Five-ring Circus

They Shot, They Scored

Canada’s classic win over Team USA capped off a fantastic Olympic hockey tournament and redeemed a crummy Winter Olympics.

Check out Slate’s complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.

Canadian forward Sidney Crosby celebrates the team’s win

Someday, someone will have to tell Al Michaels that what he did 30 years ago in Lake Placid was call a hockey game.

He did not fire a shot in defense of Fort McHenry. He did not land on Omaha Beach. He called a hockey game in which the United States defeated the Soviet Union. Lech Walesa, hell—it was Mike Eruzione who tore down the wall, dammit. For a single awful moment before Sunday’s gold-medal game between another underdog United States team and Canada, I thought we might go several minutes before Michaels—or someone else in the employ of NBC—mentioned the 1980 team again. If nothing else, Sidney Crosby’s game-winning goal with 7:40 gone in the overtime shut all that stuff up, at least for the next four years. (Crosby also did us all the great service of making sure this game, and the utterly brilliant tournament it concluded, would not be decided in a shootout, perhaps the most singularly stupid method of settling a tie in an important athletic contest outside of the way the National Football League does it. And even the NFL has come to realize that its overtime rule—”New Orleans has won the toss and has elected to win the game”—needs to be thrown out.)

Not to put too fine a point on it, but men’s hockey pretty much saved these Olympics. Absent that tournament, you would have had a Winter Games that came down through history as the one in which bureaucratic sloth and an insane disregard for the safety of the athletes ended up killing someone. Somebody should probably go to jail on account of the death of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili. At the very least, Kumaritashvili’s family should come out of it owning the vacation home of some chubby cat in a blazer. (Note to Olympic organizers: When bobsledder Shauna Rohbock—who happens to be a serving U.S. soldiertells you something is too dangerous, it probably is.) They had Dean Vernon Wormer—”No more fun of any kind!”—moments directed at snowboarder Scotty Lago and the entire Canadian women’s hockey team. They even had poor Wayne Gretzky being transported across town in the back of a pickup truck, as though he were a side of seal meat or a case of Molson’s. The hockey tournament was the only competition that seemed wholly unmarked by tragedy, pettiness, cat-fighting, and stodgy traditionalism, and thank god for it.

There was also no athlete at the Games better at what they did than American goaltender Ryan Miller. Everybody in the country knows Miller now, which never would have happened without the Olympics, since Miller’s day job is with the Buffalo Sabres. In fact, the goaltending was glorious throughout the tournament, especially once Canada replaced the mystifyingly inept Martin Brodeur with Roberto Luongo after Brodeur gave up a couple of soft ones to the United States in Canada’s shocking loss in the preliminary round. This was the case even with some of the more underappreciated teams in the field. With a berth in the quarterfinals on the line, a Latvian goalie named Edgars Masalskis put up a performance against the Czechs that equaled any of Miller’s, stopping a ludicrous 47 shots before David Krejci of the Boston Bruins beat him in overtime, ending two hours in which I surprisingly had found myself transformed into a very enthusiastic honorary Latvian. * (Our capital is Riga, and our primary exports are dairy products and canned fish.)

The style of play in the Olympics was both pleasingly fast and pleasingly rough and proof positive that hockey can be played at a high physical level without the clumsy fisticuffs of which the NHL cannot seem to rid itself. The best thing about the most resounding body check of the Games—when Russia’s Alex Ovechkin absolutely freight-trained Jaromir Jagr at center ice—was that it resulted in a gorgeous goal on a pass from Alexander Semin to Evgeni Malkin. In the preliminary rounds, the Swiss almost beat both Canada and the United States, and Slovakia beat the Russians. (Slovakia had the tournament’s two top scorers as well.) What was plain was that the best thing about this competition is that there were only 12 teams in it. If anything could make the National Hockey League’s overexpansion look even more ludicrous than it actually is—two teams in Florida?—the caliber of play at the Olympics should have done the trick.

All of which made the tournament’s knockout-round blowouts—Canada over Russia and the United States over Finland—well-nigh inexplicable. * At least the Finns had an appalling performance from goalie Miikka Kiprusoff to blame. For their part, the Russians just seemed to quit. The Canadians clearly had a charge put into them when they lost to the Americans and, once they jumped into a 2-0 lead on Sunday, it seemed that what they had done to the Russians was bound to carry over.

Instead, the Americans, a team seemingly designed purely to kill penalties, tightened up defensively, forcing the action along the boards and in front of Luongo, who seemed for a time to be made of Flubber. No goalie in history has given up as many long rebounds at less of a cost than he did Sunday. When the third period played out almost entirely with Canada clinging to a 2-1 lead, it had become plain that the style of the game had shifted to one favorable to the Americans. And, when coach Ron Wilson daringly pulled Miller with a minute and a half left in regulation, the six-on-five skaters advantage looked very much like 12-on-five and enabled Zach Parise to slip behind the defense and tuck the tying goal past Luongo.

At this point, Sidney Crosby had not had a good Olympics. They kept shifting his line mates, and he never got comfortable. He’d had a chance earlier in the game on a breakaway, only to be broken up by a dazzling back-check from Patrick Kane. If Canada failed to win, he was going to take a great deal of the heat. Instead, he stepped through to Miller’s right and managed to set off a general celebration in Canada and an undeniably satisfied glow in those of us who have to keep explaining why we find hockey so compelling. Naturally, the NHL, in its infinite stupidity, is talking about pulling its players from the next Olympics. Maybe we’re all just wasting our time.

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Corrections, March 1, 2010: This article incorrectly stated that Canada beat Russia in the semifinals of the Olympic men’s hockey tournament. Canada beat Russia in the quarterfinals. (Return to the corrected sentence.) This article also incorrectly stated that the Czech Republic beat Latvia in the quarterfinals. That game was for a berth in the quarterfinals. ( Return  to the corrected sentence.)