Five-ring Circus

Do You Believe in Mild Upsets?

Team USA’s motley men’s hockey team finally got my hopes up—and then promptly crushed them.

GANGNEUNG, SOUTH KOREA - FEBRUARY 21:  Petr Koukal #42 of the Czech Republic scores a goal on Ryan Zapolski #30 of the United States in an overime shootout to defeat the United States 3-2 during the Men's Play-offs Quarterfinals on day twelve of the PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at Gangneung Hockey Centre on February 21, 2018 in Gangneung, South Korea.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
Petr Koukal of the Czech Republic scores what turned out to be the game-winning goal in an overtime shootout to defeat the United States 3–2 in PyeongChang, South Korea. Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Olympics in Pyeongchang didn’t include any NHL players, a consequence of the league’s refusal to suspend its regular season so players could moonlight for their national teams. You might think this would’ve made the American men’s team—a collection of NHL washouts and international journeymen—easier to love. It did not. Our coach proved to be a sore loser, and one of our few bona fide stars-in-the-making plays at Harvard for his dad. Toss in an epic collapse to Slovenia—Slovenia—to open pool play and a thrashing at the hands of archrival (Olympic Athletes from) Russia, and I will bet you a brand new Blu-ray copy of Miracle that even the most industrious Disney exec hasn’t bothered to draw up a movie-rights deal for this motley crew.

And yet, I will admit, about halfway through Tuesday night’s quarterfinal against the Czech Republic, I started to believe. It clearly wasn’t 1980, but if I squinted hard enough, maybe it was starting to look like 1996, the year Team USA won the World Cup of Hockey. That international tournament had far more star power than this one, but it still lacked the star power fans would come to expect from the games’ NHL era. (The league started letting its pros play in the Olympics in 1998.) It also, not incidentally, marks the last major victory for an American senior men’s team.

Back to the present day: Down a goal, down a man, and playing on tired legs, the Americans were in trouble—and then they weren’t. Forward Brian O’Neill, a sixth-year pro who has all of 22 NHL games to his name and is now making his living in Finland, won a race to the puck along the boards. He fed a streaking Jim Slater, now playing in Switzerland after a middling NHL career of his own, who put the puck past the Czech keeper. Tie game, 2–2.

Grit and heart are, admittedly, two of the dumbest words that can come out of a fan’s mouth; they’re mostly just catchall justifications to explain why we arbitrarily like one player or team and not another. But single-elimination hockey is all about those moments that don’t show up on the stat sheet. And so let me tell you, that goal took real grit! And heart!

The U.S. national team was playing its second game in a little more than a day, and its fifth in the past eight days. They were up against a more talented and more cohesive Czech team fresh off a first-round bye. The Americans had spent much of the period until that point killing one penalty after another and somehow even more of that time trapped deep in their own zone. Their forwards were struggling to win faceoffs, and their defenders were having an even tougher time getting off the ice. It looked like they were doomed. And so, perhaps more desperate to care than I realized, I finally saw what I had wanted to see all along: an American team worth cheering for.

Despite my hockey fandom, this was not a given. Only 24 hours earlier, I had willingly changed the channel during Team USA’s 5–1 victory over Slovakia, choosing to watch ice dancing instead. Ice dancing! But on Tuesday night, the question of whether Moir and Virtue are boning—and if that helped their score—was the furthest thing from my mind.

Yes, I’d have rather been watching young NHL stars Jack Eichel and Auston Matthews in red, white, and blue, and barring that, yes, I would have rather seen more up-and-coming college stars on the ice. But in less time than it took NBC’s color man to say, “Wow, did they ever need that,” I remembered who really deserved the blame for those roster decisions: the NHL, the International Olympic Committee, and the USA Hockey C-suite. I quickly forgave forward Jordan Greenway for his frustrating habit of taking penalties at the worst time and goalie Ryan Zapolski for his terrifying tendency to give up rebounds at all times. Heck, I was even content to pretend I didn’t know that Ryan Donato, the team’s golden boy and legacy skater, goes to school in Boston.

All of which is to say that, in total, I got to enjoy about 30 minutes of regulation Olympic men’s hockey—and to suffer through what turned out to be another 10 minutes of overtime and five woeful shootout attempts. In what proved to be a formative experience of my childhood, I once heard a drunk guy at a minor league game yell “free hockey” at the start of overtime. To this day, when a game is going into extra time, I say the same either to myself or aloud, depending on how many beers deep I am. The only thing better than hockey, after all, is more hockey. But there was nothing free about this one. It came with a price. That price was pain.

I watched as the team I now loved failed to put a single shot on net during a 4-on-3 power play to start overtime. And I watched as Team USA likewise failed to score a single goal during the shootout that would eventually follow. Not even Troy Terry, the reincarnation of Sochi hero T.J. Oshie, could solve the puzzle that was the Czech Republic’s left-handed keeper. With the possible exception of Donato, who I will grudgingly concede had a fantastic tournament, none of the five Americans were even particularly close. More frustrating still, they only would’ve needed to net just one to extend the shootout. In the end, though, this team managed to do what the American NHLers did four years ago in Russia, and what every U.S. men’s Olympic team before them has done since I was born in 1981, less than a year after the Miracle on Ice: They got my hopes up just high enough for the letdown to hurt. But this time, at least, the odds were against them.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Pyeongchang Olympics.

The Men of the Norwegian Curling Team Wear Flamboyant Pants. Does That Make Them Jerks?

Four Theories on Why the United States is Having Such a Crummy Winter Olympics

The Sadness of Watching Evgenia Medvedeva Get Overtaken by Her Younger Rival