Hockey ignites rivalry

Many people are familiar with the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team and its dramatic road to the gold medal in Lake Placid (even if only from watching the 2004 film “Miracle”). In those days, players from the NHL could not compete in the Olympics, thus thrusting a team of young amateurs and college players against some of the most prolific and powerful hockey teams in the world. In other words, it is the perfect setup for a Hollywood film. When the team matched up against the Soviet Union team in the semi-finals, everyone in the U.S. suddenly became a hockey fan, wanting to beat the hated Russians and making the situation much more than the Games. Americans wanted a victory against Communism and their rival on the world stage, proving that America was the better country.

The story went as it would have been written, as the Americans pulled off an incredible, dramatic victory and went on to win the gold medal by defeating Finland shortly after, putting the cap on what Sports Illustrated in 1999 called the “Top Sports Moment of the 20th Century.” Now, the rules have changed, allowing NHL players to participate in the Games beginning in 1998, and the U.S. and Russia have met three times since then. There is no more Soviet Union, yet that doesn’t change the fact that this past Saturday’s matchup of U.S. vs. Russia was indeed a great game.

The United States men’s hockey team has not won a gold medal since 1980, yet they have captured the silver medal in both 2002 and 2010. Still, the U.S. remains in what has been unofficially called the “Big Seven.” Russia, along with Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia and Sweden make up the rest of the group. While the change of ruling in 1998 that allowed the inclusion of NHL players in the Games would seem beneficial for the U.S., it seemed to merely bolster the majority of nations in the “Big Seven.” Although the majority of teams in the NHL are located in the U.S., over 50 percent of players are from Canada. Back in the 1950s, Canadians made up over 95% of the league, yet that percentage has slowly been shrinking as the U.S. now makes up almost 25% of the league for the first time. While watching Canada beat up on Austria last Friday night, I noticed how great this disparity in talent actually is. The U.S., for example, lost to the Soviets 17-2 back in 1969.

Yet, the U.S. looks pretty solid this year so far. Getting the chance to play against Russia, in Russia, in front of a Russian crowd that included none-other than Vladimir Putin, it seemed as if this game would have the set up to be pretty dramatic. The Americans took the lead early, yet Russia thundered back late in the game. Russia scored what they thought was the go-ahead goal near the end of the game, yet it was called off due to a “loose net,” a call that seemed to ignite and anger the Russian fans. The game ended in perhaps the most dramatic and drawn out way possible: a shootout. The U.S.’s T.J. Oshie got the game winner in the eighth round and the U.S. completed its dramatic win.

Yet all of the memories this game sparked, complete with Putin in audience, must have felt good for the American players, as well as some American fans.  This was, however, merely a pool game. The U.S. had already been expected to move on to the next round. Here there is no looming force of Communism that Americans felt united in defeating. There is no medal at stake yet, and the U.S. is certainly not an underdog of the mammoth proportions it once was. These U.S. guys are paid professionals now, skilled veterans. Still, Olympic hockey is fascinating in that it is one of the few professional sports played in the U.S. (and Canada) that gets the opportunity to be showcased in the Olympics. Along with basketball, Americans get to watch their best athletes compete. Yet unlike Olympic basketball, the Americans are not necessarily the heavy favorite, as hockey is by no means an American-dominated sport. The term “world championship” often gets thrown around in regards to the championship games and series within American professional sports. Here there is a chance to put things in perspective, observe, watch, root and enjoy some of the best hockey the world has to offer.

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