VANCOUVER - It was 7:30 a.m. here, nearly five hours before Canada met the United States in what the morning's Toronto Globe and Mail called "the biggest hockey game of all time."

If the scene in and around Vancouver on the final day of the 2010 Winter Olympics was an accurate indication, that was no exaggeration.

On the SkyTrain to downtown Vancouver, one young man was aggressively chest-bumping the door and snarling at his reflection, "You want some of this, States? You want some of this Miller? We're gonna kick your [butt]."

When he turned around, you could see that under his jacket he wore a T-shirt that appeared to have a Phillies logo on it - the one with the Liberty Bell inside the crest.

Asked if that was the case, the young man pulled apart his jacket and examined his shirt, as if for the first time.

Where it should have said "Phillies" it instead read "Vinnie Paz", the pseudonym of Philadelphia-born rapper Vincenzo Luvineri.

"No," he said. "Vinnie Paz. He's a Philly MC."

At this point, his companions, one of whom was wearing a Canadian flag as a cape and had a red-and-gold maple leaf painted on his face, began harassing him.

"Philly?" one asked. "That's in the States! You're going against Canada!"

"Damn," he said, realizing his fashion faux pas too late, "I'm gonna have to buy a Canada shirt when we get there."

Fans in Canadian gear swarmed the Canada Hockey Center concourse before the game. One guy had fashioned a helmet out of a Molson Canadian mini-keg. Many draped Canadian flags from their shoulders like Superman's cape. A Sikh wore a red turban to match his red Team Canada jersey, red pants, and red shoes.

Team USA fans clustered in small groups like primitive tribes huddled for safety against the coyote howls in the night.

Amid the swirl of color, Erica Sylvester stood out. She wore a flag like a cape, but it was half Maple Leaf, half Stars and Stripes. Her husband Jamie was Canada from his cap to his toes.

"We live in Texas," Erica Sylvester said. "That's where I'm from, Houston. Jamie is from outside Edmonton."

They met thanks to the Enron meltdown. Jamie came to Houston to audit his company's interests, met Erica, and decided to stay. They have a 6-month-old son, Clark.

"This is Clark's flag," Erica said. "He's half Canadian, half American, so this is for him."

And how are they rooting?

"USA all the way for me, Canada all the way for him," Erica said.

He wore a No. 22 Team Canada sweater with "Bossy" across the back. She was clad in simpler Canadian gear. He is from Alberta and roots for the Calgary Flames. She is from Vancouver and is a Canucks fan.

"There are a lot of fights in our house," he said.

But they found common ground in their love of Team Canada. A few months ago, he suggested buying tickets for the bronze and gold medal Olympic hockey games. She saw the prices: $550 a pop.

"I don't think so," she said.

"I bought them anyway," he said. "Now she's glad I did."

He noticed the credential: Philadelphia.

"How many games you think Roy Halladay will win for you?" he asked. There is an edge to his voice. He's not real happy Toronto - the only Canadian team in Major League Baseball - traded the big righthander away.

But don't you think it's only fair, given 1993? Game 6? Joe Carter? Doesn't Toronto owe us one?

He shrugged.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I had to shave my head after that game. It wasn't pretty."

By 9:30 a.m., the SkyTrain from Richmond, British Columbia, was packed like anything you've seen from the Tokyo subway. At each stop, two or three people would get off and 10 or 15 would push their way on.

From a spot in the middle of the train, a tall guy in his early 20s shook his head in wonder.

"Everybody's going downtown to drink at 9 o'clock on a Sunday morning," he said. "Now I don't feel so bad. I thought I was going to be the only one."

In the bar-and-restaurant mecca of Yaletown, crowds 50 and 75 deep were lined up to get into places that did not open for hours.

On the Expo Line train to Canada Hockey Place, several young men and women were discussing what they'd been doing on the February day in 2002 when Canada won the gold by beating the United States in Salt Lake City.

Their reminiscing caught the ears of an even-younger gaggle of Canadian fans, to whom the talk had a distinct "back-in-my-day" flavor.

"Hey," one of the younger group said loudly, hoping to be overheard. "Remember when we had to pull the train with a rope to get it going?"

At the arena, everyone entering - fans, media, workers, even celebrities - was subjected to full screening. Coats had to be removed. Coins de-pocketed. Computers and bodies X-rayed.

At 8 a.m., the lines were maybe 10 deep; by 10:30 they stretched on for hundreds of people. Volunteers in sky-blue jackets handed out water and coffee to queued-up media members, attempting to ease the growing anxiety.

Actor Donald Sutherland, one of the few people entering who wasn't wearing Canadian red, made it through security at about 10:15 a.m.

Hockey legend Gordie Howe, a little stooped but still looking fit in a black Team Canada sweat suit, entered about 30 minutes later, only to be delayed by those asking him to sign autographs or pose for cell-phone photos.

For fans, the gates opened at 11:15 and soon the narrow corridors at what has to be the least luxurious NHL building were gridlocked.

Vancouver resident James Tomlinson lingered near an autographed photo of legend Bobby Orr diving jubilantly through the air after scoring the Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1970.

"Hon, this is only $300," he said pleadingly to his wife.

She did not yield.

"OK," he relented, "but if Canada wins, I'm coming back here and getting it."

"Way to go," his wife responded, "you just jinxed Canada."

Contact staff writer Frank Fitzpatrick at 215-854-5068 or