The Americans were handily out shot. They relied on spectacular goaltending. They got some bounces. And, facing intense pressure late, they held on to pull off the upset. I'm not recounting the Miracle on Ice, the U.S. Olympic hockey team's improbable 4-3 victory over the vaunted Soviets in Lake Placid 30 years ago today. I'm talking about Team USA's win over Canada last night in Vancouver. The score of the two games would have been identical, too, if not for a late empty-net goal by the current Americans.
This was not David versus Goliath, or freedom versus communism. It was not amateurs who had bonded over a six-month exhibition schedule such that they could sneak up and surprise a government-run hockey juggernaut. Such Olympic story lines are history. Sadly. We were once taught to hate the Russians and everything they stood for, but who can build up any sustained venom for Canada? And, for that matter, can opposing players who will rejoin the same NHL team, perhaps even the same line, in less than two weeks compete against each other like there's no tomorrow? In a word, yes. Last night's game was hockey played at the highest level - an NHL all-star game with meaning, end-to-end action that you hated to see end. These are the fourth Winter Games in which NHL hockey players have been welcomed, a paradigm shift that has always bothered me. For individual sports such as alpine skiing and figure skating, the Olympics still represent the pinnacle of an athlete's career. Shaun White has his own video game, but nowhere are his otherworldly snowboarding skills better displayed than at the Games. "The Olympics are pretty heavy," a breathless White told NBC's cameras after his first half-pipe run last Wednesday. (Then, with the gold medal already secured, White used his second run to push the envelope further, uncorking an unprecedented Double McTwist 1260.) I don't get that heavy feeling from men's ice hockey anymore. The NHL schedule breaks only long enough for a few Olympic practices and a fortnight of international competition before the Stanley Cup pursuit resumes. The victory by the United States last night was its first over Canada in Olympic play since 1960 (Canada beat the U.S. in 2002's gold medal game), and it gave American college hockey some North American breeding-ground bragging rights over Canadian junior hockey. Only five players on the current Team USA roster were born in 1980, but no small part of their statement last night was written 30 years ago. It truly was something to behold. But it was no miracle.