Tuesday, January 7, 2014

No Longer Willing To Wait For A Miracle

Sentimentality is always about a Lie.
Nostalgia is about real things Gone.
Nobody truly mourns a Lie.
- Pete Hamill

During NBC's airing of the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, USA Hockey announced the roster of American-born NHL players who will represent the United States in the 2014 Olympics, which shall take place next month in Russia.  As a New York Rangers fan, it was nice to see three Blueshirts named to represent the United States roster.  However, as an Olympic hockey fan, I wish none of them had been named.  In fact, I wish that Marty McFly and I could hop into his trusty DeLorean and go back in time.  Not all the way to the 1950's.  The 1980's would suit me just fine, thank you very much.  

It seems to me that once upon a lifetime ago the process mattered as much as - if not more than - the result.  And because it did, a curmudgeon named Herb Brooks was permitted almost a year to torture (with a higher purpose in mind to be sure) this country's best amateur ice hockey players in an effort to mold them into a team.  A team that he - and for quite a long time he alone - believed could actually compete against the best ice hockey team in the world, which was the Soviet Union's national team.  Only twice, in 1960 and again in 1980, did a group of American kids capture Olympic Gold in ice hockey.  Before, between and after this country did not come particularly close at all to winning any Olympic medal - let alone the Gold - save for one Silver Medal finish in 1952.  And it mattered not.  In fact, those abject failures in most of the Olympics other than Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lake Placid in 1980 served to magnify the enormity of each team's success.  A success that in 1960 was lauded because it was wholly unexpected.  A success that in 1980 became engrained into the fabric of this country because it was miraculous. 

And then somewhere along the line, the wheels fell off.  Not off of USA Hockey, mind you.  They fell off the whole Olympic experience.  No longer did we span the globe seeking out the best in athletic competition.  Now, we arranged competitions that we believed we had a far better chance of winning than we ever had before.  And we did so in the simplest, yet most perverse way possible.  We changed the rules of engagement. 

This February, the Olympic hockey tournament will once again feature teams dominated by NHL players, including not only the American and Canadian teams of course but also the Swedes, the Russians, the Finns and the Czech Republic (just to name a few).  The play will undoubtedly be spirited and representative of what we anticipate seeing when the best players on the planet compete against one another head to head.  But it will never be what it once was. 

At the root of athletic competition is the desire to root for David - the underdog - on its impossible quest to defeat Goliath.  The hope against hope that the team that all logic and reason dictates should get dashed to bits at the hands of a superior foe will defy the odds, play the game of its life and have an opportunity to do something that no one believed possible.  Once impossibility is removed from the equation, competition is reduced to exhibition.  The latter - regardless of how impressive it is - never rises to the level of the former.  It cannot.  It lacks soul.  It lacks substance. 

Jim Craig, the young, shaggy-haired goaltender who bested the world's greatest ice hockey team in 1980 never had another moment in the net that came close to replicating the heights he reached in Lake Placid.  His NHL career, which began almost immediately after the Lake Placid games ended, started in Atlanta and ended, in 1984, in Minnesota.   Mike Eruzione, the team captain, never played a single shift in the NHL.  And it matters not.  His moment arrived in Lake Placid.  And when it did all Eruzione did was score the most important goal in American Olympic hockey history. 

I recognize that I may be firmly ensconced in the minority.  I may be one of the few who wishes that the kids who shall soon be sporting the official Olympic sweaters bearing the names of their favorite NHL heroes were instead getting ready to spend a couple of weeks learning the back stories of young, college-aged players who may or may not have any reasonable likelihood of winning a medal for the United States.  I reckon those days are gone forever.  They should not be.... 

...but they are. 


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