While the rest of the hockey world awaits the Olympics, and subsequently the Stanley Cup playoffs, I am convinced that by the fifth day of 2010, the best hockey game of the year has already been played. And to be honest, I don't know which was more stunning—Team USA's overtime goal in the gold medal game against Canada or the fact that it was nowhere to be seen in our national sports news this morning.
To appreciate the story that unfolded last night in Saskatoon, you need to go back to its prequel. When the two teams first met in the preliminary round on New Year's Eve, the US gave up a two-goal lead in the third period and held off Canada in overtime, only to lose in the third round of the shootout. Canada seized the automatic bye into the next round, while the US took the long road through Finland and Sweden, to earn their way back to a rematch.
With Canada playing at home for what would have been their sixth gold medal in a row, they were the tournament's only undefeated team and undisputed favorite. But the beauty of watching David take down Goliath wasn't just what the US accomplished but how they accomplished it.
Most teams approach a game against Canada as though they're simply trying to postpone the inevitable. Fend off the beast as long as possible and hope that the clock runs out in your favor. Unlike its predecessors—both on and off the ice—this Team USA program managed to respect their opponent without revering them.
From the moment the puck dropped, they attacked—controlling the puck into the offensive zone and firing a relentless stream of shots on the goaltender. No waiting for the perfect scoring opportunity—no hanging back in the neutral zone, just to be safe. This was all-out, end-to-end hockey, with both teams playing their guts out for a combined 78 shots on goal, in front of 15,000 screaming fans.
Even as Canada rallied back, scoring two goals at the end of the third period in an eerie déjà vu from the New Year's Eve game, the US team remained unfazed. In a situation where most teams would have reverted to playing like underdogs, they stuck to their game and went out and played like the best U20-hockey team in the world, much to the chagrin of the six million Canadian viewers and probably 34 Americans.
Now, I am realistic about the role of hockey in our nation. And I know that at first glance, the notion of 17 to 19-year-olds playing hockey might rank somewhere on your watch-meter between "Troy vs. Central Michigan" and reruns of Two and a Half Men in Spanish. But remember—these kids aren't exactly your average teenagers. In fact, 41 of the 44 players who faced off last night have already been drafted by an NHL franchise and are currently in what could be the waning moments of their collegiate or junior careers. So, in essence—you're watching hockey's future as they battle for their country with an intensity, emotion, and level of play you won't find anywhere else in hockey or all of professional sports for that matter.
Physical play—without tomahawk chops to the skull.
And you know—not even one Latvian player demanded to be traded to a contender.
While cognizant that I live in a country with more bowl games per capita than should federally be permitted, I can't fault mainstream America for not watching or even knowing that the US played in the gold medal game last night. I will however, point a giant foam finger at our nation's so-called sports media for completely omitting one of the best moments in USA Hockey from today's headlines.
The top stories from the sports wire today? For CNN, it was speculation about whether JaMarcus Russell may have ditched his irrelevant 5-11 team for a trip to Vegas. For Sports Illustrated, it was Mark Cuban's anger at the NFL for scheduling the Dallas Cowboys game at the same time as the Mavericks. And for ESPN—it's that former Detroit Lion, Charlie Rogers, was jailed for drinking too much and passing out in a Mexican restaurant.
I'm not saying that millionaires, sorry Mark—bajillionaires—behaving badly don't make great stories. But could we at least spare a few lines of text for these kids that represented us with the heart and class that brought 15,000 opposing fans to their feet? Guys that sang their lungs out to our national anthem and brought the gold medal back to a nation that hadn't even made it to the final game in six years.
So, do yourself a favor and catch a replay or at least the highlights from this game. When it comes to hockey at its highest level, there is simply no equivalent to the combination of skill and grit on display at the World Junior Championships. For many of these players, this is their first and perhaps only chance to play the game on an international stage. Sure, we're supposed to get that from the Olympics—but if you recall the 1998 Games in Nagano, Team USA didn't exactly make the kind of news stories that made us proud to be American.
But they did, of course, make the headlines.