Monday, February 20, 2006

The New Soviets
(Note: Yeah, I know, it's another damn post about the Winter Olympics. Go read somebody else's blog if you're not interested.)

Yesterday morning I didn't have anything else to do, so I settled in to watch the U.S. men's hockey team play at the Olympics. (Hockey is one of the rare events NBC is showing live, plus many of the games are being called by Mike Emrick, widely recognized as the best in his field.) Then I watched as the U.S. team, made up entirely of NHL professionals, lost 2-1 to Sweden, a team with only a handful of NHL professionals. The U.S. has also lost to Slovakia, with a similarly small handful of pros, and has tied Latvia, which has only two. The only team the Americans have beaten is Kazakhstan, which has one NHLer, and would be seeded last in the tournament if the host country, Italy, wasn't permitted to field a team. Most of the non-NHL players on the men's rosters are pros, too, but in European leagues far less fearsome than the NHL. So the Americans, despite demonstrably superior talent at every position, are getting beaten by teams who aren't as good. Team USA is most likely going to make it to the medal round anyway--Olympic hockey's "regular season" is as forgiving of the halt and the lame as the NHL's regular season--but it's hard to imagine them suddenly becoming competitive when all the money is on the table.

The American team never practiced together before playing their first game, and that's certainly got a lot to do with their performance, although it hasn't bothered the all-NHL Canadian team quite as much. But when you watch Team USA on the ice, you see something else. The broadcasters say that they see the players working hard, and the players themselves say they're working hard--but there's a look in their eyes that says, "Don't these guys know who we are?" They expect to win just by showing up--and the fact that they don't is frustrating and confusing to them.

Contrast that to the American women, who will play for a bronze medal today after losing to Sweden in the semifinals on Friday. I saw the overtime period of that game, and it was everything you want in a big game, quite literally 10 minutes of hell for the Swedes, played almost entirely in their end of the ice, with both teams going all out to win. The American women lost in a shootout, however, and you could see how much it hurt. Unlike the NHL pros, the American women aren't going home to the second half of their pro schedules and to more money than they can spend in a lifetime. This is what they train for, play for, live for. The team is made up of top college players (including one, Molly Engstrom, from the Wisconsin Badgers), and several of the players have been together on the national team for several years. When you lose what is, at least for right now, your life's work, it feels far worse than just losing a game. When the American men crash out of the medal round, their pride will be briefly wounded, but the pain will be forgotten by the time they get on the bus to leave the rink.

NBC's broadcast yesterday opened with a montage of Olympic hockey moments, and those moments prominently featured the 1980 American team, made up entirely of college players, who famously beat the Soviets. But it occurs to me that in these Olympics, the big bad monolithic superpower everyone wants to beat is the United States. Especially in hockey, but also in other sports. You think the akavit wasn't flowing in Latvia after they tied us? You think people in Europe didn't celebrate when Lindsey Jacobellis hot-dogged her way out of a gold medal in snowcross the other night, or every time Bode Miller crashes? We sit over here in our happy little bubble with no idea of how the rest of the world sees us, in sports and in myriad other ways--so we don't know. But just because we don't know it doesn't mean it isn't real.

(Slightly edited to fix dumb stuff.)

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