The media has treated Team USA’s victory over Canada in hockey at the winter Olympics as a great upset. But that’s not true. It wasn’t an upset at all. The American hockey team is very good and its 5-3 win over Canada on Sunday night should have been no surprise.
Those who felt the Americans would wilt against a superior Canadian team haven’t been keeping up with American hockey in recent years. Hockey here has improved dramatically at every level—youth, college, pro. As a result, Team USA can now compete with the best in the world—not just the Canadians, but also the Russians, Swedes, and Czechs—and may win the gold medal.
This team is nothing like the American amateurs who pulled off the biggest upset ever in international hockey in 1980 when they beat the Soviets and won the gold medal in the winter Olympics at Lake Placid. Thirty years later, Team USA consists of professionals who play at the highest level in hockey, the National Hockey League.
The sports media has stressed that there are no superstars on the American team. That’s true. But there are only two superstars in hockey, Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin, a Canadian and a Russian respectively.
What the American team has is a number of players barely a notch below the superstar level. Ryan Miller, playing for the Buffalo Sabres, has been the best goalie in the NHL this season and is a solid candidate for MVP.
On Sunday night, Miller outplayed Canadian goalie Martin Brodeur, probably the best goalie in the world over the past decade. Compared to Miller, Brodeur looked old and slow. Miller, 29, is from East Lansing, Michigan, and played college hockey at Michigan State.
He and teammate Patrick Kane, 21, a Buffalo native who plays for the Chicago Blackhawks, are superstars-in-the-making. So is Zach Parise, whose father played on the Canadian national team in the 1970s. Parise, 25, grew up in Minnesota and was a star at the University of North Dakota. He’s a teammate of Brodeur on the New Jersey Devils. “It’s been my team for so many years here,” Brodeur told Sports Illustrated, speaking of the Devils. “But now I believe it’s his team. I may still be the face, but he’s the future.”
Brian Rafalski, 36, who scored two goals against Canada, plays for the Detroit Red Wings. He’s from Dearborn, Michigan, and was a four-year hockey stalwart at the University of Wisconsin. Rafalski also assisted on the goal off the skate of team captain Jamie Langenbrunner, 34, whose NHL team is the Devils. Langenbrunner is from Cloquet, Minnesota.
Against the Canadians, Team USA did what good teams usually do. They played great defense. The Canadians took more shots than the Americans (42 to 18), but as my son Freddy pointed out to me, there’s a distinction between shots and good shots. The Canadians got few good shots.
The Americans took advantage of their opponent’s mistakes. Brodeur made two and both led to Team USA goals. When he failed to clear the puck in the first period, Rafalski scored. And when Brodeur was caught out of position, Chris Drury fired in a goal. Drury, 34, is from Trumbull, Connecticut, starred at Boston University, and now is captain of the New York Rangers.
From the start, the Americans out-hustled the Canadians—another sign of a strong team. Their hustle led to one of the greatest goals ever scored in hockey (in my opinion). And it came on what is normally the least exciting of scoring plays—when the goalie of the team that’s behind has been pulled and the goal is left open.
With the Team USA ahead 4 to 3, Ryan Kesler skated furiously down the ice after a loose puck, but was blocked by a Canadian player. Kesler, 25, from Livonia, Michigan (and Ohio State) reached his stick around the Canadian at full speed and, from a bad angle, banged the puck into the goal. That iced the game for the U.S. with 44 seconds remaining in the final—period.
That had to be the greatest shot on an open goal in the history of international hockey. There’s every reason to expect that it was also an indication of great moments ahead for Team USA.