Team USA defeats Switzerland in men's Olympic hockey
Wednesday, February 17, 2010
VANCOUVER, B.C. -- By Tuesday morning, all the evidence suggested that the Winter Olympics had long since started. Canada, the host country, had celebrated its first gold. An Alpine ski race had finally been staged, wedged in between snowstorms and rain showers in the mountains north of here. Even curling, an obsession for some Canadians -- particularly those of the beer-swilling variety -- was under way.
And then, before noon on a regular old weekday meant for work, a downtown arena began to fill, 16,706 people showing up. Just as the afternoon began, an official dropped a puck, and the energy level of the entire Vancouver Olympics changed.
"I think everyone was just excited to see some hockey today," said Bobby Ryan, the American forward who scored the first goal of the men's tournament.
That was apparent from the first shift of the first game Tuesday, a game in which Team USA turned in a solid, work-out-the-jitters 3-1 victory over Switzerland. Thus, the United States instantly distanced itself from a sorry eighth-place finish four years ago in the Turin Games, a tournament the Americans opened with a lackluster tie against Latvia.
But that wasn't the only difference. In Italy, Catholicism is the dominant religion. In Canada, hockey is. The atmosphere Tuesday showed so.
"Pretty good, considering Canada wasn't playing," American forward Dustin Brown said, smiling.
That came later, and the environment only got better. The Canadian team, which has been nothing short of a national obsession -- with line combinations being worked out on bar room napkins and the biographies of each of Canada's 23 players memorized by schoolkids -- opened its tournament with an 8-0 thrashing of Norway. If there was a way to chart national productivity in the three hours after the 4:30 p.m. PST start, picture a graph that fell off like the face of a downhill ski course -- and the tension in the arena, when Norway scrapped to a scoreless tie after one period, said something about how seriously Canada will assess each game, each period, each shift.
"I know everyone expected us to score eight in the first 10 minutes," said forward Dany Heatley, who scored twice. "But they were pumped up, too."
By night's end, the Canadians' arch-nemesis, Russia, was scheduled to open with a game against Latvia. It is now 30 years after the "Miracle on Ice" in Lake Placid, N.Y., and only five members of the American team were even alive back then -- the oldest being veteran Brian Rafalski, who was 6 when the U.S. wrote one of the best stories in Olympic history, beating the powerful Soviet team en route to an absurdly unlikely gold medal.
But massive shifts in global geo-politics have a way of trickling into athletics, and so it is that the Washington area's biggest star at these Games is now a Russian -- Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin, whose mere appearance on Olympic ice will likely draw boos. Russia beat Canada in each of the past two World Championships, a fact lost on exactly no one who walked through the turnstiles at Canada Hockey Place.
Both teams are ridiculously talented. Neither wanted to be the favorite.
"Every team is a dangerous opponent and it is going to be a pretty hard battle," Ovechkin said.