SOCHI, Russia – David Backes realizes every U.S. Olympic hockey team inevitably ends up in the vast shadow of the 1980 Miracle on Ice squad, which stunned the Soviet Union and eventually won gold in Lake Placid.
Although the American players who held their first practice in Sochi Monday night know all about the greatest achievement in U.S. hockey history, they think it’s time for some fresh heroics.
After all, this is the first U.S. Olympic hockey team featuring no player born when the Miracle occurred.
“I think the Miracle obviously is a great accomplishment for the U.S., but it was 34 years ago, and we’re still living on something that happened 34 years ago,” said Backes, a two-time Olympian. “As great as it was, and as awesome an accomplishment, I think the guys here would like to write our own chapter, and then we can talk about ’80 and 2014.”
The U.S. team doesn’t have the flashy offensive talent showcased by Canada or Sweden. The Americans certainly don’t have Russia’s national imperative to win gold, not even after their own 34-year Olympic championship drought.
Yet captain Zach Parise and his teammates didn’t exactly sneak in the side door at the Bolshoy Ice Dome for their first practice.
The Americans are a proven nightmare in international play with their combination of workmanlike play and stellar goaltending. While the hockey world focuses on Russia’s collision course with defending champion Canada over the next 12 days in Sochi, the U.S. team is also quietly determined to reach the tournament final for the third time in the last four Olympics — and to leave with a better result.
“They raised the standard in 2010,” defenseman Kevin Shattenkirk said. “Nothing else is acceptable for us now, other than gold.”
The U.S. team lost the final to Canada in Salt Lake City in 2002 and again in Vancouver. Two silver medals in three Olympics are undeniably impressive, but not what the Americans are aiming for when they begin play Thursday against Slovakia.
“A lot of us were on the team in Vancouver,” defenseman Ryan Suter said. “We felt how close we really were. We all learned a lot from that experience, and I think we’re just excited to be here and have another shot at this.”
The Americans got another reason to work hard Monday night when they learned they won’t be joined in Sochi by the man who led the committee that picked them for the Olympic team. General manager David Poile must stay home in Nashville for further medical treatment after getting hit by a puck last week in Minnesota.
Yet Poile already assembled a team that seems capable of competing against everything it will see in Sochi. The Americans feature balanced offense from a slew of 20-goal NHL scorers, a gritty two-way approach to the flashy international game, and elite goaltending from Buffalo’s Ryan Miller or Los Angeles’ Jonathan Quick.
Dan Bylsma already has decided on his goalie strategy for the first three games, but he hasn’t told Miller or Quick.
Even with elite goaltending, the Americans’ fate could be tied to the success of their defensemen. Poile and his committee chose a defense that emphasized skill and youth over size and experience, hoping to match the world’s best forwards on the wider international ice surface with swift puck movement and skating.
“To win it in a short tournament like this, it’s about who comes together and plays not only the best hockey, but who gets better as the tournament goes along,” said Dustin Brown, a two-time Olympian and the Los Angeles Kings’ captain. “I think that was a big part of our success in Vancouver. Each and every game, we got better.”
While the Americans have sky-high internal expectations for Sochi, they won’t be under the microscope faced by Russia and Canada. The U.S. team is free to grow through the three group-stage games before the elimination portion of the tournament, where the Americans are confident they can be trouble.
“There’s so many teams that play the international style well, and we have to try to match it with the things we do the best,” forward Paul Stastny said. “You’ve just got to be ready to peak at that quarterfinal stage, and then anything can happen.”