Sunday, February 21, 2010

Here's what would be a miracle.

It's been 30 years, as we are constantly reminded, since the "miracle on ice", the US hockey team's defeat of the Soviet team in the semi-final round of the 1980 Olympics. There has been endless, exhaustive analysis of the game and for good reason-it was extraordinary that a rag tag bunch of amateur hockey players from colleges and backyard rinks across the US would ever manage to beat the well-oiled Soviet hockey machine. It happened. We all know. Lots of us even watched the movie, which was good, and those of us who live in Pittsburgh, "Hockeytahn" as we like to call it, home of Craig Patrick and sometime home of Herb Brooks, the coach of the winning team, get it even more often.

Here's the thing, though. Men's Olympic Hockey is a completely different game than it was in 1980. Professional players from top teams in the NHL primarily but also other leagues around the world are now allowed to play. The USSR no longer exists, and the Russian team, while formidable, has finished no better than silver and was out of the medals in 2006. Olympic hockey has a much more level playing field as a result. Sweden has won gold twice since 1994 and Finland has the most medals with two bronze and one silver. Canada is a perennial contender, but has only managed one gold since 1952, despite having the likes of Mario Lemeiux, Wayne Gretzky, and Sid Crosby play for the national team. (To be fair, this is pretty much Sid's first Olympics as an adult, so who knows what can happen. So far this year, he's saved Canada from the inglorious fate of being beaten by Switzerland.)

IIHF hockey is wonderful to watch. There are less fights and more scoring. The lines on the rink and the dimensions are subtly different. There are some rule differences that make the game move faster and to me at least make the game more interesting and more fair, like no-touch icing and automatic misconduct penalties for hits to the head, and no restrictions on where the goalie can play the puck. If only the IIHF had any power over the NHL.

It's a good thing to remember the glorious day that the US men's hockey team pulled off their miracle, but honestly, we're not going to learn anything from further analysis. The sport is too different. The Games are too different. Enjoy the now of seeing the Stanley Cup champions playing for three different teams, seeing Jagr back on the ice in this hemisphere, and seeing hockey in its second-purest form once every four years.

Purest form? That would be women's international hockey. Enjoy the games!

And yeah, Johnny Weir got robbed. He did.

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