Opening game nothing but thrill for Italians

TORINO, Italy -- If you believe that the soul of the Olympics is about more than winning and losing, that it's also about creating a treasure trove of memories even in the face of incredible odds, then Wednesday's Canada-Italy hockey game was for you.

Was the entirely predictable 7-2 Canadian victory a thing of beauty? Hardly.

For the Canadians, this first of five round-robin games was about starting the process in building toward what they hope will be a successful defense of their Salt Lake City gold. It was a game forgotten by the time the Zamboni flooded the ice, the Canadian attention already turned to Thursday's encounter with Germany.

But for the Italians? This was the stuff of dreams.

This is "Mystery, Alaska" goes Euro.

"Definitely. Unbelievable. Watching them come into the village, you're just awestruck," said Andre Signoretti, a native of the Ottawa suburb of Manotick, Ontario, who once captained the Ohio State University hockey team. "I'm 26 years old, [I was] watching some of those guys when I was young. You just kind of give them a look, 'wow.' But then, after, we had a meeting, kind of pushed all that aside. It's just like every other team. They're still hockey players like us."

And that was the beauty of this otherwise unmemorable contest. For a couple of hours, the considerable gap between the millionaire NHLers and their Italian counterparts was closed. For the nine Canadians of Italian heritage and the two American-born Italians on the team, this is as good as it gets.

Early on, the near-capacity crowd at the Palasport Olimpico rose as one, waving Italian flags and chanting, "Italia, Italia, Italia."

And that was when an Italian defenseman was simply standing behind his own net with the puck.

When Rick Nash flattened an Italian defender early in the game, you could almost imagine an inward smile -- "Wow, I got nailed by Rick Nash."

And to their credit, the Italians did not squander this opportunity.

If there was awe, it was balanced almost equally with adrenaline, at least for the first half of the game. They threw themselves at Canadian skaters. They charged the net on their sporadic forays into the Canadian zone.

There was forward Giorgio de Bettin on a quasibreak down the right side, rifling a shot, his teammates crashing the net and leaving Canadian netminder Martin Brodeur rubbing his noggin gingerly. There was Tony Iob buzzing around the ice. He admitted prior to the game that he wanted to get Joe Sakic's autograph for his 7-year-old son Cameron, who has a Sakic poster in his room.

"We've been working up toward this game for a year or two now," said Carter Trevisani, a former Ottawa 67, who was drafted by the Carolina Hurricanes, but never played in the NHL. "Yeah, it's amazing playing against these guys, I won't ever forget it. All my buddies back home are watching on TV.

"I tried to hit a few guys. I tried to hit them as hard as I could. I wanted to put them through the boards."

After Italy fell behind 1-0 on a power-play goal by Jarome Iginla, the Italian crowd was sent into delirium when Jason Cirone tipped a point shot past Brodeur to knot the game at 1.

So what if the lead lasted only 72 seconds until Dany Heatley, who'd been in the penalty box for the Italian goal, restored the Canadian lead for good?

"When we made it 1-1, I thought, 'Wow, something special's going on here right now,'" Cirone said. "For what, about 38 seconds? So we had Canada 1-1 for 38 seconds, so that's good."

Remember Moonlight Graham in "Field of Dreams"? Cirone is one of a handful of Moonlight Grahams on this Italian team.

Drafted by the Winnipeg Jets in the third round in 1989, Cirone played all of three games. He did not record a point. He took one minor penalty. His most vivid NHL memory is of being on a 2-on-1 in Madison Square Garden and the play being blown dead in the middle of the rush.

"I looked back and Mike Hartman was fighting Joe Kocur and I was so angry with him because I figured I'd get my first shot on net, but I didn't. That's what I remember of my NHL days," he said.

Cirone will turn 35 later in the tournament, and his hockey days are coming to a close. Wednesday he made sure this was one he'll remember always.

"It will because I took everything in. During the warm-up, when I was waiting in the corner for a pass, I'd look up and see all the people and I'd look down at the other end and see the other players," he said. "I made sure that I took everything in this time to enjoy it. I remember my first game in Chicago and the other two games I played in the NHL. I really didn't do that and I don't remember much of them. Except for Joey Kocur punching out Mike Hartman."

By the midway point of the game, the Italians simply ran out of juice and Canada began to look a little less jet lagged, scoring five times in the second frame to take any drama out of the proceedings. In the end, the Canadians outshot the Italians 50-20.

Italian netminder Jason Muzzatti, a Toronto native, was asked about the difference between the Canadians and the competition in the Italian league, where most of the Italian team members play.

"It's F-1 and bumper cars," said Muzzatti, a former Calgary prospect who played in 62 NHL games after being selected 21st overall in the 1988 draft.

It's entirely likely the Italians will not win a game in this tournament. No matter.

The crowd still roared its approval when John Parco, a Philadelphia Flyers draft pick and Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, native, blew a slap shot past Brodeur with 1:52 left in the second period. And after it was over and the Italians had shaken hands with the Canadians, they stood around center ice and raised their sticks to acknowledge the crowd, which in turn acknowledged them.

"It's funny, at the start of the game, you want to get it over with quick, try to get a decent result. At the same time, you don't want it to end, it's such a great challenge," Muzzatti, 36, said. "Being an older player, the mind-set was a little different tonight. I just wanted it to last for a long time, such a thrill."

All Olympic experiences should be so rewarding.

Scott Burnside is an NHL writer for ESPN.com.