U.S. relishes underdog role
By MIKE ULMER -- Toronto Sun
A nice man from the New York Times gently challenged U.S. coach Ron Wilson yesterday at the World Cup of Hockey here in St. Paul, Minn.
The night before, in the wake of Team USA's 5-3 victory over Russia, Wilson said the Russians always would be more skilled than the Americans.
The often-quoted Team USA coach was equally emphatic yesterday.
"They take kids who are six and seven years old away from their parents and build hockey players," he said.
"I don't think you'll see parents here doing that."
The Americans, nursed in a country that trumpets liberty and expression, used communal values the other night to beat the team from the country that exported state socialism to the world. It's a helluva thing.
Wilson humiliated Brett Hull, who showed up out of shape, by keeping him out of the lineup. He got the Americans to quit overpursuing and to stay where they belonged. A crash line of Jamie Langenbrunner, Steve Konowalchuk and Jeff Halpern exacted a physical toll every shift against the Russians.
Slammed by the media, largely ignored by the fans, Team USA had its swagger smashed earlier in the tournament. The Americans were eager to buy into the idea of hockey as a team game.
"A lot of people were on us about our play in this tournament," Scott Gomez said. "We felt it but we also realize we haven't accomplished anything yet."
Since it began competing as a separate republic in the early 1990s, Russia has finished fourth, second and third at the Olympics. They finished fourth in the only other World Cup and bowed out Tuesday night in the tournament quarter-final. That's not much hardware for a system that has produced an unending string of stars, from Alexei Kovalev to Ilya Kovalchuk to this year's first overall draft choice, Alexander Ovechkin.
But when Alexei Yashin, an extortionist masquerading as a hockey player, is your leader, you have a profound shortage of character and cohesion. When the stakes were raised, the Russians went home.
ESPN ran a feature on the 1980 Olympic Miracle on Ice yesterday. Of all the events in the network's 25 years, its producers judged Team USA's victory of the USSR the most important.
To Canadians, the Summit Series was a hockey series with a political backdrop. Most Americans care little for hockey, then and now. The 1980 series was thoroughly, overwhelmingly political, just as important in St. Paul and Livonia, Mich., as the Summit Series was in Toronto and Flin Flon because it cast the Americans in the role in which they revel -- as underdogs.
Canada was the heavy favourite to win the Summit Series, or at least we thought we were. No one, right down to Team USA coach Herb Brooks, gave the U.S. side any chance at gold.
Yet, the U.S. won 24 years ago, as they won Tuesday night in St. Paul, because they tried harder against a team they had no real business beating; because the pursuit of happiness damn well didn't mean leaving your end before the puck did. Team USA won because they were more humble and hardworking.
That's how you win and that is hardly an American phenomenon. That said, Team USA is back where it needs to be, here in St. Paul in Friday's semi-final.
The humility of the underdog is a casualty of America's status as the only superpower left standing. Twenty-four years ago, a bunch of college kids upset a fearsome opponent. Now, in this tiny, sporting endeavour, circumstance has cast the Americans as underdogs, nowhere near the ones they were in 1980, but underdogs nonetheless.
They aren't the same players. Heaven knows, the world is different. But the game, the game is the same.