Hockey Letdowns Testing America’s Patience

America doesn’t settle. Anything short of first place is anathema, whether the competition is warfare, the world economy or “American Idol.” Wonder how Peyton Manning’s offseason is going? That’s the approximate feeling we have today about the U.S. hockey initiative.

It was cute watching Team USA, in the post-Miracle years, evolve into a robust operation that claimed an Olympic silver medal in 2002 and another in 2010. But today, after a strangely passive performance in a semifinal loss to Canada, deep disappointment has crept in. This was the most important hockey game in American history because it was an opportunity to prove, 34 years since Lake Placid, that the U.S. has grown exponentially from that charming moment to attain global pre-eminence in pucks.

Instead, we are Buffalo, and the lads are the Bills. And the 1-0 loss in Sochi would be much easier to absorb if the Americans hadn’t been so damned … well, let defenseman Ryan Suter summarize.

“We didn’t show up to play,” he said. “It’s too bad. We sat back. We were passive. You can’t play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn’t take it to them at all.”

From the early moments, when Canada was bombarding Jonathan Quick with torrents of shots, the U.S. was outclassed. Not once did the Canadians appear the least bit vulnerable, and the game truly seemed over when Jamie Benn scored early in the second period. Team USA could not sustain an attack against an opponent with supreme speed, waves of weapons and a stifling defensive game plan. Dan Bylsma, the coach, deserves considerable heat for not having his team ready to match Canada’s focus and passion. “They came at us with 20 guys. They came at us with speed and they came at us for 60 minutes and that was a fast game. That was as fast a game as I’ve ever been a part of,” Bylsma said. “There was lots of speed out there, up and down the ice, and we weren’t able to counter that as much as we’d like.”

It was a harsh reminder that Canada, which has more kids playing hockey and more indoor arenas than any other country, remains the superior hockey nation. America ranks second in both categories, and as long as Canada views hockey as religion and the U.S. views it as nonessential, it will be difficult to claim gold at the Winter Games. When Sidney Crosby can remain goal-less for a team headed to the gold-medal game, against Sweden, the discrepancy is obvious.

“We didn’t really create much offense. It’s a little disappointing,” said American forward Patrick Kane, who, listed at 5-11, was knocked around by bigger Canadian checkers. “I think everyone expected a tight-checking game, but to say we would have gotten shut out, I don’t think anyone would have thought that.”

It was a cruel double-whammy for American hockey fans, with the Canadian women’s team overcoming a late 2-0 deficit to beat the devastated Americans in overtime the day before. The men’s power outage couldn’t have come with worse timing. Between the broadcast on the NBC Sports Network and live streaming via broadband, never have more viewers watched a hockey game in the U.S. — and that includes the epic gold-medal showdown in Vancouver four years ago. If people weren’t sneaking peeks in their office workspaces, they were blowing off the day entirely to watch this game. Who in America didn’t love the story line? Once again, a sporting nation that focuses on football, basketball, baseball and even soccer seemed ready to overtake a country that always has seen hockey as its mother lode.

“There’s a lot of animosity, a lot of feelings like there’s something to prove between both teams,” Canada’s Jonathan Toews said. “It’s become even a bigger rivalry than Canada-Russia. It doesn’t get any better than that, playing for your country and going against the United States. Millions of kids grow up dreaming of this situation.”

“It’s a team that you want to be able to beat to say that you played through the best,” Kane said.

America will have to wait four more years. That means 38 years will have passed since the Miracle. I suggested NBC have Al Michaels in the booth for the final 10 seconds Friday, when he could have barked, “DO YOU BELIEVE IN WORLD DOMINATION? YES!!!”

His presence wasn’t necessary.