The U.S. men’s hockey team heads into its opening weekend in Salt Lake City as underdogs, with, realistically speaking, only bronze-medal aspirations. Or so the media would have you believe. Sports Illustrated, which predicted gold for the Americans in 1998 has left Team USA off its medal picks this year entirely. (They call a Canada, Russia, Czech Republic finish.) USA Today picked Team USA for third. The St. Petersburg Times was more direct: “It would take another miracle for a U.S. gold in 2002.” Don’t listen to them: This year’s Team USA will win gold for the first time since 1980.
The 1998 Olympics were the first NHL-inclusive Games and, much to everyone’s surprise, neither the United States nor Canada managed a medal. In the aftermath, it was fashionable to observe, as one writer did, that “the common denominator among all the teams that won medals was a speedy, European style that allowed for consistent scoring chances.” In other words, the stifling physical North American game, as practiced in the NHL, was no match on the international ice surface for the wide-open European game. (The rinks at the Olympics are 13.5 feet wider than most NHL venues.)
But the conventional wisdom is wrong. The East-West hockey dichotomy, such as existed in the days of the Soviet Union, is a thing of the past. As much as people complain about the prominence of the neutral-zone trap in the NHL, the European leagues emphasize an even more defensive trapping style. (Not coincidentally, the last two gold-medal games have been decided by 1-0 scores.) “On a bigger ice surface,” Canadian winger Brendan Shanahan explained, “there’s just more room to pick a player apart.” And it’s not as if, with skaters like Brian Rafalski, Tony Amonte, and Brian Rolston, the Americans don’t have the wheels to do some picking apart of their own.
The rosters of all the contending teams this year are packed to the gills with career NHL players. And if we look to NHL performance as an indicator of talent, the United States is arguably the best-equipped of all. Its roster has produced 317 NHL goals this season, as compared with 312 for the Canadians, 245 for Russia, 195 for the Czech Republic, 176 for Sweden, and 110 for Finland. Moreover, despite the perception that teams like the Russians and the Czechs are laden with explosive snipers such as Alexei Yashin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Jaromir Jagr, America has more players among the NHL’s top-15 goal-scorers than any other country. And it’s not as if European teams like Sweden and Finland will outmuscle the Americans; fewer than half their players weigh 200 pounds.
Some argue that since the European players spent their formative years playing on the wider international rinks, the transition to Salt Lake is a more natural one for them. True, but what about the other substantial rule change at this tournament, which effectively eliminates the red line by allowing for two-line breakaway passes? Seventeen of the 23 players on the U.S. roster spent formative years playing NCAA hockey, which has long permitted two-line passes. The International Ice Hockey Federation, which dictates the rules followed by European nations, implemented the change just four years ago. And Team Canada is built largely from the country’s junior leagues, whose prohibition of the two-line pass dates back to World War II.
Others argue that you need a hot goaltender to win a short tournament like the Olympics, and the Czechs and Russians have a leg up in this department, with aces Dominik Hasek and Nikolai Khabibulin between the pipes, respectively. (Canada’s top net-minder, Patrick Roy, won’t be playing. Click here to see what difference this will make.) Mike Richter, the likely starter for Team USA, is 35 and has a losing record in his two previous Winter Games stints. But hero backstops in the Olympics just as often come from the unknown ranks as from the world leaders. And what’s more, Richter opposed Curtis Joseph (Canada’s likely starter) and Khabibulin back in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey—and was named tournament MVP after the United States defeated Canada in a best-of-three final. “U.S. Rules Hockey World,” crowed an Associated Press headline shortly after.
Finally, let’s not discount the importance of playing on home ice. The previous two Winter Games held in America—Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lake Placid in 1980—produced the only men’s hockey gold medals the country has ever won. Back in 1998, the Americans were favorites for the first time in an international tournament, and they were cocky. They were also in Japan, an unfamiliar country in a time zone 14 hours away from Eastern Standard Time. Now the intangibles are all in their favor. Not only are they underdogs once again, shamed by their experience in Nagano, but they’ve even got patriotism on their side, just as the 1980 squad did in Lake Placid, with the Iran hostage crisis hanging over their heads.
So will there be another Miracle on Ice next week? No, because when America wins the gold, there’ll be nothing miraculous about it. For a country that rules the hockey world, expectations needn’t be so low.