Last golden opportunity for U.S. hockey

CHUCK MYERS / MCT Zach Parise (9), Phil Kessel celebrate U.S. goal vs. Czech Republic in quarterfinals.
CHUCK MYERS / MCT Zach Parise (9), Phil Kessel celebrate U.S. goal vs. Czech Republic in quarterfinals.
Posted: February 21, 2014

IT'S YOUR last chance, America. Surely that's what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman implied this week and again yesterday morning on NBC. Four years from now, should the United States Olympic hockey team square off against Canada in a medal-deciding game, you will need to be a fan of college hockey or junior hockey to recognize any of the names.

Or to care.

So this is it. High noon today here, 9 p.m. Sochi time. A team of America's best NHL players against a team of Canada's best NHL players meeting in a knockout game for the second Olympics in a row, the third time in four Games. One last time. Not for gold. But then again, that Miracle on Ice game in 1980 wasn't for gold, either. And it was kind of big, too.

The U.S. had to defeat Finland 2 days later to win the gold medal in '80. It's the last time the Americans stood on that top step of the medal stand. They might have to do that again to stand on that top step again.

So much the same.

So much has changed.

There is no Soviet Union. There are no college kids vs. professional players. Russia's gone bye-bye, too, off the medal stand for the third Olympics in a row.

The big red machine is Canada. The Canadians are 49-7-3 historically against the U.S. in these international contests. They beat the U.S. in gold-medal games in 2002 and 2010, although we seemed to be getting closer last time around. The U.S. even beat Canada in pool play the last time around, before Sidney Crosby made many a fan in the lower 48 stick an index finger down his or her throat with his "golden" goal in Vancouver.

They're all professionals in this tournament now, many of them millionaires, many taking breaks as teammates to battle for what is clearly, and refreshingly, still a very important medal to them. After Latvia's 2-1 loss to Canada in the quarterfinals Wednesday, CSN's John Boruk quipped that Oskars Bartulis blocked more shots in that game than in his brief career as a Flyer.

"I think the guys on the European teams all grew up playing together since they were kids, so they've got that gel and that natural spirit,'' Paul Stastny of the U.S. team said after knocking off the Czech team - his father's homeland - in the quarterfinals. "I think the more success U.S. hockey has had through the years, the bigger bond it is for these guys on this team. The more history you have, the more of a bond you have as a team. We're going for something special, and you realize if we do succeed, we'll have something special to remember for the rest of our lives.''

"It's great for the players, it's great for the game,'' said Jonathan Toews, of Team Canada. "Not only in North American but around the world. I think it's a huge thing not only to keep our sport on the map but to keep on developing in a lot of different countries. I think myself and many of the other players enjoy the experience of coming over here.''

Said Stastny: "It's playing for the jersey . . . You never know if this chance to win the gold is going to happen again. You never know if you're going to be an Olympian again.''

Especially given the ominous comments of Bettman and NHL officials this week. Speaking with Al Michaels, Bettman hit on all the league's familiar trepidations. The league shuts down for the Olympics at precisely the time the NFL stops cloaking all other professional sports. Players integral to the success of their teams get worn out or suffer injuries, some, such as the torn meniscus suffered by John Tavares in Canada's game against Latvia, ending their seasons.

And while the break also offers rest and recuperation for the majority of the league's players, it tends to punish the better teams. Ten players from the Blackhawks competed in the Olympics, for example.

Does it impact quality of play back in the NHL? It's a debate, but the last two Stanley Cup finals that followed Olympic play involved an eighth seed (2006 Edmonton) and a seventh seed (2010 Flyers). And the Flyers beat a sixth seed (Boston) and an eighth seed (Montreal) to reach those finals.

I know - how could Ed Snider hate the Olympics, right?

Bettman told Michaels that not all owners shared Snider's view. But the more he spoke, the greater the sense that this tournament will close the chapter on the NHL's participation in the Olympics. In the past it has come across as posturing, but with the outdoor games and "24/7'' and all its other aggressive marketing, the NHL probably doesn't need an Olympic presence to sell its game the way it did back in 1998, when it first closed down for this entertaining tournament.

So last chance, America. Last chance to make good on the claim that we've caught up to our northern neighbors, on the claim, uttered by a U.S. player after that overtime loss in 2010, that it's "our game, too.''

It wouldn't be a miracle, a U.S. victory today. But it would be a nice way to go out.


On Twitter: @samdonnellon


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