The greatest hockey game of all time? That's up for debate, but I think Canada's 3-2 triumph over Team USA for the gold medal last night in Vancouver can certainly be included in the conversation of most meaningful sticks-and-blades matchups ever.
Certainly, the Canadians had that extra inner intangible that simply came from wearing the Maple Leaf (not the Toronto one) on their jerseys. It was their game, played in their nation, the Super Bowl, World Series, Stanley Cup Final all combined into one. To win would have been their birthright, their destiny, the scripted finale for this NHL All-Star Team put together to achieve nothing less than a golden moment.
There were similar parallels in Team USA's storyline; the Americans, while evoking memories of the Miracle on Ice in 1980 (more on that in a minute), hadn't lost a game in this tournament. Their roster was also made up of NHL players, but more of the bump-and-grind variety rather than simply the most talented names available. But for Team USA, a loss in the finale would not have the same far-reaching impact it would have in Canada.
Of course, to come so far, play so well, inspire a country that sorely needs inspiring and lose in the final -- especially after Zach Parise's goal with an extra attacker sent the game into OT -- is difficult to deal with. US defenseman Jack Johnson said, "It's devastating. It was the biggest game any of us have played in." Understandably so. And you could see that devastation in Ryan Miller's face during his TV interview just moments after Sidney Crosby's OT goal won it for Canada.
But in time, that will pass. The wounds of defeat will dissipate, and the silver medal will come to mean just that, not a loss in the finals. As Chris Drury said, "No one knew our names. People know our names now." And you could see signs of healing already at the closing ceremonies, just a couple of hours afterward. There was Ryan Miller, silver medal around his neck, with a camera, the beginnings of an actual smile on his face, taking it all in.
But for Canada to lose on that stage? Crushing? Devastating? Humiliating? There may not be a word in the English language to describe what such an unthinkable event would have meant north of the border. Especially when considering the depth of what hockey means there.
And when that puck, propelled by Crosby, already anointed "The Next One," beat Miller and hit nothing but the back of the net, all of Canada erupted in glee and exhaled in relief at the same time. The same could be said for Crosby in particular, who carried that weight and expectations on his 22-year-old shoulders. Not only has he won a Stanley Cup and Olympic gold eight months apart, but in Canada, he now shares a pedestal with Paul Henderson, who scored the winning-goal in the classic 1972 Summit Series, as well as his boss, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux, who scored to defeat the Soviets in the 1987 World Cup.
And how about the parting shot of the Canadians posing for their championship photo while Team USA quietly filed off the ice behind them? Classic.
Certainly, the party atmosphere that was evident during the closing ceremonies inside and outside of BC Place would have been much different if, say, Parise, Jamie Langenbrunner or anyone else in a Team USA uniform had scored in OT. I wonder how the choreography of the hockey-heavy tongue-in-cheek tribute to Canada would have been modified for a silver medal, rather than gold (how great was the re-creation of the table-hockey game on the BC Place floor?).
It was as if it were meant to unfold no other way. Pretty damn close to perfectly, I think.
Some, in the excitement of the moment, were prepared to call it the most important hockey game in the history of Canada. Hmm. The Summit Series triumph, smack in the middle of the Cold War, might have been bigger. I'm not sure you can compare the two -- different circumstances, different time, different things at stake.
For us in the US, a gold medal in hockey at Vancouver in 2010 would have been exciting and memorable, but it never could have touched what happened at Lake Placid in 1980 -- a bunch of no-name college kids beating the vaunted and feared Soviets at the height of the Cold War period on American ice. That game transcended sports, and may have been the most meaningful sporting event ever.
The proceedings in Vancouver will certainly claim a spot as one of the best live sporting events for those who were there.
For me, there are two. One was Robin Ventura's grand-slam single that gave the Mets a 4-3 victory over the Braves in Game 5 of the 1999 NLCS. I was there as a fan, about four rows from the top of Shea Stadium. I remember the wave of humanity cascading down the exit ramps of Shea, chanting "Mets in seven." It didn't go that way; two nights later, Kenny Rogers walked in the winning run at Turner Field, giving the Braves the pennant.
Then there was the night Michael Jordan, wearing No. 45 in his NBA comeback, dropped 55 points on the Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 28, 1995. I covered that one. That doesn't stand out for any particular shot Jordan made, but just how he dominated in every way. Oddly enough, the game-winning shot was made not by Jordan, but rather Bill Wennington, on a pass from Jordan.
One last thought on the Olympic hockey experience -- the dynamics of playing for your country one night and, literally, going back to work the next and banging heads against the same guys you just went to war with are fascinating. Consider that Team Canada coach Mike Babcock, less than 24 hours after winning the gold medal, will be coaching the Detroit Red Wings against the Colorado Avalanche tonight when the NHL schedule resumes. One player on his bench will be defenseman Brian Rafalski, who had to watch the celebration as a member of Team USA. Paul Stastny, Rafalski's USA teammate, will play against him as a member of the Avalanche.
Similarly, Parise and Langenbrunner of Team USA will reunite with Team Canada goaltender Marty Brodeur with the New Jersey Devils. The same for Patrick Kane of the USA and Jonathan Toews of Canada with the Chicago Blackhawks. And for Crosby, the Team Canada hero, and USA defensemen Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney with the Penguins.
And I'm sure that in all those cases, along with the many more I didn't mention, it will be as if the Olympics never happened. Hockey players are a humble, hard-working lot. Like the old adage goes, the name on the front of the jersey is more important than the name on the back.