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2010 Winter Olympics: For Canadians, winning at Olympic hockey a matter of national pride

VANCOUVER — Grace Wigmore is the only one of Deanna and Kim Wigmore's three children who doesn't really care for hockey.

Her indifference ends, however, when the Canucks play.

"We get to go out for ice cream, if they win," said her sister Eve, who is 8 and an unabashed hockey lover. "I like to watch the Canucks play."

And then this bright-eyed, beautiful little girl can rattle off an impressive list of players she likes — and why.

"Well, I do like to watch more in person," 10-year-old Grace concedes.

Their father beams.

"It's conditioning," he says of the reward each time the Canucks win. "It's fun. I want to encourage them to watch hockey with me. It's lonely to watch alone."

It's no secret the Canadians love hockey.

Actually they don't love it. They live it. The game is enmeshed in the daily life of Canadians so completely, it is impossible to separate sport from culture.

That is especially true here at the site of the 2010 Winter Olympics: Vancouver, home of the Canucks, a team that has sold out nearly 300 of its last home games.

Yeah, they see hockey as theirs. Like the wacky West Coast weather, this game of sticks and pucks belongs to them.

"In Canada, it is just one of the sports that defines the country," said Kim Wigmore.

And that definition means that every Canadian soars and sulks with every win and loss that Team Canada enjoys.

It is a stage that many U.S. players are looking forward to performing on, especially if it means breaking the hearts of millions of Canadians in the gold medal game.

"They are putting hockey center stage," said Dave Ogrean, USA Hockey's executive director. "You are going to see a hockey-mad nation, and we are looking forward to that."

Sure, there is pressure on the U.S. team. There is always pressure for Americans. The fans of the red, white and blue make no secret of how much they love wining. It would be un-American NOT to be up front and honest about the desire to dominate everything.

Add to it that this is the 50th anniversary of the first hockey gold medal and the 30th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice," and the pressure gets a little greater. Oh, and let's not forget that the Canadians came into Salt Lake City and beat Team USA on American soil, so the pressure to return the favor is something players have been talking about for years.

Still, the pressure on the U.S., which exists any time U.S. athletes suit up, is miniscule compared to the hoping, hyping and hoopla weighing on Team Canada.

"I think the pressure on Canada is relentless," Ogrean said.

The country was ecstatic about its first gold medal on Canadian soil.

"Thank you, Alex!" said the Vancouver Olympics' chief executive officer John Furlong. "Bravo, Alex! You're the man!"

Never before have Canadians been so aggressive (and, for some, un-Canadian) than in this endeavor to "own the podium," an initiative to beef up the country's winter sports programs just in time for the Games on home soil. Fundraising reached $22,348,822 (including $2.6 million for ice hockey).

But even if Canada owns the podium in every other event, the Games will be a failure for most fans if both of Canada's hockey teams do not win gold.

"It's huge," said Monique Schryer, who traveled to Vancouver from Alberta to watch some women's hockey games. "It's expected — for both men and women. That was the highlight of our Olympics: to make sure we see a Canadian hockey team."

Darell and Dori Koop traveled from Alberta to attend a women's hockey game with their two sons.

"Hockey is everything," said Darell Koop, although he admits he will take his children to speed skating while they're in Vancouver. "We could lose every single other event, but if we win the hockey gold medal, it will be a great Olympics."

Adds his wife, "As long as you win hockey gold, it's a success."

And imagine the ice cream Grace and Eve will enjoy Sunday if Canada does indeed own the hockey podium.