SOCHI – The United States plays the Soviet Union in hockey Saturday in a rematch of the famous 1980 game, except for the small detail that the Soviet Union has not existed in a generation. There is that.
Also, the Russian and American players don’t seem to see any greater sociopolitical implications, probably because there aren’t any.
But, you know, it’s still the biggest hockey rivalry in the world … well, OK, U.S.-Canada is bigger. So is Canada-Russia; at recent international tournaments, the Russians were far more concerned with Sidney Crosby and his friends than with the Americans. Also, Sweden-Finland means more to those players, and we should probably mention those Original Six rivalries in the NHL, and then there are all those teams in the Beanpot …
WAIT! Viktor Tikhonov plays for Russia, and his grandfather (also named Viktor!) coached that 1980 team. This is a riveting subplot until you talk to Tikhonov. He sounds like he moved to California when he was four years old … which he did.
There is one more problem with this 1980 theme: There are no underdogs in this game. For all the talk about the Russians being at home, and the pressure to win a gold medal, the U.S. has a deeper and probably a better team, and Canada is probably better than both. (Any of the three could win gold, and they aren’t alone.)
No, this is not the same. We can’t even pretend it is. But there is a parallel storyline:
The 1980 game was a perfect reflection of the relations between the U.S. and Russia back then. It was marked by tension, and the fear of an unknowable, powerful enemy. The Russian players were older, stronger and more skilled at a time when Americans feared the Soviets were stronger and capable of overwhelming them.
That is why the U.S. victory resonated. A stunning upset over, say, Sweden, would have faded quickly.
Now? Americans are more concerned with Islamic fundamentalists than with the Russian president. Most see Vladimir Putin more as a character on a television sitcom than as a threat. If he is sheltering Edward Snowden, it is hard to know if he is trying to gain valuable information or just tweak us.
Nikita Khrushchev famously said, “We will bury you!” (Though his intent may have been lost in translation.) Putin says he envies President Barack Obama because of his ability to spy. Admit it: That was good comedy.
Just as the political environment has changed radically since 1980, so has the hockey environment -- and you can trace a lot of it to that upset. It was the first step in a U.S. hockey boom that has transformed the sport. Chris Chelios was a Chicago kid playing hockey in Canada when Team USA stunned the Russians, and he has said that he never could have envisioned a Hall of Fame career for himself because it seemed so unlikely.
The Miracle on Ice put more kids on the ice, and the 1988 trade of Wayne Gretzky from the Edmonton Oilers to the Los Angeles Kings made hockey relevant in large segments of the U.S. The talent pool got wider and deeper.
“We rode the wave of the 1980 team,” said Chelios, who is here with Fox Sports 1, during the Americans’ practice Friday. “We didn’t have the success everybody thought we would have until the 1996 World Cup.”
The U.S. victory in that World Cup began a string of international successes. Team USA has won silver medals in two of the last three Olympics.
This might be the strongest American team yet, and the proof is in the names that are not on the roster: Bobby Ryan, Keith Yandle, Jack Johnson, Dustin Byfuglien. The U.S. could pick and choose the players who are best suited to a short, pressure-filled tournament on wider ice, instead of just picking the only names that made sense.
American star Zach Parise’s father, J.P., played for Canada in the 1972 Canada Cup, and Parise said his dad told him he had no idea how great the Russians were until the tournament started. There are no secrets anymore. The Americans play against Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk all the time.
Chelios said on Friday that there is no “intimidation factor.” What he did not say, but what is true, is this: The Americans are at least as good as the Russians, and they know it.
American hockey fans are different, too. You could hate the Russian stars of 1980 because they seemed like emotionless thugs, and it was fun to see them that way. How can you hate these Russians? If you’re a Penguins fan who dislikes Ovechkin, you probably love Malkin. Datsyuk has lived 35 years without anybody hating him; if you want to be the first, then go for it.
Meanwhile, the end of the Cold War and the professionalization of the Olympics eliminated Russian hockey's two biggest advantages. Russia can no longer put its best players on the ice against America’s best 21-year-olds. It also can’t force its players to train together for national pride, and that may show up on the ice.
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said that the Russians have more “high-end skill … extraordinary skill,” and added that if the Americans think they can beat the Russians on skill, they will lose. This is true -- there is no Ovechkin on the U.S. side, to start -- but so what? First of all, every coach in hockey history has told his team not to rely on skill. And second, this is not a skills contest at an All-Star game.
The Russians will rely heavily on stars like Ovechkin, Malkin and Datsyuk to make up for their lack of depth. Those guys are so good that it might work, but Russia is also counting on Kontinental Hockey League players who have not faced the same level of competition as the Americans or Canadians. In hockey, a team with a few stars and sketchy depth usually looks better than it is.
For years after 1980, U.S. hockey fans hoped for another Miracle on Ice. There may be another gold medal here, but there won’t be a miracle. We will just experience great hockey -- and maybe a wisp of nostalgia for a lost and lesser era. U.S. forward David Backes said that when the U.S. plays Russia, “the atmosphere will be out of this world.” It might even remind you of another one.