There was a certain feeling of finality to the tone of much of the post-game coverage of Sunday's Olympic gold medal hockey game. It's understandable. This is the point where the large majority of today's audience checks out. Hockey still isn't quite big enough to hold the national attention, and unfortunately, a group of second-place finishers isn't likely to change that, regardless of how nobly they played. I haven't seen the ratings for the game yet, but I expect them to be fantastic. All the focus will be on the casual observers this game drew in, but what I think gets lost is this was also a fantastic day for those of us that are hardcore hockey fans.
I consider myself someone that cares pretty deeply about USA Hockey, and one would think today's loss would be that much more devastating for me than the average American hockey tourist. It definitely sucks to come out on the wrong end, and hurts to see to my team come so close, and then not reach their goal. The sting will probably last a little longer than it might for most people. But in a way, it's almost not as crushing because I don't view it with the same feeling of finality. To me, it's just another chapter in a fantastic saga that has played out the past few years that has produced some of the most intense and memorable hockey ever, and shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
It's such a fantastic story. One team wins a hard-fought preliminary game, and the other finds themselves on a difficult, unlikely path to the finals, but somehow, they find a way to meet again in the championship. The other team takes a lead late into the third period of the championship game, only to take the gut-punch of a game-tying goal in the closing moments of the third period, but somehow they find a way to regroup and end up winning the whole thing. January 5th was our time. Yesterday was their time.* The next time: who knows? What's important is that I can say with a great amount of confidence that there will be a next time for the United States against Canada.
That's what makes a rivalry fantastic. The faces are always changing, but we've reached a point where nearly any time you get one team wearing USA sweaters, and one team wearing Canada sweaters on the same ice together, you're going to end up with a fantastic, hard-fought game full of emotion and drama, regardless of whether you watch on TV with 8 million other people, or over the internet with just a few other hockey junkies watching. It's the pinnacle of our sport--of any sport--to watch two teams play the game so well, so hard, and so close, and it's amazing to experience it as a fan, even on the days when your side is the one that comes up just a bit short. This chapter may be over, but the US and Canada are paired in the same group in Minsk this April, and the smart money is on them running into each other next January in Buffalo. Who knows how many of the casual fans watching today will stick around for another hockey game, but one thing is for certain, the United States and Canada aren't going anywhere.
A couple final thoughts....
-This was an excellent game, but I'll say again, anyone calling this the greatest hockey game they've ever seen has not watched enough hockey. I'll grant that it might have been one of the greatest collections of talent, one of the best played, and one of the hardest played games I've seen, but in terms of up-and-down exciting action and drama, this game was very very good, but I don't know about great.
-I'm sticking with the theme of this being the Anti-Miracle. This is a squad that belongs among the world's elite. I'll maybe expand on this idea sometime later, but Zach Parise and Ryan Kesler could go down as two of the most important, and underrated players in American hockey history. They were the stars of the 2004 World Junior victory, which I really consider the birthplace of this fantastic rivalry. They were easily the two best US players at this tournament, at least in my mind. And odds are pretty good they play a big role in Sochi in four years-or if a deal can't be made, a similar World Cup of Hockey-type event--for the US team.
-I really liked this group of US players, and am hereby granting them the same immunity from criticism I gave to the World Junior kids this year. Okay, maybe not immunity, since that hasn't exactly worked through the second half of the WCHA season, but they at least get an addendum of "but they are an American hero" to any such future criticism.
-I feel a great deal of pride watching the two best teams in the world and seeing so many former college players on the rosters. Definitely a proud day for college hockey.
*The similiarities on the final goal are almost eerie. The team's best player gets the puck in transition off a turnover, comes down the left wing, on the same end of the ice(at least from a TV perspective) and catches the goalie cheating off his post to make a play across the crease by slipping a quick wrister on the short side.