Tuesday, February 25, 2014

You've Come a Long Way Baby

Some people may recognize this title as the slogan for Virginia Slims, a cigarette that was marketed to women before cigarette advertising was banned on television in the early 1970’s.   However, after watching the gold medal game in women’s hockey between the United States and Canada during the 2014 Winter Olympics, I believe this slogan can also apply to the gains that this sport has made, not only in the skills of the players, but also in the excitement and interest generated.
The sport was introduced to the Olympics in 1998 with these same two countries, the United States and Canada, playing for the gold medal and the Americans coming out victorious.   Since then, the two countries have established themselves as the two best countries for developing the game, increasing interest in the game among females, and playing some exciting matches.   While the Canadians now have an 11-5 advantage in matches between the two nations for either an Olympic gold medal or a world championship, there is no shortage of bad blood between the teams.   The interviews shown on television with players on both sides showed that there is respect for the other squad, but an unbridled passion in which to win. 
This year’s game proved to be no different.  While the rules forbid checking in women’s hockey, there was no shortage of physical play.   There was a lot of hitting, extracurricular activity after the whistle blew (especially in front of each net) and the usual jawing between players.   In other words, it was much like any good game between two excellent teams. 
As a hockey fan, this game sucked me in from the start and did not let up.  The United States scored the first two goals and seemed to have the game in control until Team Canada scored on a beautiful shot late in the third period to make it a one goal game.  As any fan knows, a one-goal difference late in the game will result in more pressure and chances taken by the team trailing, including pulling the goalie.  That is just what Canada did, as they controlled the play and removed the goalie with a minute left.   Then a series of activities brought out a roller coaster of emotions in both fans and players alike.
A clearing attempt by the United States team looked like it was going to be stopped by a Canadian defenseman, but the linesman inadvertently assisted the puck out of the offensive zone.   The puck slowly slid toward the empty net, looking like the clinching goal for Team USA.  But instead the puck hit the right post and just lay outside the net.   A charging Canadian player picked up the puck, skated back down the other end, and on the ensuing rush, Team Canada scores the tying goal.  In that entire sequence, I was so spent that the overtime in which Canada scored and won the game seemed anticlimactic.   This was one of those games that I was glad to have witnessed, no matter the outcome.  
This game is what the sport is all about – heart-stopping moments, thrilling stickhandling and skating, physical play and both teams leaving everything they have out on the ice.   It doesn’t matter that these were not the male professional stars – this game had everything that makes hockey so great.  These ladies deserve a lot of praise and credit for raising the level of women’s hockey to a new height.  I can’t wait to see when this will be even better. 

Saturday, February 15, 2014

USA vs. Russia - 1980 vs. 2014

While awaiting this morning's Olympic hockey game between the USA and Russia, I could not help but think about when these same two nations met in another Olympic hockey game 34 years ago in Lake Placid, a tiny village in the Adirondack mountain range in upstate New York.  There had been many video clips showing highlights of that game and newspaper articles complete with interviews in the build up to the latest meeting between these two nations on a sheet of ice with two goals.  But I didn't need those highlights or stories to remember that game and draw comparisons to the 2014 meeting, which thus far has been the best game on the tourney thus far.

Let's get the obvious out of the way.  There is no Cold War between the two countries now like there was in 1980.  Oh sure, there are still some political tensions but there are no threats to set off a nuclear device on the other one or a military occupation of another country.  Both hockey teams are now manned by professional players. That is not the same as back then when the Russians were THE dominant team in international hockey and were compensated for playing the game and the Americans were a bunch of college kids mostly from Minnesota and Massachusetts thrown together to represent their country.  No matter the outcome in 2014, it would not produce another Miracle on Ice, Al Michaels would not ask the television viewers if they believed in miracles and it would not set off the patriotic fervor in Sochi if the host country won like the young lads did in Lake Placid.

No, all this game could hope to achieve was to produce intense, inspired hockey in front of passionate fans in the arena and viewers around the world.  On that, the 2014 version of USA vs Russia delivered.  On top of that I did find some similarities between the two games when focused on the ice.

