SOCHI – The bronze medal game at the Olympics did nothing, absolutely nothing, to dispel two of the most commonly held perceptions in hockey. The first is that players from Finland have lion-sized hearts. The other is that in the United States of America, hockey is the exclusive domain of pampered, entitled rich kids.
Both are sweeping generalizations. But they got more fuel than they ever needed in Finland’s 5-0 win in the bronze medal game. Both teams were coming off devastating losses in the semifinals and both needed to summon all of their motivational power to face the task at hand. The Finns, according to the legendary Teemu Selanne, held a players’ only meeting before the game. “We just said, ‘Let’s leave it on the ice,’ “ Selanne said. “Whatever happens happens. You can always live with that.”
If that is indeed the case, the players who represented USA should hang their heads in shame because they let down their country. Not with the result. There is no shame in finishing in fourth place. But it’s absolutely inexcusable to turn in that kind of effort. When Team USA was going into its final game of the 1980 Miracle on Ice tournament against Finland with a chance to clinch a gold medal, coach Herb Brooks told his players that if they didn’t do everything absolutely possible in their power to win the game, they would “take it to their (expletive) graves.” This will likely not be that dramatic. But most of these American players will be forced to take a hard look at themselves and they’ll carry the stink of this one around for a long, long time.
In 1998, the American team embarrassed its country by trashing a room in the athletes’ village in Nagano. Sixteen years later, the American team embarrassed its country by folding the moment it hit adversity, by taking undisciplined penalties and by mailing in its effort.
“We just didn’t show up,” Max Pacioretty said. “We let our country down. That’s it.”
When asked how a lack of effort like that could possibly transpire, he responded by saying: “If I had an answer for you that obviously wouldn’t have happened, so I don’t know.”
Part of the problem is the North American mentality that if you’re a contender to win a gold medal and you don’t, the bronze isn’t a bauble for which there is any value in expending effort. And it’s not just confined to the Americans. Almost a carbon copy of that game was played back in 1998 when Canada played Finland in the bronze medal game. Coming off a soul-sucking loss in a shootout in the semifinal to the Czech Republic, a team with 11 current and future Hall of Famers on it turned in an abysmal effort and lost the game.
Shame on them for doing that. And shame on the American team in 2014.
There was lots of blame to go around, as there always is in these cases. USA coach Dan Bylsma took a beating on Twitter after the game and there has got to be some accountability for him. The Americans went into the semifinal with more goals than any other team in the tournament, then went 120 straight minutes without scoring. Dustin Brown, a character player who has won a Stanley Cup, played sparingly in both games. Bylsma constantly allowed his top line to be matched up against the Jonathan Toews unit in the game against Canada. Yes, going against Canada is a pick-your-poison proposition when it comes to matching lines, but anytime you can get away from a player with Toews’ defensive acumen, you do it.
But this is more on the players here. Against Canada, the Americans ran into a juggernaut with a defense corps and goaltending that can squeeze the life out of opponents. That one, yeah, you could see that happening. But to lose a game 5-0 and be totally dominated by a team that has 11 non-NHL players is mind-boggling. Not the loss, but the way they lost.
Were American hockey fans sold a bill of goods by this team? Darn right they were. Phil Kessel scored three goals against Slovenia and looked like he was turning the corner as a player and making the Olympics his coming-out party. Then in the bronze medal game he had a grand total of zero shots.
“Some games bounces just don’t happen for you or a call or whatever and you lose them,” David Backes said. “But I think if we’re honest about these last two games, we had better performances in the tank and didn’t come to the forefront. That’s the disappointing thing. If we played our butts off and were ousted or had better teams against us, I think you can live with that. But when it’s less than stellar performances…it’s going to be a sour, sour feeling for a while.”