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A miracle: a goal

I am dancing. I am singing. I am waving the flag.

Most of all, I am trash-talking Latvia.

I am stomping. I am chanting. Soon, I may paint my face.

Soon, I will get in Kazakhstan's face.

Here in Hockey Nation, it is time for smack. Our swagger knows no bounds. Our smugness has no limits. Also, if it matters to you, our team scores no goals.

Still, among the flies, no one buzzes quite like the United States.

Whoopie, is what I say.

Yessirree, if ever there was a time for jingoism, it is now. Through no particular achievement of its own, the United States is on the verge of reaching the medal round. I'm not sure quite what is lighting the way, but I'm fairly sure it is not the lamp attached to the net.

I know, I know. The critics among you will notice that, as far as scoring goes, this team can't. No matter how many power plays it gets, no matter how significantly it outnumbers the opposition, it cannot fit a biscuit into a basket. The opposing goalie could wear a blindfold and clown shoes, and juggle chain saws during breakaways, and it wouldn't help.

So, yeah, if you compare this team to Russia or Canada or the Czech Republic or Finland, well, you're going to be disappointed.

Ah, but compare it to Latvia or Kazakhstan, and buddy, it's bragging time. And isn't that something? If you have to sit with Sidney and Jugdish, isn't it better to be the coolest guy in the room?

It has gotten this bad at the hockey rink. The United States, a nation that used to be able to feel its way around the ice, has struggled. With Sunday's 2-1 loss to Sweden, it has won only one of four games at the Olympics, and that was against Kazakhstan, which has scored only four goals in four games itself. To be fair, the Americans also rallied to tie Latvia, which has given up 21 goals in the three games since then.

You know how bad it has become? During Sunday's game, writers were doing math to figure out the goal differentials in case the Americans wind up tied with Latvia (Good news: The Americans have a big lead, as long as they avoid a three-touchdown loss to the Russians). Halfway through Kazakhstan's game against Slovakia, it was possible that the Kazakhs could knock the Americans out of the medal round.

Latvia? Kazakhstan?

You know who Latvia and Kazakhstan are? Roughly translated, they are "Duke" and "Wake Forest." Which, I suppose, makes the United States "Vanderbilt." Rule of thumb: If neither Rand nor McNally can locate a country on a map, the United States should not lose an Olympic competition to it.

What? Have we forgotten how to play this game? Is the United States aware the hockey lockout is over? And for goodness' sake, can somebody get Mike Eruzione on the phone?

Speaking of which, you have to wonder what Herb Brooks, the late coach who masterminded the "Miracle on Ice" of 1980, would say. My guess is this: "Kurt Russell played me? Kurt Russell?" Then he would swear loudly in the direction of the millionaires playing in the name of the USA.

Consider Sunday's defeat. The United States played fairly well, and it got off 25 shots. And it still ran the score up to 1, which, sadly, matched the previous day's total. There is no flair to this team, no finisher. It is like watching a man throw paint at a house in the name of being an artist.

Two times against Sweden, for a total of 3 minutes, 37 seconds, USA had a five-on-three advantage, and it couldn't score then, either. You wonder how many players the Swedes would have had to remove before the Americans would have scored.

"We've got some of the greatest goal-scorers ever to play the game in our dressing room," said Mathieu Schneider of the United States, which makes you wonder if Wayne Gretzky dropped by before the game. Certainly, Schneider can't mean his teammates.

Only one player on the roster, Brian Rolston, is among the NHL's top 25 scorers. He's tied for 16th. Seven of the forwards aren't even in the top 50.

So who is supposed to score the big goal? Who is supposed to score any goal?

"We did exactly what we wanted to," forward Mike Modano said. Oh.

Despite it all, it looks as if the United States is safely into the next round. Ring your cowbells if you've got 'em. Fortunately, the Americans wound up in the same division as Latvia and Kazakhstan, which is all you need to make a feeble win and a frantic tie stand up.

"Our goal is to get to the quarterfinals," said Rick DiPietro, who made his third straight start and evidently has seized the starting goaltender's spot from John Grahame, who did not dress. "As long as we do that, it's been a successful round robin."

At this point, it is necessary to again define your terms. "Successful" is a point of view, as is "greatest goal-scorers in the history of the NHL." Either way, their English doesn't quite translate into our English, does it? At this point, you'd almost welcome the U.S. players trashing their hotel rooms, the way they did in Nagano. At least that way, they would threaten somebody.

Put it this way: In Canada, where the standards are higher, fans are quite ticked about losing to Switzerland and Finland. They demand better.

Frankly, Americans should, too. It's one thing if the Olympic hockey tournament is going to be filled with plucky juniors and ambitious amateurs. If we're supposed to be tickled about our pros, however, shouldn't they shoot better than our biathletes? Just asking.

For now, however, they march on.

And no matter what happens from here, we'll always have Kazakhstan.

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