SOCHI, Russia — Alex Ovechkin is going home in the first round of the playoffs. Sidney Crosby’s team somehow survives. And Dan Bylsma is outcoaching everyone, even when he doesn’t always have the best players on the ice.
Disconcerting, no? I walked into the Olympic hockey tournament Wednesday and a Washington Capitals season broke out.
There is no joy in Putinville today. Sochi and beyond is suffering. After futbol, the only team the entire nation cares about lost.
Ovi was wrong, the “cost of gold” was not $50 billion for 143 million Russians; no, $50 billion was the cost of being knocked out in the same quarterfinal round as Latvia (pop. 2.02 million).
Somewhere, President Vladimir Puckhead is fuming “Go! Take the West’s millions. Lose to Scandinavian pacifists. Fetisov and Kharlamov would not let this happen. Makarov and Larionov would not let this happen. The stray dogs Pussy Riot wants to adopt would not let this happen!”
Bitter rivals Sweden and Finland meet in one semifinal Friday; Canada and the United States meet in the other.
What a mother of a rooting dilemma this tournament has become for the host nation:
●Cheer for the U.S. of A., the nation that dealt you the most shameful loss in your proud history.
●Or cheer for Canada, which with a gold medal here would have one more than the eight captured by the great hammer-sickle-and-Unified Teams between 1956 and 1992.
Don’t get me wrong. Many talented players remain here, such as Crosby, Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, Jonathan Toews and Nicklas Backstrom. Teemu Selanne can still play, too, for someone born in the 1920s.
But there’s no bandaging this scar. With Russia crumbling beneath the weight of a nation’s dream against Finland on Wednesday, it felt oddly like someone getting up, walking out the door and not coming back to his own party.
“We’re not that upset,” Parise, the Team USA forward, said of Russia’s third straight Olympics without a men’s ice hockey medal. “When you have that home crowd and that home atmosphere, it always makes for an exciting game. But when guys like [Ilya] Kovlachuk, [Evgeni] Malkin and Ovechkin aren’t in the tournament anymore, it’s pretty nice.”
Team USA is one of the more underrated stories of NHL stars who gave themselves to the good of the group for two weeks. They’ve become the team Russia wanted to be: selfless, responsible for each other, unafraid to give up their bodies and limbs on penalty-killing opportunities and capable of scintillating, three-on-one rushes at any moment.
Parise went on about how many of the world’s most talented players are Canadians, strategically positioning the Americans as grinders and scrappers who get it done. This is a reach. Team USA has its share of stars, but they are not quite as high wattage. Collectively, though, this team shares and cares, with a mixture of relentless checking and disciplined defense.
The Bylsma dynamic is harder to get one’s head around — especially if one’s rock-the-red head has been banged against the wall watching his Pittsburgh Penguins reach two Stanley Cup finals, winning one. Bylsma is smart, thoughtful, witty even. He still comes across as someone who might alphabetize his colognes. I don’t want to say Bylsma is wound tight. But I could see the late Herb Brooks telling him to chill out and stop riding the boys so hard.
But when Bylsma is in charge of the national team, it borders on unpatriotic not to root for him. (After all, even die-hard Terps fans have to support Mike Krzyzewski when he’s coaching the Olympics basketball team, right? Right, College Park?)
If nothing else, Bylsma should know better than anyone how to beat Sid the Veteran.
Sweden is very good, and Finland has a wall of a goalie right now. But the coach of the Penguins and his Team USA players might be the only thing standing between Crosby and Canada getting their second straight gold, further putting distance between Crosby and Ovechkin as the most accomplished player of their eras. Who south of Allegheny County wants that?
For God, country and the gap-toothed guy in the hockey helmet on all the Coke machines here who has to figure out what to do with himself until the Closing Ceremonies, in Bylsma we trust.
Plus, I’m not waiting until 2018 in Pyeongchang to write a “Miracle on Ice” column. I need the United States to get through to the weekend. Which is why I asked Paul Stastny an important question after the Americans finished off the Czech Republic, 5-2, to set up the semifinal against Canada.
“Have you guys talked among yourselves at all how crazy and incredible it would be if you won the first [U.S.] gold since ’80 on Russian ice?”
“Naw, we haven’t talked about that,” the Team USA forward said.
“Well, you can if you want.”
I wasn’t joking. Shay-bu Shay-bu is out. Canada-U.S. and the Battle of Scandinavia are in. This hockey tournament to affirm national pride is suddenly not worth $50 billion. For a reeling Russia today, it may not be worth 50 rubles.
For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.