. There were Canadian flags and American flags. There were cheers and banners. There were partisan signs — including one, obviously written by someone who does not speak English, that said, “Paul Kariya, you are with us in heat!”

Well. Let’s hope not.

There was even Don Cherry, of “Hockey Night In Canada” fame, barking into a CBC camera, telling the world how these two teams “hated each other’s guts,” ever since the U.S. upset Canada in the World Cup in 1996. And Cherry had his arm around a Japanese man dressed like a samurai, complete with swords and wearing a big maple leaf on his forehead.

“This is my new enforcer!” Cherry said. “I love this guy! Say hello, Maury!”

“I wuv Ca-na-da!” Maury yelled.

(By the way, I doubt the guy’s name was “Maury” since “Maury” is not exactly Japanese. Knowing Cherry, the guy probably said his name, and it was something like Maorarai, and Cherry said, “OK, Maury, just smile when I tell you to smile.”)

Anyhow, you had all this hype, all this buildup, you had rumors about Americans being out drinking instead of sleeping, and rumors that Canadian players were still angry over the World Cup, where American players supposedly made remarks about Gretzky — you had all this noise and nastiness, this huge Continental Divide, and then the game started, and the truth sank in quickly.

The Canadians are more talented, better organized, and more in sync with the Olympic style.

And the United States is in trouble.

If you’re handicapping, and you’ve watched the tournament so far, here’s the way you see it. Canada will most likely win the gold. If not Canada, then Sweden. If not Sweden, then Russia in a stunner. And if not Russia, then the Czech Republic, riding Dominik Hasek in goal.

And if not the Czechs — well, then the U.S. has a shot at the title.

This is like saying Tonya Harding has a shot at an Oscar.

Forget it; root for the Captain, Shanny

Now, having said that, I don’t think Americans should fret too much. For one thing, this inaugural Olympic Dream Team Tournament is not like the NBA version back in Barcelona. It’s not really divided by national borders. Detroit fans, for example, find themselves rooting for America, since it is where they live, but also for Canada, because Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan are on the roster. And they might not mind a little Swedish success, since Nick Lidstrom is a favorite son.

Fans are rooting for personalities as much as they are for flags. If you like Hasek and Jaromir Jagr, you’ll cheer for the Czechs, even if you’ve never been anywhere near the Czech Republic. If you miss Sergei Fedorov, Russia may be your team of choice.

As for national bragging rights? Based on postgame comments, it seems like Canada and America are aiming at two different targets. Almost every Canadian player I spoke to said this was really just Game 3 in a six-game tournament, that beating the U.S. was nice, but no better than beating Sweden and — if truth be told — even less impressive.

“We feel pressure to win the gold medal, not to beat the U.S.,” Shanahan said.

Meanwhile, the U.S. players were sounding like Titanic passengers.

“Anytime you have a five-on-three you have to score, I don’t care who’s out there,” said Keith Tkachuk.

“We have to put aside selfishness, put our heads down, and not allow two-on-ones and three-on-ones,” said Brett Hull.

“We need some tinkering,” admitted coach Ron Wilson.

Better bring a big wrench, Ron.

From this point forward, one loss and you’re out. The U.S. already has lost two of three. The Canadians are perfect, having shut out Belarus, nearly shut out the U.S., and outlasted Sweden, whom many consider the most well-oiled team here. When you look at Canada’s roster, they really should win. With backup lines like Shanahan-Gretzky-Yzerman, and defensemen like Scott Stevens and Ray Bourque, is it any surprise they’re doing what they’re doing?

Not here. Maybe it’s as Tkachuk said, “I think this game was bigger for Canada than it was for us. They wanted to prove they could handle us.”

Consider it proven. Now could they get their foot off our throats?

Or do we need to remind them about the exchange rate?

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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