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Vladimir Kopat may be the toast of Belarus, thanks to his improbable shot that beat Sweden, but he is not the tiny country's most famous hockey son.

That honour goes to Canada's Wayne Gretzky, although he did not know it until yesterday.

Then again, neither did most of Belarus.

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When he was asked about his grandfather Anthony Gretzky, father of Walter, he said, "all I know is that my grandfather came from White Russia."

Then a voice from the crowd at his news conference said White Russia is now Belarus. Gretzky looked nonplussed and said, "I didn't know that. I thought he was from White Russia, I didn't know there was a difference. See, I'm learning, too."

This was also news to Vladimir Novitski, the main sports broadcaster for the Belarussian State Television and Radio Company. When he was told about the Gretzky connection by The Globe and Mail, Novitski said this will be "huge news" back home, and "I will definitely include this in my report tomorrow."

Novitski allowed that he is the Don Cherry of Belarussian television, although he doesn't like to brag about it.

"I'm a humble guy, but yes I am," he said, once it was explained to him that Cherry is the hockey big shot of Canadian television.

So it's only fitting that he deliver the second-biggest story to hit the country in two days. The first, of course, came when Kopat hit the biggest long shot of all to beat Sweden on Wednesday and send Belarus into the semi-finals of the men's Olympic tournament today against Canada.

Incidentally, the win was the 400th for the Belarussians as a national team. That took them 9 years 99 days to accomplish, meaning there is still a Gretzky connection.

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Both Novitski and Aleksandr Leshchik, the general manager of the Belarussian team, said the win over Sweden was the most important event to happen to the country since it morphed into its current state after the fall of the Soviet Union. The folks back in Minsk, the nation's capital and largest city, partied long and hard.

"For sure, there were huge parties," Leshchik said. "People were up celebrating on the streets until 5 in the morning. Now, hockey games will pull down soccer games [in popularity]"

Novitski said the win is so big that right after he breaks the big scoop on Gretzky, he will propose a national holiday for Feb. 20 to mark the win.

"That way, when you put the date [numerically] it will be 2002, 2002, and everybody will remember Belarus's greatest win," he said.

Kopat, a defenceman who toils in the Russian league, looked like he still couldn't believe his good fortune when his 60-foot shot bounced off goaltender Tommy Salo's upraised catching glove, over his head and into the net to give Belarus a 4-3 win.

"I could say I saw the goalie moving out and I decided to send the puck over and behind him, but that is a joke," Kopat said, with Leshchik acting as interpreter. "I just made a shot and willed it to make a goal."

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Kopat has no doubt he will get a tumultuous reception from a good portion of his country's 10 million people when he returns home -- no matter what happens against Canada.

"It's going to be a great hospitality," he said. "Not only for me, but for all the players."

He is not sure if the goal will catapult him out of the relatively low-paying Russian league to relative fortune in Europe or North America. "I am not able to tell now. Maybe in the future," he said.

Kopat and his teammates have already received a congratulatory telegram from Aleksandr Lukashenko, the President of Belarus. In addition to presiding over what is considered a Soviet-style police state, Lukashenko is a hockey nut who plays three times a week.

"His shirt is No. 1, and he actually plays in a league with veteran Belarussian hockey players," said Novitski, a guy who knows who signs his paycheques, as he went into a long testimonial about the president. "He's a really good skater. Definitely, out of all the presidents in the world, he is the most athletic. Every February, we have a big winter competition, and he skis the 20-kilometre cross-country race."

Gretzky said his grandfather was a refugee from the Russian revolution.

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"He left in 1917 or 1918 and went to Chicago with his brother," Gretzky said. "Both of them joined the American army, but they were told if they went up to Winnipeg and joined the Canadian army, the pay and benefits would be better, so my grandfather went there.

"The only thing I remember my grandfather talking about was the 1972 series against the Soviets. He was very excited about that."

While the Belarussian victory is the feel-good story of the Olympic Games, not everyone agrees. Viacheslav Fetisov, head coach and GM of the Russian team and long an enemy of the Soviet system, made that clear when he was asked what it would mean if his team beats the United States today.

"It means we'll be in the final, hopefully against Belarus," Fetisov said. "And I hate those guys. Yeah, put that in the newspaper, I hate those guys."

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