- Without NHL players, the U.S. once again became a lovable underdog. But the team just wasn't good enough to pull off a miracle.
GANGNEUNG, South Korea—If you are inclined to believe in miracles, this was the time for it: three minutes, 49 seconds left in the Olympic men’s hockey quarterfinal, the U.S. tied with the Czech Republic, 2–2. The puck bounced over a penalty box and was caught, one-handed, by a fan in a Mike Eruzione jersey.
If you are inclined to believe in miracles, this was the place for it: in front of the Czech goal, one minute later. U.S. forward Brian O’Neill found room where there should have been none. O’Neill would say later that, “The defenseman let me step in the middle there. Any time a defenseman does that, it’s usually a good decision to shoot.” His shot hit the crossbar. O’Neill said, “Even when I hit the bar, I thought it was going in.” It did not go in.
If you are inclined to believe in miracles, this was the team for it: The U.S. needed a miracle to win a gold medal. Maybe that’s an exaggeration, but only a slight one. The Americans certainly needed a series of highly unlikely events, in the right sequence, and some involved opponents and food poisoning.
This band of mostly older amateurs and a few college stars was easy to love. The effort was never in question, but the skill was.
The Americans lost their quarterfinal to the Czechs in a shootout, which bothered them, understandably. Shootouts are not really hockey. But the U.S. also had 70 minutes of regulation to win it, and in those 70 minutes the Americans only put 20 shots on goal. For the first 10 minutes of the second period, Czech goalie Pavel Francouz could have eaten a strudel while doing a crossword and it would have had no effect on the game.
They could not muster a single goal in the shootout, which was a fitting end. It was obvious in this tournament that the U.S. team probably didn’t have the finishing skills it needed to win a medal, and at times, the Americans couldn’t generate anything resembling a scoring threat.
U.S. goalie Ryan Zapolski played really well. His team needed him to be almost perfect, and that’s a big request. Czech forward Petr Koukal beat Zapolski for the lone goal of the shootout, and the U.S. dream ended moments later. “I kind of bit on the initial deke and I went down,” Zapolski said afterward. “I had to stretch across to get over it, and he put it between my legs.”
Don’t fault Zapolski, or U.S. coach Tony Granato, or the rest of the team. They had so little time to play together and faced a considerable talent deficit against the best teams. Still, they believed. Forward Ryan Donato said, “Coming in here, if you asked me how close we would be after two weeks, I would never have guessed we’d be this close. It’s a tight-knit group of guys.”
Donato, who plays for Harvard, brought his textbooks and computer to Korea so he wouldn’t fall behind on his schoolwork. He and powerful forward Jordan Greenway, from Boston University, are on the way up. Most of their teammates are on the way down (captain Brian Gionta is 39) or just didn’t have the skill and talent to stick in the NHL.
That’s not a knock. It’s the American reality after NHL commissioner Gary Bettman decided his league would not participate in these Olympics. That decision made the Americans a lovable underdog, but also a considerable one. Zapolski said, “In 10 or 15 years, when we’re done playing, [the Olympics] is something we’ll look back on as probably the best moment of our careers.”
Granato said Wednesday that he would have liked another shot at the Russians, who beat the U.S. 4–0 in the qualifying round. His competitive hunger is admirable. But Granato seems to believe that game was close, and it wasn’t. The Russians were the far superior team, and if I had to guess why, I’d say it’s because they have superior players. Russia has several Kontinental Hockey League stars who could be thriving in the NHL right now.
The Americans had the heart but not the hands. That was apparent throughout these Olympics. They struggled to control passes that most NHL players control easily. The power play didn’t just go dry—at times, it looked like there was no chance of the Americans scoring.
Perhaps the U.S. team would have fared a bit better with more college players. Maybe young legs would have helped during the compressed Olympic schedule. There is no way to know. We just know these players tried their hardest and they weren’t good enough to win a medal. Well, that’s the story for most athletes here. It was easy to root for this team. It was not easy to believe it would win.