Over the last few months, the United States Olympic men’s ice hockey team has taken American fans on quite a rollercoaster ride. Beginning with a controversial selection process which ruffled more than a few feathers, all the way through Saturday’s embarrassing effort against a very good Finnish team, this Olympic experience has a lot of people wondering where USA Hockey goes from here.
At The Big House in Ann Arbor, MI, on January 1st, the final Olympic roster was named following the Winter Classic. Therein lies another confusing decision: The U.S. Women’s team roster was named between periods of one of the most watched regular-season games of the year. The Men’s team waited until the game was over, as the 100,000+ freezing fans in attendance made their way to the exits and American TV audience got ready to change the channel. I’m not sure who made the programming decision to do this but it begs the question: Was it done intentionally to highlight the Women’s team? Or was USA Hockey aware they were about to reveal some unpopular decisions and were okay with downplaying the reveal? To me, this was the first big missed opportunity. You’ve got the undivided attention of the entire American hockey world, who are ready to be inspired to get behind this team, and you wait till they are reaching for remote.
Maybe USA Hockey was a little concerned about the roster they were about to release. Of course, several players were virtual locks: Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel. There were a few raised eyebrows over the goaltenders: Ryan Miller, Jonathan Quick, and Jimmy Howard (possibly bring Ben Bishop?) But there were some serious questions about scorers who were going to be left at home: forwards Bobby Ryan, a member of the 2010 silver medal team, and Kyle Okposo, and defensemen Dustin Byfuglien, Keith Yandle, and ’10 vets Erik and Jack Johnson.
We were told his team would be fast, with some size up front, and the defensive pairings would be good in transition. They were, overall, a young group with speed who were “able to skate with anyone” in the tournament. Being “able to skate with anyone” sounds good in theory, but considering the firepower that everyone knew would be waiting on the benches of Canada, Sweden, and Russia, it left a little to be desired.
So the tournament got underway with pool play and Team USA fairly easily slipped past Zdeno Chára and Slovakia. That was followed by what could have been an all-time iconic USA Hockey moment, when T.J. Oshie (who most of America had never heard of before February 15th) beat Russia’s Sergei Bobrovsky on 4 out of 6 penalty shots to claim victory for Team USA. The Americans seemed to be unfazed by the emotional win, as they cruised by Slovenia to claim the #2 seed in the medal round tournament.
In the quaterfinals, USA squared off with a veteran-laden Czech Republic team, USA responded well and won easily. At 2:01 of the third period of that game, Phil Kessel scored the 5th goal of the night for the Americans. They would not score another goal for the rest of the tournament.
In the semifinal game against Canada, only the superb play of Jonathan Quick kept the game from turning into a blowout. I agree with Cam Cole of the Vancouver Sun when he called it “the most lopsided 1-0 game ever.” As a result, Team USA would meet Finland in the bronze medal game the next day. I’m assuming that head coach Dan Bylsma must have told the team the wrong day or time for the bronze medal game, because they never showed up. A lackluster effort ended with Finland routing Team USA 5-0.
So what’s wrong with American hockey? And just as importantly, how does it get fixed?
First of all, Team USA didn’t seem to embrace the two-week long tournament. They shot out of the gate quickly, but didn’t really do much to get better as the Olympics progressed. They stagnated, and even took steps backward as the competition around them got more intense. Which lead to…
The biggest thing I noticed about this team was their own lack of confidence. Sure, Patrick Kane has swagger and Jonathan Quick has his moments of ego, but as a team, they feared Canada. (I’m leaving out the Finland game for now, since that was just ridiculous.) There was not a sense of equality even from the opening face-off. It seemed, to a man, they knew they were over-matched and played with such temerity that they never even gave themselves a chance to win.
Also, I should clarify: Canada deserved to win the gold medal. They improved with each game, played the best team hockey, and peaked in the last two games. They were head and shoulders above the rest of the world this time around…although, I was a little disappointed in Sweden’s gold medal game performance.
So, would Bobby Ryan or a couple of Johnsons have provided USA with a different outcome? I honestly don’t think it would have even made the difference of a single goal. This team skated fast and moved the puck around….okay, maybe they could have used more scoring ability. As much as it pains me to say, with all the 1980 Lake Placid “Miracle” references everywhere, it seemed that in the 2014 Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, the one thing the United States men’s hockey team lacked most…..was heart.