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HOCKEY

Canada exhales as hosts throttle Norway in opener

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — If nothing else, a national anxiety attack was averted.

Canada's 8-0 thumping of Norway on Tuesday evening in the sport that doubles as the civic religion was fine as far as it went.

They started slow against a hot goalkeeper, but strung together five goals in the third period and wound up staging a clinic. Even so, the win didn't stoke the national psyche the way the women's team did by burying Slovakia and Switzerland under an avalanche of pucks, 18-0 and 10-1, respectively.

Yet by the time this one ended, there was a sigh of relief stretching from this shimmering metropolis on the West Coast all the way back to tiny Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, where a young Sidney Crosby banged so many practice shots off the laundry dryer in the family basement that it now bears more dimples than a golf ball.

Only time will tell whether Crosby turns out to be as good as advertised — he's been dubbed the "Next One" in deference to Wayne Gretzky, forever the "Great One." But that battered appliance already resides in the Nova Scotia Hall of Fame, one of dozens of hockey shrines dotting the landscape like so many Tim Hortons doughnut shops.

"Everyone stayed behind us. No one was getting antsy even when it was 0-0 after the first and our play showed that as well. We were really patient," said Crosby, who set up Jarome Iginla for the crucial first goal and collected two more assists.

"It's just about playing together, basically. That's pretty typical. There's so many great players around each other, you start to think a little bit and try to find those guys and play to their strengths. It was just a matter of time."

To much of the country, the billions spent and the attendant spectacle involved in bringing the Olympics to Vancouver was little more than an excuse to stage a world-class hockey tournament. True, it is often obscured by the shadow of its bigger, richer and more boastful neighbor to the south, but when it comes to hockey, Canada takes a backseat to no one.

The nation's sporting organizations came up with the slogan, "Own the Podium" in hopes of stirring up some competitiveness in their notoriously laid-back countrymen. But the truth is there's only one podium that most of them genuinely care about. That much was apparent the second the hosts hit the ice for the pregame skate.

The 50 other weeks of the year, this stadium just off downtown is known as GM Place and home to the NHL's Vancouver Canucks. For the two weeks of the Olympics, however, it's been renamed Canada Hockey Place and, man, was it ever rockin'.

"You know it's going to be cool, but when you actually see it, it feels like a totally different place," Iginla said. "It's everything we've been looking forward to a long time."

Even the battered opponents couldn't help but drink in the atmosphere.

"It was a fantastic experience, the best game I ever played in," said Norway's starting goalie, Pal Grotnes, and keep in mind, he gave up five of the eight goals before getting pulled with a cramp in his leg.

"It was," he added, somewhat resigned, "fun."

There's some debate about where hockey originated, but none where the modern game found its stride. That explains why Canada claimed six of the first seven gold medals handed out in Olympic competition. But that was followed by a fallow period that was dominated by the Big Red Machine of the Soviet Union and still referred to in these parts as the Great Drought. Since 1952, Canada has exactly one hockey gold, in Salt Lake City in 2002, and no easy explanation for what went wrong.

For a long time, the locals fell back on the excuse that they couldn't send professionals. But since that changed in 1998, Canada is tied with the Czech Republic and Sweden with one each. And they're going to be pushed in the games by a Russian squad led by Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin.

"We are in Canada. That's why we had nerves," coach Mike Babcock said. "We want to show how good we are, but we're still a work in progress."

Babcock stood stone-faced behind the bench before the goals came in waves, but even after that, his expression never changed. Turns out he was trying to hide his satisfaction at seeing his players' patience and will tested so early in the tournament.

"It's real important to have a whole bunch of hungry players here," he explained. "I think you have to battle some adversity."

Whether the rest of Canada agrees is another matter. The crowd packing the stadium to the rafters was silent for most of the opening period, not so much nervous, but like knowledgeable fans, anticipating what was to come. What neither they nor the players want to see is what happens if all that talent and desire fails to materialize at crunch time.

"Talk is cheap," defenseman Chris Pronger said. "You have to go out and play the game and exhibit your skill. Today was no different.

"We've been talking about the Olympics for two years, at least," he said. "Now it's finally upon us."

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Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org