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Monday, February 15, 2010

To be or not to be an Underdog? Team USA Hockey

Ever since 1998 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) allowed professional athletes the opportunity to play for their respective countries, the talent pool and depth in ice hockey has increased exponentially. Most hockey experts agree- having a diverse and talented pool of players usually results in greater parity among the competitive teams, if not overly favoring the traditionally dominant countries that we all know about. History knows that exceptions exist.

In the 1970's, Team Canada boycotted the Olympic games over the supposedly flagrant use of professional players in the former USSR.  The question remains why? Is it relevant to consider administrative "cold war mentality" factors including pressure from a neighboring country and of course, the progressive 1970's Canadian politics? Was it because of certain vocal hockey purists- we know they exist in Canada- who regularly discredited and ridiculed the foreign opponents while promoting their own brand of old fashioned team spirit? Not that USA is free of scrutiny. We've always been known as a country that defends rugged individualism.

he shoots... he SCORES!

In retrospect, we humbly recognize that Soviet Union athletes like goalie Vladislav Tretiak and forwards Valeri Kharlamov and Boris Mikhailov were simply disciplined hockey players whose skill level, team-play, and use of strategy were considered a step above your average puckster. Sure they played together more, sang songs, lived closely, and bonded together as comrades. So what.  A simple recognition of these facts suggests that these guys were the hockey sharks of yesteryear. Untouchable. In fact, nobody dominated world competition hockey more than the USSR in 1956-1976. Not even Canada. That all changed in 1980 with the "amateur" victory of Team USA’s “Miracle on Ice”.

Personally I am very fond of the concept of amateur only international hockey. But today, we live in a different time. The 20th Century Herb Brooks ice hockey model seems antiquated now, and not consistent with other high profile international sports like soccer, basketball, baseball, etc.Can anyone say rugged individualism. A good idea that’s run its course in the sporting world perhaps. In any case, if you have a position on why the IOC should limit Olympic competition to amateurs I’d love to hear it. Would your answer involve money, greed, NHL contracts, endorsements….?

What hasn’t changed in sporting competition is the idea of an underdog. Whether it’s civil rights, politics, social justice, music, or sports the concept of an underdog can often be a blessing in disguise. Texas indie-rock band Spoon defied thematic odds and crafted an edgy-uptempo song entitled "The Underdog". A critical and subversive commentary on the dominant powers that even Van Morrison can like. Perhaps it's also a rubuttal of the Goliath syndrome found in sports today. Lead-singer Britt Daniels raspy vocals pleads with us,

"Cause you don't talk to the water boy
and there's so much you could learn but you don't want to know,
You will not back up an inch ever,
that's why you will not survive,
The thing that I tell you now
It may not go over well
And it may not be photo-op
in the way that I spell it out
But you won't hear from the messenger,
don't wanna know bout something that you don't understand,
You got no fear of the underdog,
that's why you will not survive! (Hey!)"

The underdog mentality even raised it's head before this years Super Bowl. In what's becoming a tired media cliche, important news anchors raise the question, "Who do you like in the Super Bowl." Naturally, President Obama was more favorable of the underdog football team the New Orleans Saints. But I refer you again to the ice hockey world because it's worth repeating Team USA’s most-unpredictable achievement as the watershed example of underdog sports victory. In contrast,  an even earlier generation of hockey players and critics point to the forgotten-miracle on ice that occurred in 1960 at Squaw Valley, California. Arguably in their minds, the best team ever to lace the skates and take the gold. Can anyone say rugged individualism?

Forgotten Miracle Trailer from Forgotten Miracle on Vimeo.

The First Miracle on Ice
Before the Miracle on Ice: 'Team of Destiny'

Which brings us to the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver B.C, Canada. No serious hockey critic considers Team USA a threat to the win gold or even place in the top three. A common factor that usually adds up to being identified as the underdog. If your General Manager Brian Burke, placing more media attention and focus on Canada and Russia while simultaneously downplaying the strength of your own players does have a certain advantage. Coach Ron Wilson would rather view the team as the "bad guys". Not goon mentality per se but a collection of players with youthful vitality capable of overcoming a hostile environment in a boiling point arena overflowing with Canadian pride. Sam Donnelon of sums up how to spin Team USA's chances in Vancouver.

In the Harbor Star school of hockey goaltending is everything in the Olympics. For Team USA to place or win gold, top goalie Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) will need to perform like a circus act... he'll need to stand on his head to stop the onslaught of pucks coming his way. What about the rest of the team? In an interview with managing editor Shawn P. Roarke of veteran forward and Minnesota native Jamie Langenbrunner (New Jersey) expresses an admirable gritty approach to the upcoming games,

"I never consider myself an underdog... I go into every game believing I can win and that I am going to win. It's the organizations I've grown up playing in and fortunately I've been on some good ones and it's kind of fed that a little bit...I don't think anyone going on the ice wearing our jersey is going to be thinking, 'Oh we don't deserve to win tonight.' That's not going to be our mentality and that's not going to be anyone's mentality. We're all competitors, we're all in the NHL and we're all the top of our profession."

Read more: U.S. team: We're no underdogs  vs Young US team relishes underdog role.

What's hard to believe is no Canadian ice hockey team has won gold medal while being the Olympic host nation. Nevertheless, I'm concerned about our neighbors to the north. While I acknowledge the passion of the sport and it's link to the cultural fabric of Canada, I cannot help but whisper ...the pressure's on my friends of the North!  May the best (or luckiest) team win. By the you have a game plan to stop Alexander Ovechkin? I don't think we do either.

Finally, let's all be sure to watch and support our Women's ice hockey team. The growing rivalry with Canada is not to be missed. As former Wisconsin Badger Hockey coaching legend Bob Johnson says, "It's a great day for hockey!"

Predictions anyone?

Gold- Russia
Silver- Canada
Bronze- USA

Gold- USA

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