Monday, March 1, 2010

Olympic gold medal game leads to amazing joy and heartbreak

Yup, I cried.

I cried when I saw Ryan Miller crying. I cried when they played ‘Oh Canada,’ and the entire arena belted out one of the great anthems ever written. I cried at the looks on the faces of the American players who should feel nothing but pride.

The National Hockey League is thinking of not taking part in the 2014 Olympics? Are you kidding me? Let me tell you something: SPORTS doesn’t get any better than what we saw on Sunday afternoon in the Olympic gold medal game. Sure, the Hollywood ending didn’t happen; the Ottawa ending happened. This would NOT have been Miracle on Ice II for the U.S. (actually Miracle on Ice II was 1980; Miracle on Ice I was 1960) but it would have been an extraordinary achievement.

Playing in front of a rabid pro-Canada crowd, falling behind 2-0 early, coming back to tie the game with 25 seconds left in the third period and then sending it into overtime was simply amazing. An overtime goal for a gold medal would have been one of the most memorable moments in recent sports history—certainly in recent AMERICAN sports history.

But Sidney Crosby wouldn’t let it happen. You can say a lot of things about Sid the Kid. He’s reviled here in Washington because Capitals fans believe Alexander Ovechkin is a better player than he is but—in their minds--the Canadian/American media (outside of Washington) won’t give him his due because he’s Russian and Crosby is Canadian.

Ovechkin is the more spectacular player. He’s likely to have the goal-of-the-year just about every year. He’s extremely physical—maybe too physical. The only truly great player who was comparable when it comes to getting his elbows up was Gordie Howe. His numbers are better than Crosby’s and he’s less prone to injury—although he did miss some time early this season. And he’s won back-to-back MVP’s.

There’s just one problem. Crosby has his name on The Stanley Cup. In fact, his team has reached The Cup finals two years in a row. And now he has scored arguably the most important goal in his country’s history—the overtime shot, off a gorgeous pass from Jerome Iginla—that beat Ryan Miller and won the gold medal for Canada.

There is no way to understate how important that goal and this game were to Canada. Hockey is THEIR game. The country went into a near-panic a week ago Sunday when the U.S.—thanks to a remarkable performance by Miller—beat the Canadians 5-3 in group play. That meant Canada had to play Russia in the quarterfinals—that would be a Russian team led by Ovechkin. The Canadians routed the Russians then slipped past Slovakia in the semifinals to set up the rematch with the young American team.

The only U.S. player who is considered a big-time star in the NHL is Miller, the Buffalo Sabres goalie who many think is the best goaltender in the game right now—especially with Martin Brodeur finally showing signs of wear because the New Jersey Devils insist on playing him EVERY single night at the age of 37.

Canada made a rousing comeback the second week of these Olympics after a slow start. Even though the U.S. set an all-time record for medals in a Winter Olympics (37—a somewhat deceiving mark because there has been such an increase in events in the past several Olympiads) the Canadians roared past everyone to set an all-time record for gold medals with 14.

But all of that would have seemed hollow to many Canadians if not for the 14th gold—and Crosby’s shot. The memory of Zach Parise’s tying goal after goalie Roberto Luongo (who replaced Brodeur in net for Canada after the first game against the U.S.) couldn’t handle a shot with the U.S. net empty at the other end, might have haunted the country for years. To lose to the U.S.—whose previous Olympic successes were generally considered home-ice flukes around the world—on Canadian ice might never have been lived down.

That’s why you couldn’t help but feel good not so much for the Canadian players as for their fans when Crosby scored in overtime. But when you saw the faces of the American players, so spent, so drained, so STUNNED that they had lost after they had tied the game, you couldn’t help but feel awful for all of them but especially for Miller, who clearly felt responsible for the loss.

The great ones always feel that way. Miller was brilliant the entire tournament. He was voted the MVP even though his team didn’t win. But you can bet he won’t remember the dozens of saves he made but the one that he didn’t make. If anyone deserves some kind of happy ending in the future it is Miller, who in addition to being a superb player, is about as bright and thoughtful as any athlete you are likely to meet anywhere.

As for Crosby and Ovechkin, well, the one score that matters is now Crosby-2, Ovechkin-0. Crosby has a Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal. Ovechkin has never been past the conference semifinals and has no Olympic medal of any kind. Of course that can all change since both players are so young.

The next Olympics will be played in Russia. The favorites should be the Russians, led by Ovechkin, who will not yet be 30. What’s more, his Capitals appear to be a better team than Crosby’s Penguins this season. They’ve beaten them in both games they’ve played, coming from behind both times. They are well ahead of them in the Eastern Conference and appear likely to be the No. 1 seed in the east. Of course the trading deadline can always change things. Last year the Penguins acquired Bill Guerin at the deadline and he was a big difference-maker in Pittsburgh’s Stanley Cup run.

I wrote a column in The Washington Post at about this time a year ago saying the Caps needed to make a trade for a goalie if they wanted to win The Stanley Cup. I just didn’t think Jose Theodore had what it took to get through four rounds of postseason. A lot of Caps fans posted comments basically saying, ‘what the hell does this basketball writer know about hockey?’

