Saturday, February 15, 2014

This isn't your daddy's Olympics

"When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates.
And the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important
than the one on the back!"

- Herb Brooks, Miracle (2004)

It is nearly 34 years to the date of the famous "Miracle on Ice" U.S.A. versus Russia game.

We all know the story. On February 22, 1980, an American team full of unknown collegiate players, average age 21, beat the heavily-favored Soviet powerhouse team. It wasn't that game that won Team U.S.A. gold in that Olympics - that would happen after the Americans went on to beat Finland. But it was by far one of the most memorable games played in hockey history.

Television technology wasn't the same as today. Many people thought they saw the game live, when in fact it was on tape delay from that afternoon.  

Things were different then. The U.S. and the Soviet Union were still in the Cold War. President Jimmy Carter had proclaimed a grain embargo against the U.S.S.R. in January. Six American diplomats escaped from Tehran, posing as a Canadian film crew (chronicled in the 2012 film Argo), just a few weeks earlier. 

For the United States, the "Miracle on Ice" game was absolutely huge for the American psyche. Here was the underdog of the men's 1980 hockey tournament, beating the world's most dominant hockey team. The Soviets had entered the 1980 Olympics as four-time defending gold-medal champions, and they would go on to reclaim gold in 1984 and 1988. 

At a time when relations between the two nations were strained at best, the game was cathartic, a milestone, and its effects would ripple through the American hockey world right through until current day.

The oldest player on the 2014 U.S.A. team - Ryan Miller from the Buffalo Sabres - wasn't even born when 1980 Olympics were in full swing; he was born in August 1980. The youngest player on the team, Justin Faulk (CAR), was born a month after the 1992 Winter Olympics (Albertville). 

Despite that none of the current Team U.S.A. players were alive when the U.S.A. won gold in 1980, these players all are influenced the 1980 Olympics. Thirteen of the twenty players of that 1980 U.S.A. team eventually went on to play in the NHL. 

There's the most obvious ties: alternative captain Ryan Suter (MN) is a second-time U.S. Olympian. His father, Bob Suter, was on the 1980 U.S.A. team. While drafted by the Los Angeles Kings and signed at one point by the Minnesota North Stars, Bob Suter never played hockey at the NHL level, although his brother Gary did. 

Paul Stastny, also a second-time U.S. Olympian, is also the son of a 1980 Olympian - although in his case, his father, Peter, played for Czechoslovakia. Peter Stastny would later defect to Canada, and Paul was born in Quebec. His father eventually played for the St. Louis and later became a scout for the Blues; Paul and his brother Yan now both hold dual Canadian-American citizenship.

Team U.S.A.'s captain is Zach Parisé. While his father had no relation to the 1980 game, J.P. Parisé played for a national team as well - although in his case, it was Team Canada, and he was part of the 1972 Summit Series team. Six of the Soviets that J.P. Parisé faced in that Soviet Series went on to be part of the 1980 Soviet team.

As for the rest of Team U.S.A., they are a generation of American hockey players who grew up in the long shadow of that 1980 team. They are players who grew up dreaming of their own moment of Olympic hockey glory (plus, of course, Stanley Cup championships). They are the players who grew up in an American youth hockey system that greatly flourished after 1980, one that took many lessons from Herb Brooks' coaching style in the Lake Placid Olympics.

As Americans, we look at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics with great fondness and national pride. There's hardly a hockey fan out there that cannot quote from Miracle, the 2004 Disney film that has endeared itself with sports fans of all ages, whether it is the demanding "Again!" from the bag skate scene or Herb Brooks' "Great moments... are born from great opportunity" motivational speech.

As Team U.S.A. takes on Team Russia on Saturday afternoon Sochi time (7:30 a.m. EST), the specter of that 1980 game in Lake Placid hangs in the air, but this is not their fathers' hockey game. 

Only two of the current Russian Olympic players were alive for that 1980 game - Pavel Datsyuk and Andrei Markov. But they, too, grew up in the shadow of that game. For the Russians, however, they feel that Canada is more of a rival, since the Canadians are the only team that holds as many gold medals as they do. And from the Russian viewpoint, the 1972 Summit Series was more of a national turning point for them than Lake Placid. 

Russia is no longer the mighty Soviet Union. One of the Russian players, Viktor Tikhonov, 25, was named for his grandfather, who was the coach of that 1980 Soviet team. 

But the younger Tikhonov grew up in a far different Russia than his grandfather did. For starters, when he was born in 1988, the U.S.S.R. still existed; it broke up in 1991. The city where Tikhonov was born, Riga, is now part of Latvia. Tikhonov grew up in Los Gatos, California, and Lexington, Kentucky, because his father was a goalie coach in the San Jose Sharks system. As a teenager, he returned to Russia to play in the Russian Hockey League (not to be mistaken with the KHL)

Today, Russian players are a regular part of the North American hockey scene, with 26 players spread across 15 NHL teams from Edmonton to Tampa Bay, Los Angeles to Montréal. Some of them are among the most popular in the league, like Alex Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Pavel Datsyuk. They are teammates to many of the players they will face across the ice this morning. 

The United States and Russia have mostly-friendly relations these days. Their best hockey players play side by side in the best league in the world, sharing both triumphs and defeats. 

Team U.S.A. is no longer full of fresh-faced collegiate players. Instead, it is loaded with NHL superstars, exciting players like Patrick Kane, who define the face of U.S.A. hockey today. The Americans won silver in 2010 at Vancouver and have their sights set on gold this time.

As for Russia - studded with NHL and KHL players - they are under the pressure that home ice defines, but they are also considered one of the favorites for potential gold. 

For both sides, it is a very different world than their fathers and grandfathers played in, and the 2014 athletes want to write their own chapters in the Olympic history books. 

No matter what happens, it should be a special and very exciting game, one worth getting up early to watch.

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