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Triumphant ending for Vancouver Winter Games

By Julian Linden

VANCOUVER (Reuters) - The Vancouver Winter Olympics ended in spectacular triumph on Sunday with a dazzling closing ceremony that mixed traditional pomp with self-deprecating humor to put the icing on 17 days of unrelenting drama and action.

The President of the International Olympic Committee Jacques Rogge declared the Games "excellent and very friendly" in a closing speech that paid tribute to the Georgian luger who was killed in a training accident before the Games opened on February 12.

"We have shared the grief of an Olympic dream cut short. The memory of Nodar Kumaritashvili will always be with us," Rogge said before declaring the Games closed and inviting the world's athletes to reassemble at Sochi, Russia for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

Millions of Canadians had already begun celebrating long before the ceremony began after the host-nation defeated the United States 3-2 in a nerve-churning men's ice hockey final to claim a record 14th gold medal.

The whole country, it seemed, had stopped to watch the three-hour drama on ice.

Sidney Crosby scored the winner after the Americans had equalized 24 seconds from the end of regular time to force the match into overtime and threaten to spoil Canada's party.

"You dream of that moment a thousand times growing up," Crosby said. "For that to come true is pretty amazing.

The hockey was one of just two medals decided on the last day with Norway's Petter Northug winning the first in the men's 50km cross country ski race at Whistler after the closest ever finish to the lung-bursting event.

Northug sneaked past Germany's Axel Teichmann right at the finish line to win the gold by just 0.3 seconds with Sweden's Johan Olsson taking the bronze.

Canada were already assured of finishing top of the standings for the first time at either a Winter or Summer Olympics but beating their American neighbors was the perfect ending for the hockey-crazy host nation.

"Our last one (gold) will be remembered for generations," Vancouver's organizing chief John Furlong said at the ceremony.

The Canadian victory set a new record for golds won by any nation at a single Winter Games, surpassing the previous mark of 13 jointly held by the Soviet Union (Innsbruck, 1976) and Norway (Salt Lake City, 2002).

The U.S. also set a record for the most overall medals won at a single Winter Olympics, finishing with 37, one more than Germany in 2002, but that was of little consolation to members of their beaten hockey team.

"It's the biggest game any of us has ever been in and it's devastating," American defenseman Jack Johnson said.

LASTING MEMORY

It was a match of unrelenting tension and drama that captivated millions of people across North America, including U.S. President Barack Obama and Canada Prime Minister Stephen Harper, who wagered a case of beer on the outcome.

Vancouver's central business district and harbor foreshore was transformed into a heaving mass of people dressed in red and white and waving Maple Leaf flags.

"I just couldn't help myself when I saw us winning," said Suze Dickinson. "I said I'm getting dressed up in every single red thing I own including my panties and my bra and coming here."

Every restaurant and bar was packed to overflowing after patrons queued for more than four hours while local television broadcast pictures of American and Canadian troops in Afghanistan watching the game together, under a sign "Brothers in arms, not on the ice."

The festivities spilled into the closing ceremony at BC Place with the hosts poking fun at themselves in a two-hour extravaganza dripping with self-mockery.

Actors Michael J. Fox, William Shatner and Catherine O'Hara joined in the irreverent theme with witty monologues teasing their compatriot's penchant for politeness.

Giant inflatable beavers, moose and Mounties all joined in a game of table hockey that took an irreverent view of the country's obsession with the sport.

The organizers even made fun of one of the technical glitches at the opening ceremony, belatedly raising one of the huge ice crystal legs that had malfunctioned.

It was all in stark contrast to the gloom that surrounded the first week when bad weather, some bad planning and plain bad luck conspired against the Games.

"These Olympic Games have lifted us up," Furlong said.

"If the Canada that came together on opening night was a little mysterious to some it no longer is. Now you know us ... eh?"

The closing ceremony was not all just wisecracks and slapstick, there were some somber moments too.

Like Rogge, Furling also spoke about the grief he felt over Kumaritashvili's death and figure skater Joannie Rochette was given the honor of carrying the Canadian flag after she won the hearts of her country by winning a bronze medal despite grieving the sudden death of her mother.

"The death of their fellow athlete will never be forgotten," Rogge told a news conference before the ceremony.

"It will always cast a shadow on the Olympics.

"(But) Vancouver had extraordinary embrace, something I have never seen on this scale."

(Editing by Jon Bramley)