SALT LAKE CITY — I knew this would happen if we didn’t change the borders. The American sports mentality has finally infected Canada.

“Other countries hate us,” declared Wayne Gretzky, the man who put together Canada’s Olympic hockey team, which plays Finland in the lose-and-you’re-out round starting today. “Nobody wants us to win but the guys in our locker room.

“It sickens my stomach to turn the TV on and hear some of the things they’re saying about us. They’re loving us not doing well. It’s a big story for them.”

Wait a minute. This is the Great Voice of the Great White North? The humble superstar? He sounds like some overpriced NFL linebacker, banging his chest and screaming, “Nobody gave us respect!”

Well, that’s what the pressure has come to in Olympic hockey. And perhaps it’s to be expected when you fly in Thursday, get sheets and a pillow, play three fast games on a whole new ice surface with a whole new cast of teammates, and then, starting today, one slip and you’re gone.

Instant Olympics meets Sudden Death.

It can make folks a little testy.

Nobody more than Team Canada, which has not won an Olympic gold medal in 50 years. Put it this way. If you took all the heat on the Canadians into the rink, they’d be skating on water.

“Oh, this is huge in Canada,” said Brendan Shanahan, who joins Red Wings teammate Steve Yzerman on the Canadian squad. “For most Canadians, this is the reason they’re tuning into the Olympics.

“I understand what Wayne is saying. Playing for Team Canada is a lot like playing for the Red Wings. People may come up to you and say, ‘Hey it’s great that you signed all those star players,’ but privately, there’s nothing they’d like more than to see the Wings fall on their face.

“That’s how they feel about this Olympic team.”

Wow. And I thought the French skating judge had a thing against Canada.

The world’s top talent

Of course, the great unspoken sentence in this whole thing is obvious:

Team Canada should win.

The Canadians have the best talent. They are neck deep in every position.

And you will not get a single Canadian player to admit it.

“I don’t think we’re so much better than anyone else,” Yzerman said. “All the teams here are good.”

That’s nice. But hard to buy. When your roster of forwards reads Lemieux, Yzerman, Lindros, Kariya, Sakic, Shanahan, Nolan, Nieuwendyk and Fleury — and that’s not even mentioning defense (Pronger, Niedermayer, MacInnis, Blake, Foote) — well, you can understand why Canada expects so much.

And why it’s so frustrating to Canadians that half a century has passed without a gold medal.

Imagine if the United Stats suddenly started losing at Olympic basketball — which we did, by the way, until we sent the NBA players. Then it became a circus romp.

But imagine if the romps stopped, even with our NBA players, and we were losing to Italy or Brazil. Hey, we’d say, this is OUR game. Our kids learn it in grade school. Our kids stay out nights shooting at hoops they can barely see.

Now you know how Canada feels. Already, the team has been sluggish in the three preliminary games, winning one, losing one, tying one.

And, according to Gretzky, the red, white and blue are making things worse.

“It’s American propaganda,” Gretzky said.

Huh?

“They’re loving us not doing well. If you want to talk about hockey, you talk about the Canadians. We’re the biggest story in hockey.

“It’s such a crock of bull. They only got two Canadian stories, figure skating and hockey. People don’t understand the kind of pressure our guys are under.”

Well, to be honest, Wayne, you’re not making it much better.

Besides, it’s hardly just Americans. The Canadian media has been harsh on this team, questioning everything from Mario Lemieux’s sitting out of Game 2 to Yzerman’s physical readiness.

Trust me, if Canada loses today, the last thing Gretzky and company will need to worry about is the American press.

Plenty of Wings

Now, it’s true, Canada is not the only team under hot lights in Salt Lake City. The Red Wings have 11 players sprinkled over five teams, and all of them want this gold medal badly.

Certainly, the American players, Chris Chelios and Brett Hull, are under pressure to re-do the 1980 “Miracle On Ice.”

The Russians, under the wing of new coach Slava Fetisov (another former Red Wing), want desperately to prove that they can do it their way, with NHL stars
— not Russian soldiers — leading the pack, including Detroit’s Sergei Fedorov, Igor Larionov and young Pavel Datsyuk.

The Czech team, led by Wings goalie Dominik Hasek, stunned the world last time out, winning gold. The Czechs are hungry to prove it was no fluke.

And the Swedish team, the quiet, reserved, shrug-it-all-off Swedish team — with Nicklas Lidstrom, Tomas Holmstrom and Fredrik Olausson — may be the best group out here, the only team to win all three of its preliminary matches.

To any one of those teams, a gold medal would be glorious.

But to the Canadians anything less would be a gag.

“I look at it the same way I did back in 1997 when we hadn’t won the Cup in more than 40 years,” Yzerman said. “Back then we said, ‘Hey, we didn’t have anything to do with those other teams.’

“And that’s what we have to say here.”

In the end, this will have little to do with the past or the media. By bringing the NHL players in halfway through the games, these are less teams than they are ensembles. The one that jells the fastest will win.

“That’s absolutely it,” Shanahan said. “We don’t have the luxury of two or three weeks of practice and exhibitions. You throw something out there during the games and see if it works. If it doesn’t, you try something else.

“That’s why this stuff Wayne is saying may be good for us. It brings us together as a unit.

“But still, this is sudden death. One bad period, one bad goal, and you could go home.”

It happened last Olympics to Canada, which started hot, then got shot down by a sizzling Hasek and his Czech teammates.

If it happens again today, or in the semifinals, or anything short of a gold medal, expect to hear a great big sigh from the Great White North.

Followed by our newest export, finger-pointing.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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