Paging Al Michaels: US Will Beat Canada
As the lads threaten to leave another historical imprint, it's only fitting they try Sunday against the neighbor to the north that invented hockey and always has resented our lackadaisical treatment of the sport. "HOCKEY IS CANADA'S GAME!" read a sign not far from the U.S. bench Friday, as if trying to reinforce the thought as the Americans were stampeding a comically futile team from Finland that never showed up for the semifinal. Not only has Team USA advanced to the gold-medal game, it shouted its emergence with a 6-1 romp that will turn the championship scene at Canada Hockey Place into one of the wildest and most emotional tempests in the history of the sport -- and the Winter Games -- after the Canadians' 3-2 win Friday night over Slovakia.
Ready for the most awaited hockey game in an American generation? Maybe the better question is whether Canada can handle the devastation if it loses to Team USA ... again ... for the second time in a week on Canadian ice. My gosh, Dudley Do-Right just might defect. And recalling the rioting in the Vancouver streets back in 1994, after the Canucks lost to the New York Rangers in a Game 7, well, I'll be avoiding that mess on Granville Street, thank you.
Any notion that the Americans were a fluky Final Four team ended two minutes into Friday's first period, when one of the world's best goalies, Finland's Mikka Kiprusoff, looked like he wasn't into playing the final 58 minutes. As if trying to catch the next flight to Helsinki, he dished the softest, weakest clearout pass you'll ever see, providing a perfect lead to U.S. forward Ryan Malone, who flipped in the wrister for a 1-0 advantage. By the 13th minute, the score astonishingly was 6-0, with the first four goals tallied on only seven shots against a goalie who had led the tournament with a .947 save percentage and had just recorded a 31-save shutout of the Czech Republic. Mercifully, Kiprusoff was yanked and sheepishly vanished into the tunnel. Each time the Americans scored, a smattering of a thousand fans or so exploded in the downtown building, waving red, white and blue flags of all sizes and chanting "USA! USA!" as their forerunners did in 1980 in a little arena in Lake Placid.
"I've never been part of a period like that. That was something special. It was crazy, like we scored on every shift," forward Patrick Kane said. "This team knew all along that it can win gold, and all this does is make us feel more confident. We've done everything we've had to do here so far. Our goal is the gold now."
"If you're not thinking about that," defenseman Brooks Orpik said, "you're lying."
There won't be more than a few hundred U.S. fans in the stands Sunday, most likely, even though Vancouver is a short drive -- except for the messy customs stop -- over the border. Seems the Canadians, despite scalping prices going as high as $5,000 a ticket, won't be selling their seats for such a grand moment. If 1980 produced the victory to be forever known as the Miracle on Ice, winning gold on Canadian ice -- certainly possible, despite the can't-beat-them-twice nonsense -- would be a validation of America as a serious world player. We've had our moments in the sport, grooming future Hall of Famers and forging into the Olympic final eight years ago, where a Canada team pieced together by Wayne Gretzky finally won gold. But this would confirm that America can build champions, three decades after spinning a fairy tale. The Miracle on Ice was a killshot against Soviet rule and helped make the world a better place. A gold medal here has a completely different meaning: It just might be the boon hockey needs to become big in America. There hasn't been a team this cool in the States since, dare I say, the basketball Dream Team.
"This kind of blows me away. One of my friends said the Jonas Brothers said something on Twitter, and Alyssa Milano and stuff like that," said goalie Ryan Miller, who continued his Olympic mastery -- while his teammates continued to throw themselves at flying rubber and block shots -- before he was pulled for a much-deserved rest with 11:31 remaining. "It's been a little surreal. It's just very different to me. I am used to hockey just being a cult sport that people just want to pay attention to at their convenience."
Not anymore. Everyone is watching, believing that the first gold since the Miracle is possible. The players are believing, too. "We want to win a medal -- a gold medal," said defenseman Ryan Suter, whose father, Bob, was on the 1980 team. "We've believed in ourselves every step of the way."
"All of us came in expecting to win gold. Nothing has changed," said defenseman Jack Johnson, who said famously before the tournament that he doesn't like the Canadian team. "I've got a lot of gold medals at home from playing in tournaments. We came here to win gold."
Beating the Canadians, at their Olympics, would be one of America's epic international sports victories. Now that NBC has figured out why Team USA should be aired lived on the big blowtorch, the Sunday ratings will be gigantic, highest ever for a hockey game nationally, helped by another snowstorm that has socked the East and fed the appetite for warmth and feel-goodism. It isn't often when the U.S. is the underdog battling the perceived behemoth, but that's the way it'll be in hockey until a gold-medal is won without a Disney theme. Canada's coach, Mike Babcock, issued a reminder about supposed supremacy when he crowed after the breakthrough quarterfinal victory over Russia.
"It's going to be one country's game [at the Olympics], but we try to prove on a regular basis that it's ours," Babcock said. "I'm a bit of a redneck, and I think it's ours."
Imagine if Team USA quieted the redneck. The way Miller is consistently stoning opponents, anything is possible. He has stopped 103 of 108 shots in this event and showed no signs of fatigue. If he were to slip up Sunday, U.S. coach Ron Wilson will face heat for interrupting the flow and continuity, but right now, every decision is working and fans should keep the faith. Indeed, why not the Americans? They've already beaten the Canadians in their own building. If they don't have the depth of firepower of the Canadians, they have the ability to light up opponents quickly, with Kane finally showing his skills with a goal and assist in a two-minute span.
