Canada halts - then parties - over hockey epic
VANCOUVER (Reuters) - Canada ground to a halt for three hours on Sunday as their men's ice hockey heroes battled to a nerve-grinding gold at the Vancouver Olympics, with empty streets, deserted parks and standing room only in bars and restaurants.
For many hockey-mad Canadians, the gold medal ice hockey final between Canada and the United States was the only event that really mattered in 16 days of Olympic festivities.
It was a chance for Canada to get its revenge for defeat by the United States earlier in the competition, and the opportunity to glean a record 14 gold medals -- the most any country has ever won in an Olympic Winter Games.
"We invented the game," said Gordy Ford simply, explaining why he had traveled across Canada from northern Ontario.
He was willing to wait more than four hours in line for a prime spot, not at the game but in one of dozens of Vancouver taverns showing it live on a giant television.
The party kicked off hours before the hockey gold medal match began at 12:15 p.m. local time (3:15 p.m. EST), with colorful crowds that grew into easily the largest celebration the Winter Games had seen since its February 12 start.
Tug boats sounded their horns at the start of the game, and played the first notes of the O Canada national anthem as it ended with a Canadian victory.
Officials ordered liquor stores in the city's downtown to close in the early afternoon, hoping to cut down on the number of drunken fans, a problem during celebrations in the early days of the Vancouver Games.
Canadian hockey mania was by no means confined to Vancouver, though. Throughout the country, cities ground to a halt to watch the enthralling showdown.
In Toronto, swarms of fans, many with their faces painted with the red and white Canada flag, poured on to the streets in a spontaneous celebration that stretched for blocks in Canada's biggest city.
Thousands more hugged and slapped hands covered with their red Olympic mittens in the city's shopping district as they watched the outcome on a giant television screen before breaking into a spontaneous signing of the national anthem.
"It was a great Canadian performance. We have it over the Americans. We kicked their butts," said Steve Oxley, of Guelph, Ontario.
During the game itself, you could have rolled a bowling ball down some Vancouver streets without hitting a car or a pedestrian.
But its bars and the sidewalks outside them were packed as spectators struggled to catch a glimpse of the action on television screens inside, and stores closed because they knew nobody would come in to shop.
As the game moved into extra time there were gasps at Canadian near-misses and then a crescendo of noise as Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal.
"Did we win?" one woman asked nervously, as she joined the crowds heading toward the Games' closing ceremony.
A policeman reassured her. "Yes, we won."
(Additional reporting by Janet Guttsman, Scott Anderson; Editing Jon Bramley)
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