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Nate Peterson: Olympic extra points

Nate Peterson
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

The rowdy crowds on Robson Street had tapered to just a trickle. The throngs outside the Olympic cauldron had mostly gone home. And hardly a peep of cheering could be heard throughout all of Vancouver.

Do you believe in miracles?

This town does. It’s still trying to come to grips with what happened here Sunday afternoon.

How do you silence a city of more than 2.1 million people? Send a country of 34 million off to bed early?

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Simple. You beat Canada in hockey on its home ice. In the Olympics. For the first time in 50 years.

Before Sunday’s game, this place was Mardi Gras on maple syrup. It was bedlam in the streets, bars were packed, and the country’s entire media work force was geared up for the feel-good story of Canada’s Games after a week of talk about malfunctioning flame cauldrons, failed medal initiatives and lousy weather.

Then the unthinkable happened: A bunch of scrappy Americans, with less star power but more speed, beat Canada’s team of NHL all stars despite being outshot, 45-23.

Woe, Canada.

Vancouver, after a week of French Quarter-style street parties, morphed back into No Fun City in a little more than two hours.

Trying to find a decent place to grab a bite to eat at 9:30 Sunday night was like trying to get a meaningful quote from snowboarder Hannah Teter. The plug had been pulled on what was supposed to be a massive party. Nearly everything was closed, everyone in a Team Canada hockey jersey and red mittens having gone home to try to sleep off a national disappointment.

It was enough to make you feel sorry for our neighbors up north. Especially after a week of American triumphs in skiing, snowboarding and ice skating and all the backtracking from Canadian Olympics officials about their $100 million Own the Podium initiative.

Then again, there’s no crying in hockey. This is Canada’s sport. They were the favorites. And they got beat fair and square on home ice. There was no judging controversy, no Lindsey Vonn-proof course set, no slow ice. Just a good, hard-nosed hockey game won by the young team that looked overmatched on paper.

The beauty of Olympic competition in sports like hockey and basketball is the single-game format. If Canada and the U.S. met in hockey 10 times, Canada likely wins six, maybe seven of those games. It’s similar to what the undermatched “Miracle on Ice” team faced against the Russians at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, where the odds for the U.S. were more like 1 in 10.

But, just like USA Basketball found out at the 2004 Athens Games, funny things happen in a single game. Favorites find themselves in a dogfight they didn’t expect to be in. Balls and pucks start to bounce in funny directions. And, as has been proven time and again, the better team can’t just show up and win.

There’s also a lesson here about assuming superior talent trumps teamwork. As we’ve learned from the Yankees (really, who else makes a better example?) a dream team doesn’t always win. The Americans displayed the one thing that coaches always talk about, but is so hard to simply manufacture overnight: chemistry.

And, just because a country is supposedly the best in a sport (see the U.S. in hoops, China in badminton) doesn’t mean its opponents are inclined to roll over. This is the Olympics. They’re handing out gold medals here. Everybody wants one.

As it stands now, Team Canada is still the favorites to win those here in Vancouver, despite what happened Sunday. The Canadians face a must-win game today against winless Germany to reach the medal round. Then it’s a matchup with Russia, the other superpower team here, that looms in the quarterfinals.

If Canada loses that game, Vancouverites might decide put out the torch at the waterfront.

It’s one thing if Canada fails to win gold in speed skating. But hockey? That’s just downright un-Canadian.

npeterson@aspentimes.com


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