In a Canada rematch, there is no pressure on the Americans. They know what they are, the youngest team in the tournament, ahead of their time at an average age of 26.5 They also know they're good, smart, hard-working, selfless and tactically sound, using the 30-year anniversary of the Miracle more as a historical sidebar than a blueprint. "It's awesome. I've watched the movie; I've watched the actual game on tape," said U.S. forward Ryan Kesler, who wasn't born until 1984. "We're not a bunch of amateur players; we're professionals, but it's a chance to write our own script. We're not favored going in there, but we're going to leave everything out there."
"We don't have many guys on this team who watched, if any, the 1980 Olympics," Wilson said. "To them, it's the movie, and the coach isn't Herb Brooks -- it's Kurt Russell. But the 1996 team (that beat Canada in the World Cup) is relevant to these guys because they would have been kids and watched it. They've maybe played with Keith Tkachuk or Mike Modano or Bill Guerin along the way. Those guys have told the stories, and everybody knows about that team. And I guess I'm the bridge now from that team to this one. We'll try to create the same sort of atmosphere."
While the Canadians, Russians and Finns struggled with consistency and chemistry, Wilson and Team USA general manager Brian Burke have done an impressive job of building a roster and formulating a successful game plan. Burke's personal ordeal has been well-chronicled: He is watching these Games with a heavy heart after the death of his 21-year-old son, Brendan, who was lost in a Feb. 5 automobile crash on a snowy Indiana road. Burke didn't march in the Opening Ceremony, saying his heart understandably wasn't in it even though he'd talked eagerly a few weeks earlier about participating. "But I never thought about not coming to the Olympics," he said. "My son would have wanted me to come. I was asked to do a job and I'm doing it. The fact that I have had a tragic event in life shouldn't change it."
Criticized for some of his roster decisions, Burke has quieted the critics. So has Wilson, an NHL journeyman coach who was fired in San Jose two years ago and is struggling with the Maple Leafs in the hockey hotbed of Toronto, where his friend Burke is the GM. "I've coached 16 years. I'm sixth all-time in games coached. I know I can coach. This isn't about me. This really isn't about me, it really isn't," Wilson said."If we don't win here, I don't think that negates my whole career in the NHL. I don't think winning a gold medal tops off everything. That to me is irrelevant."
Uh, hardly. Wilson, Burke and the players would become national heroes, whether they realize it or not. They realize if they don't beat the Canadians, they'll still be applauded at home. "We're going to be the underdogs," forward Zach Parise said. "We're going into the game with no pressure."
"There is no pressure," Kesler said. "No one expects us to win."
Why? We're not overstating matters in suggesting no team in the history of Olympic competition -- if not the history of modern sport -- ever has faced more pressure than the Canadian men's hockey assemblage. The Vancouver Games have been a painful struggle for the host nation after the government foolishly declared it would produce "the best Games ever" and "own the podium" in the competition. The Canadians could salvage some of their lost pride by concluding the Olympics with a gold medal in their mother-lode sport.
But if they fall short? And if they lose to the U.S., a country that has merely 2,050 hockey rinks for 300 million people while Canada has 11,000 for 33 million people? They'll have to place guards on every bridge in the nation, watching for jumpers. In the height of irony, the local police don't want a gold medal. After the Russia victory, a screaming, marching mob took over Robson Street, chanting, "We want USA! We want USA!" Drunken behavior has been an Olympic sport these two weeks, and a Canada gold would launch a night of insanity involving people from throughout the region. "If Canada happens to lose, they'll cry in their beer at home and decide they're not going to get on the SkyTrain," Constable Lindsey Houghton, a spokesman for the Vancouver Police Department, told the New York Times. "If Canada lost [to Russia], Canada would no longer be playing and that would have brought a huge reduction in the number of people coming downtown."
Instead, it brought a combination of obsession, psychosis and religion to the pulsating epicenter of it all, as if Canada's existence and self-esteem rides on 60 minutes inside an ice rink. Gretzky calmly predicted that the team's early woes would fade, saying after the U.S. loss that Canada would beat Germany and use "the next victory" -- Russia -- to bolster its confidence in the semifinal. But giddy as a nation has become with three straight wins, a loss today would be more than crippling to the collective psyche. Team Canada architect Steve Yzerman, whose legacy in this land unfairly rides on whether he wins gold or silver in his maiden Olympic voyage, denies the presence of a heavy burden. "The expectations and hopes for us are gold, but they are for other countries as well," he said. "Our players are used to this."
Baloney. No one could be ready for the Sunday afternoon inferno. As Burke said, in the defining quote about Canada and its hockey madness, "I think the pressure is glacial, unremitting and unrelenting. I can't imagine how they will function in it."
I can imagine Team USA functioning just fine in it. The Americans will win the gold. Get the lawn ready, Mr. Obama. "We believed we could win a gold medal," U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner said. "Now we have the opportunity in front of us."
"I've said all along that we have yet to play our best game," Kane said. "I think we have more in the tank."
"If we keep playing like this," Miller said, "we're are a tough team to hang with."
Do you believe in reality? Al Michaels, doing the game for NBC, should say it with a resounding, "Yes!"