Maybe nothing. But Theodore got yanked after one playoff game and was replaced by Semyon Varlamov, who played very well but, in the end, not well enough. He is still the Caps future in goal—if he can stay healthy. I’ll say what I said a year ago: George McPhee needs to make a move this week for a goalie. A solid defenseman wouldn’t hurt either: check the Caps goals-against numbers recently.

That’s for later. This weekend was about one of the most dramatic hockey games every played and even if the outcome was disappointing for the U.S. it was still absolutely brilliant—the whole thing. And ‘Oh Canada,’ can make you cry, well, BEFORE a hockey game much less after one as heart-wrenching as Sunday’s.

Hockey absolutely belongs in the Olympics with the world’s best players on the ice. Unlike basketball and tennis where the pros are dragged kicking and screaming to play more often than not, these guys WANT to be out there. Which makes it even better to watch—the joy and the heartbreak. I’m exhausted.


There was one other great Olympic moment this weekend and that was Steve Holcomb and his three teammates winning the four man bobsled—the U.S.’s first gold medal in bobsled in 62 years. Holcomb looks more like your UPS guy than an Olympian but who the heck cares? He and his ‘Night Train,’ teammates beat the seemingly unbeatable Germans to win the gold medal. Seeing their coach, Brian Shimer, leaping into the sled after they finished brought back another cool Olympic memory—Shimer, in his fifth and last Olympics in 2002, winning a bronze medal in his very last Olympic event…

Finally, one brief comment on Mr. Anonymous who actually ripped me Friday for NOT having satellite radio after I had already made fun of myself for it and then claimed I should be ashamed for standing up for a CHARITY event (yo dude, the point isn’t that I’m involved in the charity it’s that the charity raises lots of money for kids who need it). So here’s my question: Why are so many Georgetown fans ALWAYS angry? They need to be calm and laid back…like me.


Tim said...

As a big sports fan, but mostly a casual hockey fan, there can be nothing more frantic, and dramatic, than an empty net goal to tie it up, and sudden death overtime to cap it off.

Even though I was disappointed, I felt joy and pride in what our hockey team did these couple weeks.

Mr. X said...

Are the Americans the only ones who say Bobsled instead of Bobsleigh?

case said...

on a different matter , were you suspended by cbs ,ala tony k , to keep you off the patriot league quarter game on wednesday ?

Josh said...

The game yesterday was the perfect chance for all to capture the Olympic spirit. My daughter and I painted our faces red, white & blue. My girlfriend became surprising passionate about a game she's never watched before (I actually taught her rules of the game). We all cheered for the USA from our living room, but in the end Sid the Kid prevailed. Oh well, we lost. The SPIRIT is the key here though. Nothing did more for the Olympic Games than the culmination of their number one sport, coming down to sudden death and absolutely peaking of emotion and energy.

I think Canada needed it more and deserved it more. The country did an amazing job of hosting the world amidst problems with Mother Nature and 'Canadian Impressionism' across all media outlets. In fact, by the end of last week, I couldn't handle any more ripping on Canadian culture or had became a cheap and easy shot. Good for Canada.

Now Russia hosting the Games will be interesting. The bar is set high.

Gunnar said...

One of the best sporting events I have ever seen. Not a single US player smiled when receiving their silver medals. I hope over time, they appreciate this Olympic run.

Anonymous said...

Along the lines of what Gunnar said, I believe Ryan Miller summed up their feelings in a fitting manner - asked how it feels...."It feels like s--t."

I love the brevity, honesty and raw emotion.

Mark said...

Even my son, a complete non-sports dude at 22, watched, along with my relatively non-sports wife. It was that kind of event.

David said...

That game is why I love hockey. The excitement of that game is what I enjoy most about hockey and the Stanley Cup playoffs. I was indifferent after they lost. I knew either way that the U.S. would get a medal and that was the amazing thing. Good for Canada, hockey is their game and they deserved that gold medal.

MB said...

My Canadian Olympic thoughts –

Maybe it was the pressure of an entire nation demanding nothing less than a gold medal, but Canada’s men’s hockey team, for all of its individual talent, and with a decided home ice advantage, didn’t exactly live up to expectations. Shootout against Switzerland, 5-3 loss to the Americans, 3-2 and on the ropes at the end against Slovakia, 3-2 overtime to beat the Americans. Yes, they won the gold medal (Congratulations!), but it will be interesting to see how they do in Russia in 2014. USA men’s basketball (and hockey) found out that these all-star teams aren’t always necessarily the best approach.

As for the Canadian women’s hockey team, show some class next time. It’s okay to celebrate, but act (or at least pretend) that you had no doubt that you were going to win the gold medal. Keep doing that over-the-top celebration stuff, especially if it’s the Americans you beat in the championship game, and some people might start to wonder if some nascent Canadian inferiority complex is beginning to shine through.