Like in 1980, Russia struck first with a nice goal.  Unlike 1980 when Vladimir Krutov deflected a slap shot into the net, Pavel Datsuyk split two USA defenders to give Russia a 1-0 lead. When Cam Fowler tied the game up seven minutes later I had flashbacks to Mark Johnson scoring with one second left in the first period in 1980 to tie up that game 2-2.  At least Fowler' s goal didn't lead to a goaltending change like the Johnson goal did.

In the third period, Joe Pavelski (almost wrote Pavelich, a 1980 Team USA member named Mark) and Datsuyk traded goals, setting up an unbelievably tense last 10 minutes.  Unlike 1980 when the US was desperately clinging to a 4-3 lead , the two teams filled with NHL stars were trading punches, not giving in.  It seemed that Team Russia was going to send its fans home happy when they drilled in a shot from the left point with about four minutes left.  But here was the 2014 Miracle for the US - the goal was waved off because the net was lodged off its moorings on an earlier save by goalie Jonathan Quick.

The teams stayed tied and want to overtime, something that wasn't done in 1980.  Sergei Bobovsky made a great save on a breakaway by Patrick Kane that was the best scoring chance of overtime.  The tension by now was as much as it was for me as a fan as it was in 1980.  In 1980, I was standing in front of the TV for the last five minutes screaming at every save made by Jim Craig.  In 2014 I was standing during the overtime, screaming for Kane to convert.  Didn't work as well 34 years later, so now it was onto another new wrinkle in Olympic hockey since the pros started participating...the shootout.

Unlike the shootout in the NHL, a team can use the same players to shoot after the first three attempts.  In those first three, each team scored once.  T.J. Oshie scored for Team USA, Ilya Kovalchuk for Team Russia.  After that, it was a duel between these two snipers save for one missed shot by Datsuyk.  Both of the shooters and both of the goaltenders were incredible during this shootout, with Oshie prevailing by putting a puck past Bobovsky with a move that seemed to be in slow motion.  Again I had a flashback to 1980, but to a much quicker shot by Mike Eruzione that put the US ahead for good in that game.

Because the 2014 game ended in a shootout instead of skaters throwing their equipment in jubilation doesn't mean the latest game didn't have a touching moment at the end.  When Oshie turned around after scoring the winning goal and pointing to Jonathan Quick, I thought of Jim Craig skating around the rink wrapped in the flag looking for his father.  Both Oshie and Craig, heroes for their teams in thrilling wins against great Russian teams, both wanted to share the moment with someone special.  I guess you can repeat history in Olympic hockey, even if everything seemed so different.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Winter Olympics thoughts

This won't be a story, drabble or any structured essay about a sport.  Admittedly I have spent the time that I would otherwise read or write during the last week watching the Winter Olympics.  I certainly like them more than the Summer Olympics as I have already watched much more of these games than I did during the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

While watching the women's curling match between Great Britan and the United States, I couldn't help but feel bad for the American ladies when the Brits scored 7 points in one end. It had to be tough on the wrong end of a record  like that.

Having seen several hockey games thus far for both men and women, I have to say the only disappointment with those tourneys so far is the officiating.  Between the goal for Team Canada that clearly went into the net after the whistle blew and Jonathan Quick losing his shutout on a goal that shouldn't have counted because of a blown offside call, I hope the men and women in stripes get better as more games are played.

I felt a lot of heartache for those Nordic skiiers who were collapsing at the finish line because of the heavy snow that made their races even more physically demanding than they already were.

While I don't pay a lot of attention to snowboarding, it is interesting to see other nations have caught up to the country that invented the sport, namely the United States.

Finally, while it's hard to believe that it's already been one week, it is also comforting to realize that there is still a lot more of these Winter Olympics to go.  I am loving them so far and hope that you are as well.

Friday, February 7, 2014

Biathlon drabble

Now that the Olympics have started, time to write about some of the sports that won't get the same exposure as those like hockey and figure skating. Today's selection is on the biathlon - a mixture of cross-country skiing and shooting. Happy reading.

My sanity has often been questioned. Not just by others, but by myself as well. What joy is there in grinding out kilometer after kilometer over hilly terrain in skis, only to be required to shoot a rifle when I reach that goal? Then, I need to actually hit the target with each shot? What the heck am I, some type of superman? Between my slow times on the trails and my inaccuracy with the gun, I never thought I would be a biathlete. But here I am, in the Olympic stadium, representing my country in biathlon. I made it!