By Julian Linden
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Sunday's Olympics ice hockey grudge game between Canada and the United States was billed as the hottest show at the Vancouver Winter Olympics for good reason -- bragging rights alone can mean more than mere medals.
This was no ordinary game. It was three hours of non-stop end-to-end entertainment that captivated a whole nation and lived up to all the hype.
The pubs and restaurants in downtown Vancouver were overflowing with patrons watching the drama unfold on television while the Canada Hockey Plaza was transformed into a heaving mass of red, white and blue.
For the 17,000 lucky people who got to watch the match live, it was like possessing one of the golden tickets to Willy Wonka's fabled chocolate factory.
Seats for the match sold out ages ago and unless you were moguls skier Alexandre Bilodeau, who has been wheeled out at more events in Vancouver than the IOC president since winning his country's first gold medal on home soil, your only chance of getting inside the venue was buying a ticket off a scalper for 10 times the face value.
Inside the hockey arena, the atmosphere was electric, a sea of red and white maple leaves sprinkled with blue stars and stripes. The entertainment started before the teams entered the rink and continued long after the match ended.
The action on the ice was riveting as the two great rivals locked horns in a classic match that had the capacity crowd more excited than teenagers on prom night.
There was no pomp and ceremony or staid national anthems. This was a carnival to rival Rio.
Hip-hop music was blasted out of the loud speakers at every opportunity throughout the game. Fans, dressed in their team's colours with their faces painted, climbed on their chairs to boogie.
Children waved flags, mums and dads sang along to the Black Eyed Peas and young and old couples smooched for the cameras.
It hardly matter which team scored. The jeers for the visiting U.S. teams were as raucous as the cheers for the Canadians. "It was a great atmosphere," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "The intensity of the game helped.
"There was a lot of hitting on both sides, there were a lot of great plays, fantastic goaltending and that's all you want from a hockey game.
"I think everyone would have left pretty well entertained."
To the uninitiated, ice hockey looks more like ultimate fighting with skates and sticks than a healthy pastime to trim the tummy in winter.
The competitors may have the ability to glide across the frozen surface as gracefully as the cast members from Disney on Ice but they prefer to use their blades for less aesthetic purposes.
They zigzag across the ice sheet from one collision to another, crashing into each other with all the sinister intentions of a wild rhino.
Children are taught to skate as soon as they can walk and there is a picture of kids playing the game on a pond on the country's $5 note.
It is an obsession Canadian's adopt for life, and even beyond, with some diehard fans being buried in their favorite team jerseys.
The final result was not the one the home fans wanted. The Americans won 5-3 but Canada remain in the tournament to fight another day. Wilson was right, they were all entertained.
(Editing by Jon Bramley)