by Shawn Roarke - courtesy of www.nhl.com
The E Center -- a cozy arena nestled in the foothills of the Wasatch Mountains -- will be the center of the hockey universe Friday.
It will be a special day that will see six of the eight teams in the Final Round of the 2002. Olympic ice hockey tournament play their games at the E Center, which will be rocking from early in the morning until late at night. Germany plays the Czech Republic Friday night at the Peaks Ice Arena, a 30-mile drive down Route 15 from the E Center.
"[Friday] is going to be fantastic, just fantastic," said Lou Vairo, an assistant coach for Team USA. "The energy level will be unbelievable at the E center and the Peaks. With all the energy that will be in those crowds, you could light up Salt Lake City for 10 years.
"You're gonna see hockey like you've never seen before. That building [the E Center] is going to pulsate with life."
The fun for hockey fans begins at 1 p.m. EST when Russia plays upstart Belarus, a traditional rival, in the first game of Group C. At 6 p.m., Canada plays Sweden in what some believe could be a preview of the gold medal game. The Czechs face off against Germany at 9 p.m., and the United States vs. Finland affair ends the buffet of world-class hockey with a 10:45 p.m. start.
"Hockey fans are going to see a field that is just going to be -- wow!" said Herb Brooks, the American coach. "It's going to be a spectacular field. You look at the Olympic Games in basketball, it won't be like this. Anyone can win this baby.
"There's going to be some upsets, there always are some upsets. That, you know, scares you. These other two teams coming out of qualification -- Belarus and Germany -- watch out. You look by them, you'll get zapped.
"The fans here are going to see a field that I don't think they have ever seen something like this in the past and I don't know if they will ever see it in the future."
What may well make the experience even more special for those lucky enough to score a ticket to Friday's games is the intimate nature of the arena.
The U.S. women played their first game there on Wednesday and the building was as loud, if not louder, than any building in the National Hockey League.
Brooks, who won a gold medal as the coach of Team USA in 1980 played in the tiny Olympic Field House at Lake Placid, N.Y. He remembers fondly the closeness of the crowd, the maelstrom of crowd noise and flag waving. He has said repeatedly that the crowd played a role in the United States success in that tournament, especially in the upset of the heavily favored Soviet Union in the Americans' penultimate game of that tournament.
He is ecstatic the same scenario will play out this time around at the E Center, which has a seating capacity of just 8,383 for this tournament.
"I think the Olympics are built more around the quaintness, instead of the multi-purpose arena around today," he said. "That will add to the uniqueness of this tournament."
Other teams aside from the Americans are also looking forward to Friday's opening of the tournament, as well as the rest of the games -- which culminate with the gold medal game Feb. 24 at the E Center.
"I wouldn't want to be anywhere else," said Canada's Eric Lindros.
Never will that be more evident than Friday, when all eight teams start the tournament with a fresh slate and dreams of a gold medal.
How good will it be?
Just consider Czech goalie and former Ranger Milan Hnilicka, who gave up a vacation in the Cayman Islands for the privilege of being his team's third goaltender, a late addition to replace the injured Roman Turek. That means he won't even dress for any of the games, but at least he will be assured a seat for what may well go down as the greatest show on ice. For this complete story, visit www.nhl.com.