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Amid Gretzky distraction, Canada faces Italy to begin quest for second straight gold @NHLdotcom

Four years ago, Wayne Gretzky helped bring Canada its first Olympic gold medal in half a century. Some now wonder if his presence could hurt his country's chances of winning another.

With the possibility of going from hero in Salt Lake to culprit in Turin, Gretzky will be watching along with his wife despite being embroiled in a gambling ring controversy as Canada opens defense of its Olympic championship in a matchup with host Italy on Wednesday.

"If we don't win the gold medal obviously I'll get blamed, but I've been blamed for losses before. It's not going to change my life," said Gretzky, who as Canada's executive director is effectively the team's general manager.

He was given that role before the 2002 Salt Lake Olympics and guided the Canadian squad to its first gold medal since 1952. Nothing less is expected in these Winter Games.

An icon in his sport and a national hero in Canada, Gretzky is in Turin amid allegations wife Janet Jones was involved in a gambling ring allegedly bankrolled in part by Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet.

Gretzky reiterated upon his arrival in Turin on Tuesday that he did not place any wagers with any betting ring, and there was no reason for him to leave his job with the Olympic team. He acknowledged Monday the gambling questions are wearing on him.

Gretzky looked tired and drawn over the highly publicized affair, which he says he won't discuss any further even though it may be the biggest story going in his home country.

Gretzky himself was caught on a wiretap last Monday talking with Tocchet about how to hide his wife's involvement, people with knowledge of the investigation have told The Associated Press.

"I've stood forward each and every day, and I'll talk hockey all day long, take any questions about the hockey team or the Olympic games," he said. "But, quite frankly, it's over and done with."

His players seem to feel the same way, refusing to let Gretzky's situation serve as any kind of distraction.

"We're excited he's coming and that he'll be a part of that," team captain Joe Sakic said. "I know people are trying to bring up, `What's going on with Wayne?' ... It's not an issue."

Gretzky hopes the club he's helped put together can get off to a better start this time to help quiet some of the controversy, even though Canada did emerge as the Olympic champion in 2002.

The team struggled during preliminary-round play in Salt Lake, scoring eight goals and giving up 10 en route to a less-than-impressive record of 1-1-1.

The Canadians have reloaded their roster with a lot of inexperienced talent and Sakic, captain of the Canadians in place of the recently retired Mario Lemieux, said expectations back home are enormous.

"There's always that pressure that we're expected to win," said Sakic, one of five Canadian players in his third Olympics.

Sakic topped Canada in scoring in 2002 but two of its leading scorers from Salt Lake - Lemieux and Steve Yzerman - are not in Italy. Coach Pat Quinn will look for offense from a team that includes 13 first-time Olympians.

One of Canada's top lines consists of Olympic rookies Joe Thornton, Simon Gagne and Dany Heatley. While Thornton leads the NHL this season with 60 assists, Gagne is second in the league with 37 goals and Heatley is tied for sixth with 34.

"We've got a very short period of time to become a team," Quinn said. "We don't have many practices, we've got guys from different systems, different teams.

"The big thing is to pull them together, give them a simple enough system that everybody can adjust to, and then start team-building."

Defense will be a big question mark going in.

Canada's blue line was to be anchored by Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Ed Jovanovski and Bryan McCabe.

Instead, Niedermayer (knee) and Jovanovski (abdomen) are both sidelined after undergoing surgery, and Pronger (foot) and McCabe (groin) are going to play despite nagging injuries.

Goaltending, though, should be solid. Martin Brodeur will be back to try and win gold 50 years after his father, Denis, took home bronze in the 1956 Games at Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy.

The younger Brodeur recorded a 1.80 goals-against average for the gold-medal squad in 2002. He will be backed up by Olympic first-timers Roberto Luongo and Marty Turco.

Canada also faces a schedule that gets progressively harder. After Italy, the Canadians face Germany, Switzerland, Finland and the Czech Republic in a six-day span.

"This is a very onerous schedule. It'll be a lot of hockey," Quinn said.

Italy, meanwhile, features a former NHL goaltender and a highly popular 41-year-old player who left his job at a bakery to lace up his skates one last time.

Jason Muzzatti is expected to see most of the work in the net for the host team. A first-round selection in the 1988 entry draft by Calgary, Muzzatti spent five seasons from 1993-98 in the NHL with the Flames, Hartford, New York Rangers and San Jose. His best season came in 1996-97 when he went 9-13-5 with the Whalers.

Muzzatti, a Toronto native, is one of eight Canadian-born players on the Italian team.

Right wing and bakery worker Lucio Topatigh could be considered the Italian Gretzky. He has scored 501 goals and 611 assists in 739 career games spanning 20 years, and is a seven-time winner of the Italian championship.

The Italians last appeared in the Olympics in 1998 at Nagano, where they finished 12th in a 14-team field. Italy's best Olympic showing was seventh place in 1956.

"This is our Stanley Cup," forward Jason Cirone said. "The biggest thing is we don't want to be embarrassed."

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