Wednesday, February 22, 2006

U.S. Men's Hockey Hopes Are Finnished

The Torino Games are the fourth in which American hockey star Chris Chelios has represented his country.  The grueling schedule is a challenge even for young legs, much less a 44-year-old defenseman.  Having his best interests in mind, Finland’s national team figured that the future Hall of Famer could use a few extra days off before his next game with the Detroit Red Wings.  Thanks to the Finns’ 4-3 quarterfinal victory, Chelios and his U.S. mates will have plenty of rest before resuming the NHL schedule.



The defeat capped a miserable performance in Italy for the Americans, four years after capturing the silver medal in Salt Lake City.  The U.S. team wound up 1-4-1, with all four losses decided by one goal.   The “close, but no cigar” results even spread to the American fans in attendance.  Attempting the “U-S-A” cheer, supporters consistently stumbled on the last letter.  On the bright side, due to a 4-1 victory in the qualifying round, the U.S. team simply owns Kazakhstan.



On the other hand, the victory continued a dominant run for the Finns, who are seeking the first ice hockey gold medal in the nation’s history.  Led by Anaheim star Teemu Seelane, Finland is now 6-0 in these Olympics.  Before today’s contest, the team had outscored its opponents 19-2.  In their quest for perfection, these Finns may emulate an unblemished group of Phins – the 1972 Miami Dolphins.  Reportedly, a Finland defeat would lead former Miami linebacker Nick Buoniconti to break out the champagne.



Finland does enjoy a proud Olympic history, having hosted the Summer Games in Helsinki in 1952.  The nation was particularly successful in Olympic competition during the 1920s.  Distance runner Paavo Nurmi captured nine gold medals – equal to the number won by Mark Spitz and Carl Lewis many decades later.  Meanwhile, speed skater Clas Thunberg was dominant on his way to five gold medals.  His success made a huge gamble pay off for Nike, which spent millions on its ubiquitous “” advertisements.



The United States and Finland also share a significant connection in Olympic ice hockey history.  After shocking the Soviet Union in 1980, the U.S. still had to defeat the Finns to claim the gold medal.  Future Hall of Famer Jari Kurri and his Finnish mates led after two periods, but the Americans rallied for a 4-2 victory to complete the Miracle on Ice.  Unfortunately for this year’s U.S. team, no such magic was forthcoming.  As one player put it, “We just couldn’t get our Eruzione on.”



Geography may be the key for the U.S. men’s hockey team.  Its last gold medal was achieved in the magical run of 1980.  Those Olympics were held in Lake Placid, New York.  The only medal of any kind since then was the silver from the 2002 Salt Lake City games.  Therefore, it is crucial for the Americans’ chances to play in a U.S. city with “Lake” in its title.  Vancouver, the 2010 Winter Games host, is close enough to the U.S. that American hockey players could be fooled into thinking that it is part of the States.  The United States Olympic Committee could further the psychological ploy by referring to the host city as Lake Vancouver.



In reality, of course, the next host country is Canada, which suffered its own hockey disappointment today.  Its hopes to repeat as the gold medalist were dashed 2-0 by Russia.  As a result, there will still be a semifinal matchup between bordering nations.  Chances are, Russia vs. Finland isn’t the one that NBC wanted.