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'2002 miracle on ice' — Belarus upsets Sweden

WEST VALLEY CITY — How do you say "miracle on ice" in Russian? Is there a translator in the E Center?

Pretty pozhaluysta . . . with sugar on it?

Translator: "Chudo ha l'du."

Or another, more shocking, way of saying it: Belarus 4, Sweden 3 in the Olympic men's hockey quarterfinals Wednesday.

Thank you, er, spasibo.

So, Belarus, do you believe in miracles? Bepute li vy v chudesa?

"Yes," said Belarus' new hero and game-winning goal-scorer, Vladimir Kopat, with a beaming smile after the stunner. "Of course."

To put this mind-blower in perspective, Sweden is hardly the machine the Soviet Union was in 1980. However, the Swedes had been playing the best hockey in Salt Lake, and their powerful roster is bursting from its yellow-and-blue seams with NHL talent. Belarus had been outscored 22-6 in three previous final round losses, and it's a poor country competing in its second-ever Olympics with only one top-level pro. And a lot of heart.

So, put this upset right among the biggest in history. Olympic historians did. They ranked it third behind Team USA's 1980 gold-medal run — which Belarus used as motivation — and Great Britain's surprising win over Canada in 1936.

For Belarus, the win is by far the biggest moment in the former Soviet republic's sports history. The game's four goals — led by Kopat's miraculous make — round out the other top five Belarussian sporting highlights.

Belarus has a semifinal game against Canada/Finland winner Friday at noon, but it really doesn't matter what happens next.

"It's like winning gold for us," said Belarus defenseman Ruslan Salei, the nation's only NHL player. "Nobody thought we could beat anyone in the top six, especially Sweden. It's history for us."

That would make Kopat the Belarus version of USA's Mike Eruzione. The Belarussian forward became a modern-day miracle-on-the-ice maker when he smacked the slapshot heard around the world.

Kopat's game-winning goal was almost as miraculous as Belarus' victory.

The game was tied at 3-all when Kopat cranked a cannon shot from well behind the blue line on an innocent-looking rush with 2 1/2 minutes left. Kopat wasn't thinking he would score from 80 feet out. He just wanted to keep Sweden goalie Tommy Salo honest, maybe catch him by surprise.

Kopat caught the whole hockey world by surprise instead. His blast zoomed toward Salo's head, making Sweden's red-hot goalie flinch and twist a bit. Salo tried to catch the puck, but it caught him in the neck and plopped onto the ice behind him. The puck — in slow motion, of course — then slipped across the crease and into the net.

The shot will be played on Belarus television in the future as often as Eruzione's improbable goal against the Soviets has been repeated in the United States the past 22 years. Adding to the vibrant Olympic moment, Kopat was standing on the five-ring symbol when he took his shot at fate. Feel those chills?

"If I said I wanted to make this goal, nobody would have believed me," Kopat said. "I just shot behind the (blue) line, and that's what happened."

Added Salei: "Absolutely incredible. It was lucky. This goal was unbelievable."

No less unbelievable was the outstanding goaltending of rising star Andrei Mezin. After making 40 saves against the U.S., Mezin stopped 44 of 47 shots by Sweden.

"This was the biggest game of my career for sure," Mezin said. "How can it be bigger than the Olympics against all the NHL players?

"For sure it's a miracle for us," he continued. "But sometimes even a gun without bullets shoots. That was us today."

Salo, defended by his teammates afterward, said he did "not want to know" how Sweden was reacting to the disappointment. He was suffering enough himself: "Right now, it's real tough to lose this game. . . . I did my best."

Said teammate Markus Naslund: "It's a devastating loss for us and our country."

But that's the ironic way it goes in sports and the Olympics — one country's mourning is another country's miracle.