What a game, and what a comeback for the ages!
Decades from now, we’ll look back at the United States’ astonishing gold medal win at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics as the arrival of America as a hockey power of the first degree. With their second victory against tournament favorites Canada––capped by Zach Parise’s dramatic last minute equalizer and subsequent overtime clincher––Team USA shocked the host nation in the gold medal game, right there in the cradle of hockey.
The signature victory has already turned Zach Parise and Ryan Miller into household names south of the 49th parallel, shades of Mike Eruzione and Jim Craig a generation ago. But there’s a difference this time around: these bona fide All-Stars remain as beacons to the NHL game in a way that those fringe professionals could not, nightly reminders of American hockey excellence to nascent fans newly attracted to the National Hockey League by having watched the epic struggle. (Yes, Mr. Bettman, in the Olympics). Along with the majority of Canadian households—and trust me, we Americans are well aware that the game is a fixture in the Great White North—28 million Americans watched, a truly unexpected number. The 15.2 rating was the highest for a hockey game in 30 years, drawing more viewers than 2010 Rose Bowl, 2009 NCAA Basketball Final, the most watched games of the 2009 World Series and 2009 NBA Finals, the Daytona 500 and the Masters tournament, a remarkable achievement for what is still an unknown sport to many Americans. As great as the moment itself would have been even with a Canadian victory—imagine a Sidney Crosby shaking Brian Rafalski on a give-and-go with Jarome Iginla before putting the overtime winner past Ryan Miller—the sport of hockey can thank its lucky stars for the American win, and for the lasting impact that it will have.
Yet with victory, there is defeat: Hockey’s triumph has sent an entire country into mourning. But Canada’s national grief is passing, and is ultimately just a sidebar to the true impact of this historic win.
It was the culmination of a long journey. Hockey, ever an afterthought in America, had developed a grass roots following since Herb Brooks’ amateur squad won gold in 1980 in what was aptly christened a “Miracle on Ice”; the original Team USA were the ultimate Cinderella story, a rag-tag group that had no business even dreaming of defeating Soviet professionals – professionals that could have gone toe-to-toe with an NHL All-Star team. Yet it was not so much a grass roots following among fans, but among young players who would develop into world class stars, American stars – Young kids like the recently retired Jeremy Roenick, who sat in front of their TVs thirty years ago, wowed, and vowed to be part of the next wave of American players. They were the bridge to these youngsters that won gold. Lake Placid was the victory that launched a thousand hockey careers. Vancouver was the culmination of their dreams.
Team USA’s success was no fluke, no surprise and no flash in the pan, for the United States has taken strides in both the professional and amateur ranks over the past 30 years. In what was once a homogenously Canadian league, only one out of every two NHL players is Canadian anymore, while more than one in every five is American. At the junior level, Team USA has won three championships at the U-18 level over the past five years and impressively, they are the reigning World Junior Champions, having taken the prestigious U-20 crown in January. These are your Olympians of 2014 and 2018.
Now contrast the growth of American hockey with the decline of Eastern European hockey: recent trends show the influx of Russian, Czech and Slovak players dropping precipitously. Only single digits of players from each of those countries were selected in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft. So don’t look now, but the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia become critical for the well-being of hockey in those Eastern European countries to an even greater extent than Vancouver was for the United States. Yes, we’ll all root for our home countries again in 2014, but putting all feelings aside, we should be pleased to see a gold medal draped around Alex Ovechkin’s neck at the end of that tournament, for the best interests of the sport. Hockey needs a hockey renaissance in Russia even more than it needed the arrival of the Americans.
Considering the impact that the Vancouver tournament will have on American hockey and that the Sochi tournament could have on Russian and European hockey––all the NHL’s future lifeblood––it’s hard to believe that the Commissioner and a contingent of owners could possibly be against participation, which seems evident from Bettman’s thinly veiled and ill-timed posturing during Olympic interviews. The National Hockey League should take a lesson from European soccer, which juggles international and club tournaments such as the World Cup, Euro Cup, Champions League and FA Cup in addition to league participation, all with the buy-in of leagues, clubs, players and fans. Each tournament helps to build the popularity of the already wildly popular sport. Hopefully, hockey can learn to follow that blueprint.
That’s for 2014 and beyond. But for now, it’s time for Americans to revel in their victory and hopefully, for the NHL to take full advantage of the opportunity gained.
Waking up this Monday morning, many of us realize just what has been lost.
There’s sadness, as this Olympic dream is over.
But the dreaming continues.
Timo Seppa runs the statistical hockey site Ice Hockey Metrics. Follow Timo on Twitter at @timoseppa.
Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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