Let me see if I get this straight...the premier international winter sports competition, held once every four years, this time in Canada, where there’s a short-track speed skating competition, and a Canadian skater goes down (with an American involved) on what appears to be minimal contact, and the judge who makes the call is …Canadian?? I’m not saying he’s biased, or even that the decision is wrong, but couldn’t the IOC (or the speed skating federation) find someone from a neutral country to be the judge? (On the other hand, if you’re in a four person final, going into the final turn, and the guy behind you is passing you and you feel even the slightest contact …you might as well take a dive, and look to your fellow countryman to make things right!)

If there should ever be a next time, Canada, swallow your pride, and go with genuine Zamboni, made proudly in the USA!!

I don’t want to seem heartless, but upon hearing the news that her mother had suddenly passed away, Joannie Rochette immediately told her coach that she would still be competing. Good for her, I couldn’t imagine a world-class athlete not making the same decision. As usual, NBC goes completely over-the-top in its coverage, beginning (or ending) with Cris Collinsworth, who should know better.

Have to admit that I got caught up in watching all of that curling action (Cheryl Bernard = babe). Reminds me of when I was living overseas and got hooked on one day international cricket – exciting stuff (really!).

Dana King said...

Gary Bettman and Ted Leonsis keep saying there's no benefit to the NHL in sending players to the Olympics, it doesn't increase fan interest. All I know is a pacifist 78-year-old friend of mine emailed me last night to say she'd watched her first hockey, asked me about a few rules, and wants my wife and me to take her to a game next season. Okay, she's not the long-term future f the sport, but she's not alone, either.

I'm a Penguins fan, so I admit I'm prejudiced, but I'd rather have Crosby than Ovechkin. No question 8 is the most exciting player in the game; he's dangerous every time he touches the puck. Having seen them both play quite a bit (I live in Laurel MD, but have the Direct ice package), I think Crosby does more of the things that don't get a lot of attention. He reminds me of Larry Bird in the way he regularly picks an aspect of his game to improve each summer. (This year it was face-offs and his shooting.)

I'd pay money to see Crosby centering a line with Ovechkin on the wing, though. How do you defend that?

Goodie Mobb said...

Hey Junior, what about Wilbon taking you to task? Care to divulge his "made for HBO" response to your putdown last week?

Anonymous said...

John, I completely agree and said it last year too: Theodore is a regular season goaltender and I have absolutely no faith in him come postseason. He proved it last year and he'll prove it again. Look for McPhee to make a move for Martin Biron...hopefully.

On the Olympics. Yes, the NHL belongs in the Olympics. The IOC also needs to step up to the plate and compensate the NHL for the use of its players. The outrageous demands of the IOC for the free use of the NHL's talent is absurd. The IOC needs to stop acting like a criminal cabal and start acting like a multi-billion dollar for-profit organization.

Anonymous said...

Compensate the NHL for use of their players? How about the millions of dollars worth of publicity?

One solution for keeping the NHL in the Olympics might be to play hockey within the summer games along with its winter brother basketball.

Rich, Denver

Gordon said...

Add Georgetown to the list that includes Rutgers and Duke but we who real this blog already knew that!

It was nice to see the bobsled team get some pub. These are athletes that truly do what they do for the love of the competition. And they give up so much.

As for hockey in the summer is the summer games, it is a great idea. It is however cost prohibitive as it would require the construction of another venue as it would be impossible to have a basketball and hockey tournament run concurrently in one building.

Anyone who reads this blog knows that John is a hockey fan. I just wish he would write a book about his beloved Islanders and their rise to a dynasty and fall to the bottom and their inability to rebuild. A once proud franchise that can not become competitive again.

Bill-DC said...

Props to Canada for their win. I believe they took the US for granted during their preliminary round match up and the result was the loss and having to play the extra game in the medal round.

They had to win four games to win the gold and they approached that with a chip on their shoulder (Poor Germany and Russia).

Slovakia threw everything at them in the end of that semifinal game but the Canadian's survived and were ready for the US this time.

I love the heart the US showed in coming back and I though they could win in the OT with the momentum on their side. I'm just glad it was a clean goal and nothing off a skate or leg. Better yet, no shootout.

Disappointed and proud US fan here. One of the players said it best, you lose a silver medal, you don't win it. The only ones who win are the gold and bronze medaliats. I hope over time they appreciate what they did because it was a great run.

Doug said...

As a Canadian I have the utmost respect for team USA and the tournament that they played. They out played the Canadians in game #1 and were equals in the gold medal game. Congrats to USA hockey.

The goal scored by Crosby, while enormous in terms of importance in 2010, pales in significance to Paul Henderson's series winning goal in the 1972 USSR-Canada Summit series. Just do a goodle search for many articles. The political background, being in the cold war era, made the series the seminal Canadian hockey moment. Game 8 was in Russia and kids were sent home from school to watch the game. Canada won the 8 game series 4-3-1 with Paul Henderson scoring with less than 2 minutes in the final game.

That will always be the highlight of Canadian hockey. Crosby's goal will always be a close second. Nothing compares to the first time.