Just as the Cold War finally appeared to be neatly filed away into the history books, political relations have reignited the rivalry that seems as eternal as the Olympic flame itself. Just as the 2008 Beijing Games reminded Americans of the adversary of Communism, once again there is an antagonist to the United States in the Olympics.
In this edition, it is the Russian Federation, and men’s ice hockey is the most suitable common ground in which the conflict can manifest itself. The brutality of the sport and parity of talent between the two nations makes the inescapable clash of skaters into a function of both political and patriotic implications.
During the Cold War, the most memorable battle for the United States was waged in 1980. Fought on American ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., a novice contingent of spirited soldiers took on an experienced Soviet squadron who had won four straight gold medals.
The improbable Americans took the victory 4-3 on their way to a gold medal. The apex of the 1980 games will always be Herb Brooks and his star-clad warriors defeating the heavily-favored USSR.
The contest captivated the USA and rallied pride in her people. The game became known as the Miracle on Ice, and the team’s story was recanted in Disney’s Miracle, in 2004.
The 2014 Olympic Winter Games pits the United States against host Russia in Group A of the men’s ice hockey tournament. The teams will face off at 6:30 a.m. CDT on Saturday. Every team is guaranteed to advance from group play, which is used for seeding. A three-round playoff will follow, concluding in a gold medal game preceding the Closing Ceremonies.
Patrick Kane, Zach Parise and Ryan Kesler will lead the charge for the United States of America, as the nation seeks its first gold medal since the Lake Placid Games. Ryan Suter and Ryan McDonagh will bolster the defensive lines, and NHL stars Ryan Miller and Jonathan Quick will compete for the spot in the crease. Coach Dan Bylsma will likely favor the goalie that performs better in the group games.
Kesler and Parise each had a goal in 2010’s 3-2 overtime gold medal game loss in the Vancouver Games. Parise scored 4 goals in the 2010 games, the second most of any player.
The Minnesota Wild winger is coming off of a foot injury, but played 23 minutes in a game and logged a goal last Thursday. Parise has been named the team captain for the Sochi Games.
Miller was the star goalie in Vancouver, with a 139 saves in over 355 minutes. The Buffalo Sabre’s net-minder posted a 94.56 save percentage, and a shutout against Switzerland. Miller was named the tournament’s most valuable player.
The Russian lineup for Sochi enlists the talents of Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Pavel Datsyuk and a strong hub of goalies. Russia has not won the gold medal since the Soviet Union disbanded, although the Unified Team-made of athletes from six former USSR nations-took top honors in 1992. Hosting the games adds pressure to the team, but they will need to exceed expectations to be successful.
The men’s group play will begin Wednesday at 11 a.m. CDT, when Jaromir Jagr and the Czech Republic take on Gabriel Landeskog and the Sedin twins of Sweden. Sweden appears to be one of the stronger teams, and should beat out the Group C competition. Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers will tend the goal for the Swedes, and will be a big asset as they seek to return to the top of the platform after taking the gold in 2006.
Canada appears to be the strongest team in Group B. Crosby is back, and flanked by Chris Kunitz, Ryan Getzlaf and virtually every other notable NHL forward. Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Shea Weber, and Drew Doughty should anchor an impermeable defensive unit. The lone weakness for team Canada will be their goaltending, which will be unpredictable.
In 2010’s Vancouver Games, the United States competed against host Canada for the gold medal. The game drew the largest TV audience for hockey since the 1980 gold medal game, which the U.S. won over Finland.
In Vancouver, the United States lost in overtime at the hands of Sidney Crosby, and received the consolation silver medal. The USA also lost to Canada in the gold medal game in 2002, on home ice in Salt Lake City, Utah.
The first game for the U.S. will be on Thursday, also at 6:30 am CDT, when the boys in stars and stripes will face off against Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara’s Slovakian squad. The Americans seek their third gold medal in men’s hockey.
– Andy O’Brien, Sports Editor