VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The first thing we need to know, as a nation of sports fanatics always ready to wrap ourselves in the American flag, is that this is no miracle. The national hockey condition is beyond the stage where we view Team USA as a cuddly underdog, where Disney makes movies about it and we recall exactly where we were and what we were doing. "USA hockey has come so far that it doesn't take a miracle or an odd thing for us to win," forward Chris Drury said.
A memorable Sunday on Canadian ice provided the latest and most powerful evidence. Thirty years after an epic triumph that was more about conquering Communism than breaking through in the sport, the Americans achieved the next-most impressive deed: They mortified a psychotic land too obsessed with its puckaholic religion, sending the Canadians into deep mourning -- and their Olympic team into major crisis mode -- by coming to an arena called Canada Hockey Place and putting them all in their place.
"Everything was stacked against us," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said after the 5-3 victory, "and we still came out on top."
By everything, he wasn't kidding. "(Bleep) USA! (Bleep) USA!" some of the bitter Canadians were chanting in the arena's upper reaches as the demoralizing reality sank in.
"USA! USA!" responded the small but vocal American contingent, thrilled to witness what could be the beginning of another wonderful hockey tale, part of a Vancouver Games that has become a succession of U.S. conquests from Lindsey Vonn to Shaun White, Shani Davis to Evan Lysacek, Bode Miller to Ryan Miller.
The only buzzkill was that NBC, which worries about losing its rear end to the tune of $250 million at these Games, didn't have the foresight to air the resounding moments of an instant classic, its most visible blowtorch. Because the telecast was not done in high-definition -- you pay $2.2 billion for Olympics rights and don't put the Canada-U.S. game in hi-def? -- an American viewer had to have cable network MSNBC to see Miller hold off the Canadians with monstrous late saves, which led to an empty-net goal by Ryan Kesler with 45 seconds left that sent Team USA into its wildest celebration since the Miracle on Ice. The network better have every state-of-the-art gadget in place for the quarterfinals on Wednesday and, if necessary, the semifinals Friday and gold-medal game next Sunday.
Because what we're watching is real.
"We believe we can beat anybody now," said 36-year-old defenseman Brian Rafalski, who scored twice, including an early goal that deflected off Sidney Crosby's skate into his own goal and established a karmic tone. "It's great for our young players to get a win of this caliber against that type of team. Going forward, it sets the bar very high for us. It lets those guys know that we can possibly win this thing."
"We're very confident," forward Zach Parise said. "We don't go into games saying, 'We're the underdogs.' That's not our mentality. That's up to you guys."
Us guys -- meaning we in the media -- are starting to believe.
In the Canadian hockey vernacular, Miller not only stood on his head, he spun around and snuffed out almost every opportunity. His parents gave their tickets to his cousins so they wouldn't pose a distraction. You gather Miller could play in an earthquake and wouldn't be bothered. "A goalie like him can steal games for us," forward Bobby Ryan said. "He makes guys calm, he has a great presence in net, and we're confident in him."
"I feel real good," Miller said. "I got support from my boys."
His boys were physical, at times bordering on dirty, repeatedly reminding the Canadians that they would be the aggressors. If some of the so-called animosity between the U.S. and Canadian players is overblown -- keep in mind that many Canadian-born players, such as Brodeur and, of course, the great Wayne Gretzky, have earned their fortunes across the border and made permanent residences in the U.S. -- there were several nasty hits and exchanges.
"Do I dislike them? Yes," U.S. defenseman Jack Johnson said.
When told of the comment, Canada's Chris Pronger dismissed Johnson as an inferior player trying to make headlines. "What are you getting at?" Pronger said. "Stirring the pot again? Next question."
While we make fun of the Canadian aficionados, give them this much: They sensed going in that the Americans would be the toughest rival. The national newspaper, the Globe and Mail, polled 1,000 people about who would be the most difficult opponent. Forty-six percent said the U.S., not Russia or Sweden or the others who played on what was called Super Sunday. That should be ample proof that the miracle days are long gone. The other day, the legendary Soviet goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, made waves when he downplayed the impact of the Miracle on Ice, saying of the 30-year anniversary of what many consider the greatest of all American sports wins, "It's a big number, but of course, it's 30 years ago."
In a matter of days, the miracle could be replaced by a 21st-century exclamation point.
