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Hockey fans gear up for rival showdowns; Canadian men and women set to play U.S.

TORONTO - Canadian Olympic fans are gearing up for back-to-back Canada-U.S. hockey showdowns, with both the women's and the men's teams set to take on their big rivals.

Generous lunch breaks and forgiving bosses may be on tap across the country on Thursday and Friday as the hotly anticipated games are set for noon ET.

Ben Middleton and colleague Rob Dinis were on one of those "extended" lunches from their Scotiabank jobs Wednesday as they joined about 300 people gathered around two huge television screens near the food court in a downtown office tower to watch the Canadian men's team play Latvia.

A sea of office workers pumped their fists in the air as Canada's Shea Weber scored in the third period to break a nerve-wracking tie and secure Canada's 2-1 win.

Middleton, who grimaced and gestured through the tense game while sporting a Team Canada jersey, said any sport involving people representing their country is exciting.

A similarly huge cheer arose in the indoor plaza when commentators broke into the hockey game to show Canada's Kaillie Humphries and Heather Moyse win the gold medal in women's bobsled.

"It's always good in the winter to be a hockey fan, but with the Olympics every four years it's always something special to see the best players from all over the world get together and see what they can do."

Dinis said he is "extremely" excited for the upcoming Canada-U.S. games, but just wishes the men could have played the Americans for gold, instead of in the semi-finals.

"It all has to do with country pride," he said. "It's all representation of your country and your roots...When you have an NHL aspect to it it's all about representing your city, but this is already a bigger scale because it is Canada and you know that the Americans are our biggest rivals, so it's huge in that aspect."

Eyes across the country and beyond were glued to television screens watching Wednesday's game. Even some of the country's most hallowed institutions were swept up in fan fever.

In a courthouse northwest of Toronto, a judge overseeing a murder trial extended the lunch break by several minutes so the jury wouldn't miss the end of the game.

Stephen Harper's official Twitter account posted a picture of the prime minister and colleagues watching the game in Mexico, where he was meeting with the American and Mexican presidents at the so-called Three Amigos summit.

Meanwhile in Halifax, fans in one of the city's newest sports bars across from historic Citadel Hill watched the action intently on the massive screens.

The crowd was subdued as the underdog Latvians kept things tight, but after the winning goal was scored the overall reaction turned to relief and fans began looking forward to the looming semi-final with the U.S.

"I'm pretty excited for Friday I don't know how I'll get any sleep," said Nick Morris.

Despite some low-scoring games thus far, Morris predicted Canada is still on track for gold.

"The U.S. and Canada are both not familiar with the big ice," he said. "I'm thinking it's going to be a pretty good game."

Lawyer George Bougadis, who was among the Toronto office tower crowd watching Wednesday's game, said he believes the Canadian women will triumph over their U.S. rivals, but is less sure about the men.

"I think the women's game in particular has a great history and that's what makes it very interesting," he said.

Bougadis said he prefers NHL hockey, but it means more to cheer for his country.

"It's refreshing and it's also patriotic," he said. "I think it's great, brings everybody together. We just had 300 people sitting here, cheering, and I just made three new friends without even knowing anything other than hockey and we're Canadians."

Bougadis said he would have preferred to see the Canadian men play the Russians for the gold medal. Instead, as Finland knocked Russia out of the running earlier Wednesday, the winner of the Canada-U.S. game will play the winner of a Sweden-Finland game for gold.

American hockey fans would have wanted to face the Russians for gold too, said Paul Grant, the deputy editor of ESPN.com.

"Whenever the Americans beat the Russians that's a big deal, so I think that that would have probably had just as much gravity to it as U.S.-Canada," Grant said in a telephone interview.

Grant, a Canadian now based in Bristol, Conn., said for American fans, if their team reaches the gold medal game—which Grant predicts they will—the fact that they won't be facing either of their biggest rivals could water down interest in it.

"I think the 2010 game (in which Canada beat the U.S. 3-2 in overtime) set a really good, perhaps...bad precedent because it was such a great game and it was something that resonated on both sides of the border," he said.

Hockey fans in Halifax were also skeptical about Canada's chances of beating the U.S. in men's hockey.

Stephen Campbell of Charlottetown said watching the close game with the Latvians was "rough" but the real challenge was yet to come against the U.S.—a team he described as a "huge rival."

"For us it's a really big test now that Russia is out and it comes down to a lot of patriotic pride as well because we obviously beat them in the gold medal game in Vancouver and that was huge," he said. "It's going to be a massive game for us."

—with files from Keith Doucette in Halifax.

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