U.S. hockey takes silver, defeated by Canada 3–2

About 18 months ago, I wrote in this space about the compelling role team sports had taken in the 2008 Summer Olympic Games, despite the slew of individual competitions that make up the Olympiad. It would seem much harder to make this contention for its winter counterpart, where the athletic and the artistic are brought together through various individual games. Still, it was a team sport that had been simmering just offstage before stealing the show with its epic conclusion yesterday. Some of the greatest moments in the Vancouver Winter Olympic Games were brought about by the great American afterthought: hockey.

The National Hockey League (NHL) could not have asked for better advertisement. With star athletes Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin leading the powerhouse national teams of Canada and Russia, respectively, fans of the game were excited for what they expected to be a monumental showdown between these two teams in the gold medal game. But what actually happened drew those who had never watched a game of hockey to their televisions sets. When the United States defeated top-seeded Canada in preliminary play, it was the largest upset in hockey history, surpassed only by the Miracle on Ice 30 years ago. In one game, the entire landscape of the tournament, along with perception towards U.S. hockey, shifted.

Olympic hockey is recognized as being faster-paced and more skill-heavy than what fans are used to in the NHL. There is a higher premium on puck movement with rules put in place to reduce checking and eliminate fighting. Watching the best players in the world play under these conditions is something to behold, something first-time watchers have been realizing as they have tuned in to watch America’s unexpected Olympic run.

The U.S. team surprised Canada in its first outing with its aggressive play, fitted to the narrower North American rink being used in Vancouver. They made up for the talent gap that existed between them and team Canada by being grittier — fighting harder for pucks along the boards and constantly forcing the puck toward the net, ultimately muscling a win from Canada. This, coupled with great goalkeeping by Ryan Miller, allowed them to come out of the round robin preliminary round undefeated and seeded first. Suddenly, Russia and Canada were no longer on track to meet in the finals but much earlier in the quarterfinals. And suddenly, Canada’s chief rival was no longer the equally talented Russia, who they eventually disposed of easily, but the hard-playing United States.

What all of us were witnessing was the mark of team competition in its purest form. It is impossible for one player to carry a team in Olympic-style hockey, as is the case at times in the NHL. With all participating players already at the highest skill level, what separates each team from the others is their chemistry and ability to stick to a sound strategy. Team USA was able to play to its strengths. There was nothing flashy about any of the goals that they scored — the hallmark of Team USA in these Olympics was heavy pressure along the boards of the offensive zone and crashing the net. Early on, Canada and Russia seemed content with allowing their most talented players to create their own offense, which led to breathtaking goals, but both teams ran into trouble early on when they met more physical and cross-checking teams like the United States, Slovakia, and Switzerland.

The result was one of the most physical and close preliminary rounds in Olympic hockey history, setting the stage for one of the greatest hockey games ever played.

For the Americans, it was a story about their David to Canada’s Goliath. And for the Canadians, it was a story of redemption. It was fitting that the United States and Canada met again in the gold medal game. Canada had gone on to score a combined 15 goals in the two games following their loss to the United States, and seemed to have adopted the aggressive play the Americans had incorporated during their upset. Both teams seemed unstoppable leading up to the final game, and that the United States was able to score a tying goal with 24 seconds left in the final by frantically crashing the net was as much a shock as it was, well, completely appropriate.

Canada, in the end, got its redemption, finally winning a hockey gold medal on home soil. Canada’s sudden-death goal was not the prettiest Sidney Crosby ever scored — fighting the puck away from the board and forcing a shot on goal — but in the end, results counted more than style.

Canadians undoubtedly will have been celebrating this victory as a nation in a way the United States could not have done. But Americans are surely mourning this hockey loss unlike any they have before. Hopefully, this gives Americans around the nation reason to start attending local NHL games or to pick up the hockey stick that is gathering dust in their basement. One would hope that this was simply the start of a cross-border rivalry that has up until today been purely one-sided.