Ask me for the signature American moment in the Winter Olympics thus far, and I’m left in a Sochi fog. Bob Costas hasn’t been the only local no-show, sad to say. At one point, there were so many disappointments that Eddie Olczyk and Jeremy Roenick offered their services in the two-man luge event.
Can’t you think of a better time for the best Olympic hockey team in the US of A to show how it’s done?
Team USA surprised the world once before, but it wouldn’t be a shocker if it stood at the top of the gold medal podium this time. It’s one-half of the best rivalry in the Winter Games, bar none. Only Putin versus Obama comes close.
Talented? They’re deeper than the Black Sea. Tough? Check out the YouTube clip after you’ve read this. Competitive? Put it this way – if they don’t bring gold back to the States, then I don’t want to be the one who picks them up them at the airport.
But you know all about the women’s team, right?
“When that buzzer goes off and it erupts in the arena and we’ve fallen short of our goal of being the best in the world, that hurts,” forward Julie Chu said after a 6-1 blowout of Sweden put the U.S. in the championship game. “The last four years, that’s been our goal.”
The USA men’s team has gotten a lot of love lately and deservedly so. Its victory against Russia the other day was crazy good — so good that T.J. Oshie went in as a virtual unknown outside hockey circles and come out a true American hero. Not long after Oshie scored the game-winner in a shootout (yuck), his Twitter handle received more than 136,000 mentions in a 4 1/2-hour span, according to one report.
Even a certain famous basketball fan got in the act. “Congrats to T.J. Oshie and the U.S. men’s hockey team on a huge win! Never stop believing in miracles. #GoTeamUSA -bo”
Got your Oshie Owns Sochi t-shirt yet?
Then again, even though the men’s squad consists exclusively of millionaire NHL players, Americans have little if any Olympic expectations for it. Just medal, baby, any medal. When Team USA does catch a wave, as was the case in Vancouver four years ago, when it was one overtime shot away from gold, or ride a really big one, which happened in the Miracle on Ice three decades ago, the bandwagon fills up faster than a one-timer from the face-off circle.
Yet while the richer, more well-known professionals cast a large shadow over them every four years, the younger, less experienced women amateurs carry the the real hopes of the country. Canada has captured 11 of the 16 world hockey championships, while the United States has claimed the other five. Since 1998, when women’s hockey made its Olympic debut, Team USA has finished first, second, third and second in that order. Canada skated off with the last three gold medals, but you-know-who has been on its tailpipe since then.
Canada, U.S., U.S., Canada . . . Detect a pattern here?
It may not get much publicity, but the Canada-United States rivalry takes a backseat to no one. Take Auburn-Alabama, Duke-North Carolina, 49ers-Seahawks and Red Sox-Yankees, put them in a blender, shake well then serve on ice. That’s Canada versus the U.S. in women’s hockey. Both have enormous respect for one another, they will tell you, but to say they can’t stand each another on the ice is a Zamboni-sized understatement.
“The real deal,” Canada head coach and ex-NHL player Kevin Dineen called the mutual dislike for lack of a better word.
“When I was in the Canadian league for Brampton, I lived in a house with a bunch of Canadian players, and we were really close even though I had to live in the basement,” espnW quoted former U.S. Olympian Jamie Hagerman Phinney not long ago. “That said, I still hate Canada. I’m a Red Sox fan, so I hate losing to the Yankees, but not nearly as much as losing to Canada.”
In these Winter Games, it took all of a few hours to understand as much. The Canadians drew first blood in the preliminary round, 3-2, an outcome that otherwise meant little in that both teams already had clinched spots in the semifinals. Except that the Americans would rather kiss goalposts in sub-zero temperatures than lose to their bitter rivals.
Asked about the NHL stars who watched the game in person, forward Amanda Kessel dismissed them as “just somebody else in the crowd” in a fit of frustration.
But wasn’t it nice to see her famous brother Phil, a member of the USA men’s team?
“Yeah, didn’t really make a difference,” she groused to reporters while sweat slid down her cheeks.
“I have a little sour taste in my mouth right now,” Kessel went on to say, not that an explanation was necessary. “Coming away from this game, we can learn from that.”
To make matters worse, a controversial goal gave Canada a 2-1 lead early in the third period. The winners claimed the whistle had been blown after the puck slid across the goal line. “We thought we heard a whistle before the puck went in the net, and they celebrated before the light went on, before the ref made a decision,” Team USA captain Meghan Duggan begged to differ. Then there was the Russian judge, who argued that both teams should be disqualified from the tournament immediately.
As defenseman Anne Schleper put it succinctly, “Losing stinks.”
When Canada is the opponent, losing sucks, too.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, the superpowers will collide again, this time on Thursday at high noon. U.S. forward Hilary Knight has predicted a “bloodbath” already. About the only people who aren’t thrilled about the matchup are the International Olympic Committee officials, who have been fearful of a North American takeover in the sport for years.
“I don’t think (Canada) can beat us two times in a row,” U.S. forward Kelli Stack said. “Especially with what’s on the line.”
Puckhead or not, shame on you for six months if you miss this one. Because Canada and the United States don’t throw out just the record books when they play one another. They’re liable to throw off their gloves, too.
When the mortal enemies met in the Olympic trials in North Dakota last December, an NHL game broke out in the final seconds. The United States owned a 4-1 lead when a Canada player took a run at one of their own. Forward Jocelyne Lamoureux responded with an illegal check into the boards. Eleven players were crammed in the penalty box like human sardines. The scuffle consisted of hard tackles and smelly face washes mostly, but it said a lot about the love the two teams had for one another.
“I love playing against Canada. I think there’s this mutual respect that they love playing against us, too,” Knight said. “Both of us are so passionate and have so much fervor for our countries, we want to do the best that we can do. And that’s being on the gold medal podium.”
In the opener in Vermont two months earlier, which Canada won, 3-2, Lamoureux’s twin sister Monique clipped the visitor’s goalie in the crease area. The result was a brawl that lit up YouTube for weeks. “I’m not a proponent of fighting in hockey, but I am a proponent of standing up for yourself,” U.S. head coach Katey Stone drew a line on the ice afterward. “We will not be pushed around.”
Text to IOC honchos: You may want to add a third referee the next time.
So now the nation turns its lonely eyes to ice level, where its hockey teams are in position to create a magical moment for the ages. Wouldn’t it be something if both advanced to the championship games and gave the folks back home something to get really excited about for a change? What would it do for the sport in this country if both won gold medals and upstaged their hockey-crazed neighbors to the north in the process? Bet the President would love to Tweet about that.
As Chu said, “We’re going for a different color this time.”
So go ahead, Al Michaels, ask me if I believe in Miracle on Ice II.