- The Americans and Russians have a long, storied history on the ice, and it sure makes for some feisty hockey.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea – Journalists root for the story, not for any individual or team, which is why I went to the U.S.-Russia hockey game here Saturday. I thought it would be a great story if we beat the bastards. Look: I just don’t like other countries coming in to the United States to try to elect incompetent boobs. That’s our job.
Frankly, I wasn’t sure that this U.S.-Russia tilt would give me that warm Cold War feeling, but it was clear before the puck dropped that this was serious business. U.S. forward Ryan Donato said, “Even before the game there (was) a lot of tension.” That may have been an echo from 1980—this is the first Olympic tournament in a generation that features Russian pros and (mostly) American amateurs. And it may have been because hours earlier, the U.S. Justice Department indicted 13 Russian nationals for tampering with the 2016 election.
The Russians scored the first goal of the night, cutting the score to 13-1. The goal happened so quickly—instant passes from Alexander Barabanov to Sergei Mozyakin to Nikolai Prokhorkin, who scored—that it seemed like a magic trick.
It was pretty clear that the Americans can skate with the Russians, and the Americans can match the Russians’ physicality, but the Americans do not have the Russians’ skill. By the time Russia scored in the final second of the second period to take a 3-0 lead, it was clear that during the next intermission U.S. coach Tony Granato would need to make a major adjustment, like switching to baseball. The final score was 4-0.
Well, we all knew the Russians were better. And maybe it was weird to see these Russians as unfeeling and evil. Pavel Datsyuk, after all, played 14 dazzling seasons in the NHL without offending anybody. He even won the Lady Byng trophy for sportsmanship and gentlemanly play four times. But if you can’t lump an entire nation of people together using lazy stereotypes, why even have the Olympics?
This was nasty and it was fun, and man, was it chippy. Prokhorkin and enormous young American Jordan Greenway fought like a divorced couple—not an all-out brawl, just constant little disputes. Greenway said later: “I don’t know really what started it. He didn’t want to let me go. He wanted to do a little dance. I’m always down for a little dance.”
I think I know what started it. I think we all do. It all goes back to Lake Placid.
The story of the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team often gets twisted and exaggerated for maximum dramatic effect, so let’s just stick to facts: A band of gritty American amateurs, wearing skates that had been handed down from their fathers and using sticks they carved themselves, stunned a mighty Soviet Union team, propelling the Americans to the gold medal and instantly cutting the Soviet nuclear arsenal in half. The Cold War did not officially end until a few years later, when Rocky Balboa beat Ivan Drago for the heavyweight championship, but the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament was the turning point.
Let’s face it: We have spent 38 years trying to create the Miracle on Ice. We can’t shut up about it. The world got tired of hearing about it 37 years ago. When we mention Mike Eruzione at bars, other countries leave before finishing their beers. And still we keep yapping.
There is a pretty simple reason for this, and it’s not just that the U.S. won the gold medal. The U.S. has won lots of gold medals. Michael Phelps has won so many, he leaves them as tips. The Miracle on Ice allowed America to be an underdog, and we don’t get too many chances like that. It was a lot more inspiring than Charles Barkley showing up in Barcelona and snapping an Angolan in two.
The Russians are tired of hearing that story. The U.S. is their rival on every possible level. This was reinforced four years ago in Sochi, when American T.J. Oshie scored the winning goal against Russia in a shootout.
Russia’s Ilya Kovalchuk, who scored two goals Friday and looked like he might score more, said afterward, “No anger. It’s sports. It’s emotions. After that last game in Sochi. I think you guys are still showing highlights of Oshie scoring in that shootout. Hopefully you will change it now.”
Of course we won’t. Kovalchuk knows that. But the Russians earned a bye in the quarterfinal round and forced the Americans to play an extra game, which meant this was like two wins for them.
The Russians are playing for so much here—a gold medal, but also a large helping of pride. Officially, this team isn’t playing for the Russian Federation, thanks to that country’s doping sanctions. They are Olympic Athletes From Russia. The Russians wore generic red uniforms with OLYMPIC ATHLETE FROM RUSSIA on them, which had to be embarrassing for everybody involved. They looked like the t-shirts your Aunt Harriet makes everybody wear when your extended family goes on a cruise. The Russians should have just worn uniforms that read I WENT TO PYEONGCHANG AND ALL I GOT WAS THIS LOUSY HOCKEY JERSEY.
Nobody was fooled by the lousy outfit. These guys may not officially represent Russia, but they are undeniably playing for Russia.
There were Russian flags in the crowd, and rows of fans wearing shirts that spelled RUSSIA IN MY HEART and RED MACHINE, and there was Russian coach Oleg Znarok putting his stars on the power play with a four-goal lead late in the third period. U.S. Coach Tony Granato didn’t like it. The feisty Greenway —who said “I don’t see any reason why we’re not in the gold medal game”—didn’t seem to like it. Me, I loved it. Both teams can make nice when they play Switzerland. U.S.-Russia is no time to make friends.