This is my fourth decade of covering the Olympics, from Los Angeles to Vancouver, and I've never seen such a maniacal fervor surrounding an event that had no direct connection to a medals ceremony. The marquee should have called it "Nationalistic Blood On Ice," with "Rioting in the Streets" as a raw subtitle.
For a country that prides itself on equilibrium and calm, the scene downtown the previous two nights bordered on lunacy, with large, drunken crowds cramming into the Granville Street entertainment district and complicating the simple task of entering a restaurant or party. By the way, who was that goof trying to climb atop the neon sign above a shoe store? And why was everyone running around and screaming, looking for any TV camera that would come near? No wonder the local police established a cutoff time of 7 p.m. for liquor-store sales in the downtown area, wanting to avoid disturbances outside the arena, if not a riot.
"Because we're seeing capacity crowds we have never seen before, sustained crowds and public levels of intoxication, we felt it important to examine all avenues to ensure public safety," said a police spokesperson.
With glowing hearts? That's one of the themes of the Games, derived from "Oh, Canada," and neither heart was aglow when one Canadian tried to shove his way into a closing door at one of the Sky Train stops and got punched with a closed fist by another Canadian, who smiled as the train pulled away and the other guy held his face on the platform. It's as if Canada, after all these years of being an international patsy, finally decided to show some chops because it is hosting the Olympics.
But after the loss, fans walked away in disappointment. "USA, go away!" a few of them chanted on Dunsmuir Street, but for the most part, they shut their mouths and went home, let down again.
Hockey, of course, is the mother lode here. Unlike Olympic programming on U.S. television, which features ads involving many sports, most Canadian ads wrap around a central theme: the hockey team. One, for a tire company, has a dad and a son sharing their first skate on a pond, the beginning of any hockey dream up north. I dare suggest no team means more to a country in the entire world, soccer-crazed nations included, than the hockey team means to Canada. This is the country that gave birth to the sport and its greatest legends -- Gretzky was shown on the big TV screen in his seat, the king overseeing his domain -- yet this also is the country of frequent hockey heartbreak in Olympic competition. It would mortify these people if the U.S. performed better at these Games, on Canadian soil, when there is so much bitterness in how hockey is treated as a secondary sport in the U.S.
They cannot stand NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, and rightly so, because he has failed to transfer the magnitude of hockey in Canada to his league as a whole. In typical Bettman style, he still isn't sure if he wants to continue a two-week interruption of the NHL schedule to let players compete in the 2014 Games in far-flung Soshi, Russia. Sunday's six-team hockey spectacular, featuring the sport's best players performing for the elite national teams, should have reminded Bettman how wonderful the Olympic tournament is. The best tickets for the Canada-U.S. game, for instance, were going for $2,000 apiece on the streets. Yet, he remains non-committal.
"You do have to take a step back at ground level and look at the impact on our season," Bettman said. "I don't think I'm going to bother addressing what we would do in the event we make that decision until we actually make that decision. Let's deal with the first issue first, and then we'll worry about what flows from that. When I point out these things, it's not to say, `No, we're not going to go,' but we have a multi-billion-dollar business we're responsible for."
You lucked out on outdoor games on New Year's Day, Gary, thanks to cold-weather towns in the U.S. that love meshing hockey with beloved baseball stadiums. Don't blow this one, commish. "This is the pinnacle. For our game, our fans, Gary, we need you, 100 percent," pleaded Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation. "We need to have (NHL players) here." And if Bettman says no, his league just might be without its biggest drawing card, the electric Alex Ovechkin, who has threatened to blow off two weeks with the Washington Capitals to play in his native Russia.
Sports would have a massive crater if Canada's best couldn't play America's best and the world's best on a regular, all-important basis. Since 1996, when the U.S. briefly returned to a serious global level by upsetting Canada in the World Cup, the neighbors had met only in the 2002 Olympic finals in Salt Lake City, where the Canadians won their first gold medal in 50 years. "At the end of the day, Canada and Russia will always have a rivalry," Canada's Jonathan Toews said. "But the Russian rivalry dates to a long time ago, and I've kind of grown up with the American rivalry being bigger and at the forefront."
The rivalry just grew into a emotional crossroads for Canada. By next weekend, it could be a "USA! USA!" horror show.