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From miracle to miserable

For the players, there should be no shame.

Give them a round of soft drinks, swat them on the fannies and tell them they behaved swell. No way were they going to win this thing.

For the coach, there should be no regret.

He could chew them out five minutes into the game, as he did Wednesday, and he could juggle lines and strategies. But no way this was ending happily.

For the game of hockey in the United States, there should be but one conclusion.

What an embarrassment.

Oh, the team put on a show in the final minutes of its 4-3 quarterfinal loss to Finland. It looked gritty. It looked determined.

And when it was over, it looked beaten.

Just as it had since it arrived in Italy.

The final tally was six games and one victory for the United States. That is not a few bad breaks, and it is not a tough stretch of games. It is a butt kicking.

"It comes down to a 1-4-1 record. That's what people will write, that's what they'll say, that's what they'll remember," said forward Doug Weight. "I think we could have won all four games we lost, but that doesn't mean anything to any of you right now."

Understand, this came on the 26th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, the singular event that changed hockey forever in America.

In the years that followed, the NHL expanded into nontraditional markets. The number of U.S.-born NHL players gradually grew. Kids everywhere began playing hockey, if not on ice, then in the streets.

Wasn't the silver medal in Salt Lake City supposed to be the culmination of all that growth? Wasn't that the moment we had arrived as a hockey nation?

Guess not.

Because four years later, the United States cannot handle Russia. Or Sweden. Or Slovakia or Finland. And don't even talk about Canada.

These days, we walk with Kazakhstan. We break bread with Latvia. We are Liechtenstein's richer relation.

If you're searching for excuses, bring your magnifying glass and a lamp because there is little justification to be found.

This is not curling. It is not biathlon. This is not a fringe event that is all but ignored everywhere outside of Minnesota.

The NHL is the grandest professional hockey league in the world, and 80 percent of its teams are based in the United States. We have college hockey programs. We have youth leagues. We have the coolest Zambonis.

Even if hockey remains a distant fourth behind football, baseball and basketball in the States, there remains a large pool of potential players.

So what's gone wrong?

"It starts with USA Hockey. It starts at the top," said forward Mike Modano. "It's the same faces all the time. Something has to change."

Of course, Modano's analysis would have been much more palatable if he hadn't also complained about the lack of a charter flight from the United States, and whined about having to make arrangements for family and friends.

It was a long trip, yes. It was a short time frame, true.

But first-class seats and expensive cashews would not have made average forwards seem sharp and slow skaters seem quick.

When you got right down to it, there was not a single player on the U.S. team able to make a difference in a game. Not one player you could say is a superstar in his prime.

Some might argue that it was just poor timing for the United States. That too many stars are in their 30s and too many young players are inexperienced.

That what we saw here was a transitional phase.

A transition from what? They've won one medal in the past 20 years. Does it really take an entire generation for America to find one goal scorer?

It may not be a specific person in charge of USA Hockey who is at fault, but the concept of new blood should not be ignored. The nation is too large, and hockey has come too far for a team to have performed as poorly as this one.

"The expectation should be to come over here and win a gold medal," U.S. coach Peter Laviolette said. "But it's difficult to do. You're playing against the world's best players.

"I don't think the U.S. can have another Miracle on Ice, but I can tell you it's not an easy thing to do to win a gold medal. It would be a tremendous accomplishment but I think short of a miracle."

Since Herb Brooks and his miracle crew won gold, the United States is 1-for-21 in potential medals. They've whiffed every Olympic cycle except for Salt Lake.

Do you remember that team in '80? The way it upset Russia in the semifinals and returned to beat Finland in the gold medal game?

Well, this U.S. version leaves the Games having lost to Russia and Finland on back-to-back nights.

So perhaps this is a perfect end to the circle. Maybe we need to forget about miracles. Maybe we need to stop talking about 1980 as if it were the day we discovered gravity, fire and hockey.

Maybe we need to start over.