This Time, Winning Gold Won’t be a Miracle

I was watching in Ohio, inside a frat house, one of those places that still conducted Hell Week and had a Richie Incognito on every floor. Where were you? If you are older than 40, you remember exactly where you were on Feb. 22, 1980, and you recognize it as the day when communism and the color red began to fade, with a nudge from a crew of American hockey lads who didn’t know better and dismantled a Soviet Union machine.

The problem, more than three decades later, is that we’re still clinging to that memory in this country. Shouldn’t we finally let go of the Miracle on Ice, place it in a time capsule with Pac-Man machines, Bill Cosby’s sweaters and other 1980s waybacks? Closer to the point, isn’t it high time for Team USA to advance the Olympic narrative, provide a new watershed moment that proves America is a consistently elite hockey nation?

“I think the Miracle on Ice obviously is a great accomplishment for the U.S., but it was 34 years ago, and we’re still living on something that happened 34 years ago,” said forward David Backes, a two-time Olympian. “As great as it was, and awesome an accomplishment as it was, I think the guys here would like to write our own chapter, and then we can talk about ’80 and 2014.”

How perfect would it be, then, to write it over the next nine days? Imagine skating onto Russian ice, in front of a bloodthirsty audience that still thinks it is waging a Cold War against the U.S. while waiting an entire generation for revenge, and winning another gold medal? If it wouldn’t have the political and social ramifications of the Miracle, it would be an even larger sports conquest in establishing America as a legitimate global powerhouse. Four years ago, Team USA nearly spooked Canada into a permanent depression, taking the hosts and their hockey-as-religion culture to overtime in the gold-medal game before settling for silver. Why wouldn’t the Americans, with the same mixture of strong goaltending and opportune goal-scoring, create similar anxieties in Sochi? “The standard was raised in 2010,” U.S. defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “Nothing else is acceptable for us now, other than gold.”

The juxtaposition of pressure, and relative lack thereof, is staggering. While the U.S. mission is gold, it doesn’t come with a national mandate as it does in Russia. The host nation could win every other event in the Winter Games, but if the hockey team produces anything less than gold, you sense the Olympics will be a failure and Vladimir Putin will ship Alex Ovechkin and the boys to Siberia. It’s fabulous that the teams are meeting so early in the tournament, for a Saturday preliminary game that certainly is worth an early wakeup call in the Eastern time zone (7:30 a.m.) and even three hours earlier in Pacific time. The loser isn’t eliminated and the winner is assured of nothing, but we’ll find out much about both teams and their capacity to win it all. The Americans should plan on having the time of their lives, because in our land, where hockey isn’t a dominant source of national pride, we aren’t demanding a championship. In Russia, gold almost seems a necessity for survival, and if the fans were loud in Bolshoi Ice Dome for a 5-2 victory over Slovenia — chanting “Ro-ssi-ya! Ro-ssi-ya!” — the sight of U.S. uniforms could cause a ruckus that blows the dome off.

“The Olympics are probably the most important thing for Russians than any other athletes in the whole world,” Ovechkin said. “And since I was a little kid and since everybody was a little kid, their dream was playing in Olympic Games, especially if we have a chance to represent our country in Sochi in Russia. It’s unbelievable.”

“Yeah, this Olympics there is much more pressure,” Russian captain Pavel Datsyuk said. “The pressure is enormous, and it’s growing every day. Everyone is expecting only one thing from us. And we won’t have the right to make an error.”

A critical decision awaits U.S. coach Dan Bylsma, one that could help the Americans win a gold medal or sabotage their equilibrium. Does he stay with his winning goaltender in the opener, Jonathan Quick, who stopped 21 of 22 shots in the 7-1 rout of Slovakia and has built a resume the last two years as the best American-born goaltender? Or does he shift to Ryan Miller, who was magnificent at the 2010 Games in going 5-1 with a .946 save percentage and nearly backstopping a gold-medal team? A one-man system usually is ideal in an Olympic tournament, allowing a goalie to get hot and carry a team, but a Quick/Miller tandem might defy conventional wisdom. “I’ve certainly seen past circumstances where two goaltenders have played in a tournament and the team has gone on to have success,” Bylsma said.

He’d better make the right call with Ovechkin, Datsyuk, Evgeni Malkin and Ilya Kovalchuk wearing opposing sweaters. Russia has the firepower to win gold. But Russia also carries the enormous weight of a nation and is capable of a collapse. At least this time, the Russians won’t be overlooking Team USA, as Vladislav Tretiak said the other day. It was Tretiak, the Soviet goaltending legend, who was yanked after allowing two first-period goals in the Miracle on Ice game. He and his teammates were devastated, but they did return four years later to win gold in Sarajevo.

“It was a good lesson that the Americans taught us,” Tretiak told reporters. “You have to respect your competitors and only after the game can you tell what you think about them. We did not have respect for the competitors at that time, but we don’t have that during this Olympics. In 1980, it was a miracle. And it made it possible for ice hockey to develop fast in the United States.”

So fast, in fact, that a miracle may be giving birth to a monster. Al Michaels, who delivered the most famous line in sportscasting history, will be doing play-by-play for NBC. This time, he may ask if we believe in monarchs.