Any time the U.S. plays Russia in international competition in just about any damn sport you can think of — let alone hockey — it seems that one cannot help avoiding bringing up the Miracle on Ice, and for good reason.
It came at a time when the Olympics were made little more than a sham by Russia’s phony definition amateurism that allowed them to play professional hockey players, some of the best in the world in fact, against a bunch of college kids and junior players. It came at a time when Cold War tensions were at an extreme high, and U.S. national morale at a pretty significant low. It came at a time when sticking it to Boris was the greatest thing you could do. Perhaps most importantly, it came at a time when Baby Boomers were finally in a real position of power in the world, meaning that the ultimate self-mythologizing generation — which has us convinced the Beatles and Springsteen and Dylan are the height of artistic authority, for example, just because that’s who was popular when they were young — could go about patting itself on the back for what was, admittedly, one of the greatest single-game athletic accomplishments of all time.
But it was also 34 years ago and a lot has changed since then, as things tend to do over any given 34-year period. Chief among them is that Russia is no longer a true hockey power (there now being really only two or three real giants left on Earth) and the United States now very much is. Therefore, for Barack Obama to Tweet out that we should “never stop believing in miracles” because T.J. Oshie scored four times on six shootout attempts against Sergei Bobrovsky, but the only miracle that took place on Saturday was that Alex Radulov is still walking around rather than having mysteriously disappeared; who knows what his coach meant when he said Radulov should be “scratched, among other things?” The U.S. beating Russia in any way at all is not a miracle. It’s par for the course.
With that having been said, obviously there’s a lot that goes into the Olympics and their ability to make someone mega-famous overnight; ask Oshie about that. It’s possible that we’ll be talking about his shootout performance for the next three decades, though one imagines that he’s not ever going to be able to turn it into a full-time job for life like Mike Eruzione did. That’s not to say it wasn’t super-impressive, because it was, but this is what the U.S. does to teams now: They beat them.
And along those lines, while no one was paying all that much attention to it, Phil Kessel — a player oddly derided in the North American hockey world even today — has been the best player in the Olympics. He has four goals and seven points in three games, despite the fact that he’s only getting less than 15 minutes a night, and his shot total (15) is staggering. It falls only behind shot generation factory Alex Ovechkin’s 17, despite the fact that the world’s premier sniper gets nearly six extra minutes per game. In terms of shots per 60 minutes, Kessel is north of 20, which is ludicrous considering the U.S. played its games in the Olympics’ most difficult group. Even beyond just getting pucks to the net, Kessel has been a premium playmaker, creating chances by the bucket for the U.S. while all its other lines have wholly struggled to do so (though to be fair the Backes unit seems to have been asked to focus on shutting down other teams’ top lines, rather than create on their own). The U.S. won all three of its games and he was the engine that made the offense go the whole time.
And moreover, Kessel has been a juggernaut in the NHL pretty much all season long. He’s fourth in the NHL in points, and second in goals, and has more points since the new year than anyone in the league. That people are only now starting to perk up and say, “Oh maybe this guy is pretty good,” because he gutted Slovakia and Slovenia is ludicrous. Phil Kessel shouldn’t be a well-kept state secret, paraded out of a bunker for a parade every once in a while, he should be celebrated, he should be an easy Hart Trophy candidate.
These Olympics aren’t telling us much we didn’t already know, at least if we’ve been paying attention. The U.S. is very, very good, it has one of the best offensive players in the entire world at its head, and this should all be expected. There was, I’m sure, a time when the Russian national team becoming a world-beater was a bit of an eyebrow-raising proposition; maybe they never had a Miracle on Ice of their own, but they went from no medals ever to winning gold in 1956, and dramatically reshaped the global hockey landscape as a result, winning gold in seven of the next nine Olympics; the Soviets took bronze and silver in the two they didn’t win outright.
Powers shift, and now it’s the Americans and Canadians which hold it. This wasn’t always the way of the hockey world, but it sure is now. It’s not a miracle that it happened, either. It’s the slow erosion that comes with hundreds of thousands of registered players being pushed through the player development system over three-plus decades. You can say that the Miracle on Ice started it all, and you’d almost certainly be right, but no one in a Ferrari looks back wistfully at a Ford Model T. They just go faster than everyone else on the road.
What We Learned (Olympic edition)
Austria: You can talk a lot about the work Phil Kessel has turned in for the U.S. in Sochi, but how about a hand, too, for Michael Grabner? He has five goals in three games, and Garth Snow’s like, “Where’s this kind of thing in NHL play?” And Grabner’s like, “Sorry dude but we’re the Norway of the league.”
Canada: Boy, who could have guessed that Chris Kunitz being on an Olympic team would have been a terrible decision that didn’t work out? What’s that? I’m being told the answer is, “Everyone but Hockey Canada.” Oh, but Sid Crosby is so hard to play with. It’s so hard to play with the best player in the world, so you need someone who’s used to it. Even if that guy sucks. Oh wait, I’m sorry, Kunitz made it on his own merits irrespective of his partnership with Crosby. Okay sure. Hahaha.
Czech Republic: This is, just for reference, the kind of headline you never want to see written about your country’s hockey team. “Fend off Latvia?” Good lord, you’re the Czech Republic. Have a little respect for yourself.
Finland: Here’s Teemu Selanne telling Sid Crosby to stop diving. What a wonderful man. I hope he plays forever.
Latvia: “Overmatched” is a pretty good way to describe the Latvian team throughout this entire tournament, though that’s obviously about as predictable as things get in this kind of competition. The fact that they got three past Henrik Lundqvist, though, seems like it should be a point of concern.
Norway: Norway finished these Olympics without a win, running their losing streak in the Olympics to 20 years or so; the last time they picked up a win in the Olympics was when they beat Austria 3-1 in 1994, in the game to determine who finished 11th.
Russia: One can only hope that every time the U.S. beats someone in hockey ever, from now on, it causes the losing country to have a national crisis of confidence and identity. “But when the tie-breaker handed the win to Team USA, the sense of brotherly love was quickly drowned in accusations.” This is one of the most beautiful sentences I have ever read.
Slovakia: Yeah, sorry, I just can’t be “stunned” when Slovakia loses in hockey any more. Slovakia is awful at hockey in 2014. Accept this reality. That’s life now.
Slovenia: Anze Kopitar on the Slovenians winning their first Olympic game ever: “I guess now that we have beaten Slovakia maybe they’re not going to mix us up anymore.”
Sweden: The messed up thing about that 5-3 win over Latvia is that Sweden only scored once against Latvia at even strength. The other four on the power play help though, I guess.
Switzerland: I think the idea of the Swiss being a legitimate medal contender is romantic but not wholly realistic. They allowed just one goal in the preliminary round, but look who they played: Latvia, an injury-riddled Sweden, and the Czech Republic. It’s also worth noting that they only scored twice, which is to be expected. You wanna win in the Olympics, you gotta score goalsl. Actually, that’s true of any hockey game or tournament.
USA: It’s not that I necessarily disagree but this is jumping the gun, stepping back over it, then jumping it again.
Gold Star Award
Kessels forever! Pew pew pew pew pew!
Minus of the Weekend
Hey, Sobba Crynov, what’s Russian for, “Boo hoo hoo?”
Play of the Weekend
Word on the street is that they’re changing the symbol of America from a bald eagle to this pass from Patrick Kane.
A gold medal! Let's have it bronzed!