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Canada 5, United States 2

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah (AP) _ Mario Lemieux grinned like a rookie. Scott Niedermayer and Michael Peca lifted their young sons onto their shoulders. Owen Nolan videotaped the entire scene from the ice.

Why not? It was a moment worth preserving: After 50 years of frustration and failure, Canada was back on top of the hockey world as the Olympic champion.

Wayne Gretzky's team brought international hockey's highest honor to a nation that lives and breathes the sport with a 5-2 victory over the United States on Sunday in the final event of the Salt Lake City Olympics.

``It's very emotional,'' said Gretzky, the team executive director who chose the Canadian roster and guided it through 15 contentious months. ``I'm happy for the players _ they deserve all the credit. I'm happy for the Canadian people _ they've waited a long time for this.

``This is something that our country. ... We desperately needed to win this tournament.''

Canada's pursuit of the gold had mesmerized Canadians, with the CBC predicting the afternoon game would draw the largest TV audience in the nation's history _ not just for sports, but for any event.

Canada's roster of NHL millionaires won exactly 50 years to the day after an otherwise forgotten club team called the Edmonton Mercurys won gold for Canada at the 1952 Oslo Games. Since then, Canada had added to its record total of 12 Olympic medals, but never won gold.

The symmetry was nothing more than a coincidence, but it lent an air of predestination to a Canadian team that began the games in turmoil and ended in triumph.

Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic scored two goals apiece for Canada, which broke a 2-2 tie early in the second period. The team held on for the win behind stout defense and goaltender Martin Brodeur.

Sakic, voted the tournament MVP, also had two assists to lead a persistent Canadian attack that outscored its final three opponents 15-4.

``You don't know what it's like to have a piano on your back. No other team had more pressure than ours,'' defenseman Al MacInnis said.

``Everybody in Canada was watching with the same intensity that we played the game with,'' he said. ``It's amazing the way a sport can bring the country together.''

This was exactly the showcase everyone wanted when the NHL agreed for the first time in 1998 to shut down for nearly two weeks so its stars could participate. With all of Canada and much of the United States watching, the teams didn't disappoint.

While the Canadian team needed to win, the American team simply wanted to win.

The loss ended U.S. coach Herb Brooks' quest to lead a second gold-medal winning team 22 years after a group of college players produced the ``Miracle on Ice.'' Still, Brooks led the United States to its best finish since the last time he stood behind the bench.

The Canadians' victory ended a 70-year unbeaten streak on Olympic home ice for the U.S. team _ three days after the American women's team also lost to Canada in the final.

``I'm proud of what we did, because we lost to a great team,'' American defenseman Brian Leetch said. ``We gave it everything we possibly could, but it's a one-game tournament, and the bounces just didn't bounce for us on this one day.''

Tony Amonte scored the game's first goal for the United States to the delight of a crowd nearly covered with flags and banners. But Paul Kariya and Iginla replied with goals in a 3:43 span late in the first period. After Brian Rafalski's power-play goal tied it late in the second period, Sakic got the eventual winner.

Canada led throughout the third period, but the American attack _ particularly the powerful top line of Brett Hull, Mike Modano and John LeClair _ kept things interesting. Brodeur, who arrived in Salt Lake City as a third-choice backup, made a beautiful toe save on a shot by Hull with less than five minutes left.

Brodeur played the tournament with the names of two cities painted on his goal mask: Salt Lake City and Cortina d'Ampezzzo, the Italian city where his father Denis helped Canada to a bronze medal 46 years ago.

``As an athlete, you want to be part of great things for your country, but you've also got the motivation of family,'' Brodeur said. ``We did a lot of great things today, and I can't imagine anything better.''

The gold was redemption for Gretzky, who got a post-game call on the ice from Canadian prime minister Jean Chretien. Gretzky drew heavy criticism when Canada was routed 5-2 in its Olympic opener by Sweden, then barely beat Germany.

``Getting smoked by Sweden probably was a good thing, because we knew we had to get better,'' Sakic said.

Maybe Canada's victory can be attributed to more than history, hard work and a hungry nation's passion for gold. Before the tournament, the Canadian in charge of the ice at the E Center planted a loonie _ a Canadian dollar coin _ under center ice.

``I dug it up, Gretzky said, ``and we're going to give it to the Hockey Hall of Fame.''
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