SOCHI, Russia — This time, it won’t be a miracle. If the US men’s hockey team writes its own historic chapter on Sunday by winning the gold medal for the first time at a Games outside of the States, it won’t stop the planet from spinning.
If you watched the Americans bounce the Czechs by a 5-2 count in Wednesday’s quarterfinals, if you’ve watched them go about their work during the past week in Putin’s playground, you might well have concluded that they could be the best team in the tournament.
Nobody else has shown the pop, the puissance and the passion that the Yanks have. “They have a great team and I hope they get the gold,” said Czech goalie Alexander Salak, who was tossed into mop-up duty midway through the game after four US forwards had beaten starter Ondrej Pavelec.
Dan Bylsma’s band of brothers have another formidable task ahead of them before they get to the title match — the Canadian club that’s shooting for its third title in four Games. “We are playing good hockey but we have to continue to get better,” said forward Ryan Kesler. “That is the only way you win this tournament. The next game has to be our best game and if we win that, then the next game will have to be our best game.”
The Canadians, of course, tore out their southern neighbors’ hearts in overtime in Vancouver four years ago on Sid The Kid’s magic bullet. They beat the US by three goals in the Salt Lake final in 2002. In their 59 previous meetings in the Olympics and world championships, the Yanks have won seven — count ’em, seven — times since 1920.
If you ask the gilded 1960 team members about their greatest hockey achievement in Squaw Valley, they’ll likely tell you that it was the 2-1 triumph over the Canucks. The Soviets were an exceptional hockey team but they weren’t yet the Big Red Machine. And, as you may have noticed on Wednesday afternoon, their Russian successors are a poor imitation.
Their 3-1 loss to Finland was a far worse blow to national pride than the 1980 defeat at Lake Placid or the 7-3 expulsion the Canadians handed them in the quarterfinals four years ago. This one was on home ice. This one came after a shootout loss to the Yanks in the prelims that forced Russia to play an extra game while the Finns were hanging out in the sauna.
“It’s hard to say whether this is a maximal or minimal failure,” mused goaltender Sergei Bobrovsky, who had to come off the bench after coach Zinetula Bilyaletdinov yanked Semyon Varlamov after 32 minutes. “Failure is failure. How can you measure it?”
The truth is the Russians haven’t won a thing at Olympus since the USSR came apart like a cheap Soviet suit. This was their third straight time missing the podium and it happened with all of their best players in midseason form playing with thousands of their face-painted fans urging them on.
“I don’t see any other players out there,” said Bilyaletdinov, who won a gold medal and an infamous silver playing defense for the Motherland in the ’80s. “The best players were on the team.”
Most of them are making handsome salaries playing for a dozen teams in the NHL, which may be why this Russian team doesn’t perform anything like its red-helmeted predecessors who were paid in rubles. The Tretiaks and Kharlamovs and Fetisovs played for the fabled Red Army team. They and their Soviet teammates lived in barracks for 11 months of the year. They were given apartments, cars, bonuses, special shopping privileges to go along with their gold medals. They had nowhere else to play.
The Ovechkins and Kovalchuks and Datsyuks do, which is why the Russian team is strictly second-rate on the global stage. This is not your father’s Motherland. The Canadians and Americans have drowned the sons of the socialists in dollars. At best, the Russians likely were the fifth-best team in the tournament behind the Swedes, Americans, Canadians and Finns, and probably were even with the Czechs and the Slovaks.
At last year’s world championships, what amounted to a US junior varsity walloped the Russians by five goals, their worst beating in tournament history. That may say more about the Americans than it does the Russians. The enduring legacy of the Miracle on Ice was that it proved to the world that the US kids could play with anyone.
The year before those Olympics there were fewer than 50 Americans in the NHL. Now there are more than 200 and the player pool is so deep there are spirited debates about who should and should not be picked for the Olympic team. Last year’s patchwork squad still won the bronze medal and the Olympic team has won silvers at two of the last three Games.
Not that the podium is guaranteed this time, although Wednesday’s victory is a good omen. Ever since 1920, when the Americans have beaten the Czechs (or the former Czechoslovaks) they’ve won a medal. Yet as well as they’ve played, the Americans still could go home without one.
The Canadians themselves came close to exiting on Wednesday when the Latvians took them down to the final seven minutes as goalie Kristers Gudlevskis made 55 saves.
“We tried to make a miracle today,” Gudlevskis said. “But we didn’t make it.”
Time was when the Americans needed miracles to win medals but that time has passed. If they’re golden here, the earth won’t go off its axis.
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.