WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — It was the Olympic hockey semifinals, and standing behind the U.S. bench, wearing a dark suit, was Herb Brooks, the same coach who 22 years ago guided the Miracle on Ice. Standing behind the Russian bench, wearing a light suit, was Slava Fetisov, who was on that ice in 1980 as a defenseman for the Soviet Union.
So that’s how you knew this game had history.
And here’s how you knew it was all in the past: Skating out with the lineup cards was captain Igor Larionov for Russia and captain Chris Chelios for Team USA.
“Chris,” Igor said, grinning.
“Hey,” Chris said, nodding.
They are teammates on the Red Wings. And four days from this game, they would be back wearing the same uniform, cashing the same company check, no matter what happened at these Salt Lake Olympics.
For all the ghosts that the media wanted to conjure for this game — yes, it was USA-Russia, yes it was the final weekend, yes, it was the first Olympics on American soil since Lake Placid — the fact is, nothing is the same. All the players on the ice Friday were NHL professionals. All live well off U.S. dollars. All speak English. There were no soldiers on their side, no students on ours.
So when this showdown began and it was terribly one-sided, you almost weren’t surprised. Here was Team USA, with seemingly every fan in the place behind it, all but toying with Russia, racking up shot after unanswered shot, goal after unanswered goal. The Americans came in waves. The Russians came in drops. The Americans hit. The Russians got hit.
The score after two periods was 3-0, USA, with shots on goal 38-11 in America’s favor.
If Al Michaels were here, the only thing he’d holler would be “Do you believe in MEDIOCRITY? . . .”
Time to dig deep
Ah, but don’t sell nationalism short. Maybe we all soak in the same hot tub now. But just before the last 20 minutes, Fetisov pulled his Russian players together and asked them something.
He asked them “to show a little character.”
Coming from Fetisov, the Russian demigod of hockey, a soldier’s soldier, the man who opened the door for all his Russian brothers to cross over to the NHL, such words are not taken lightly. Russia came out flying and firing, and within 11 seconds had scored one lucky goal, and 3:10 later had scored a hard-fought one.
The score was 3-2.
And the game everyone wanted was on.
“We knew we would be under siege,” Brooks would say. They were. The Russians threw everything they could at U.S. goalie Mike Richter, forcing Richter to make saves on his back, on his knees, with his knees, even one that we’re still trying to figure out — a puck that appeared to go in and out of the net.
The Russians put nearly twice the shots on Richter in the third period than they’d put the first two combined. Surely if they came back from 3-0, they would keep going and win. The crowd was standing now, the yelling was guttural, the nerves audible. And by the time Russia pulled goalie Nikolai Khabibulin with 45 seconds left, these were no longer NHL players out on the E Center ice. Their uniforms had melted into their skin, and this really was about country and kin.
And then it was over. The United States held on, 3-2, to reach the gold-medal game. The horn sounded, the players jumped the wall. With rock music pounding, the U.S. fans and players had a mini-lovefest on the ice.
Fetisov, who had been haunted by such a scene 22 years earlier, stood alone behind the empty bench, chomping on gum, staring vacantly. Finally he looked one time to the rafters and disappeared down the hall.
In the press area afterward, someone asked Fetisov about the non-review of that in-and-out goal. He said, clearly upset, that he couldn’t understand why they didn’t review it. Someone asked about the refereeing — which so angered several Russian players, Daniil Markov was given a gross misconduct penalty for arguing after the game ended, and will be suspended for the bronze-medal game.
“The referees did not help us,” Fetisov said. “It is human nature. They live here. They work here. They are not going to make calls in a third period.”
You listen to that, and you start thinking, “Uh-oh, I wonder if this is going to be put on the Russian team’s list of protests.”
And then you realize, sadly, that this is what Russia has become at these Olympics, a country so split and decimated that it makes more news in threatening to walk out than it does with the victories. More news in complaints than medals.
The fact is, beating Russia in 2002 is not the modern equivalent of beating the Soviet Union in 1980.
But that parallel may lie someplace else.
“We knew about the history today,” said American Phil Housley, the veteran Chicago defenseman who scored one goal Friday and assisted on another. “We read it everywhere. But to me, those 1980 guys will always be the greatest upset in the history of sports.
“What we’re doing here is different. Our game Sunday against Canada — that’s going to be huge.”
That’s the upset America could boast about. Player for player, America can’t compete. Superstars? Canada has Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman. Team USA can’t point to its “star” player — partly because there isn’t one.
And tradition? Well. Just ask any Canadian.
If there is any miracle on ice this year, it will come Sunday, if this group of U.S. players finishes its streak with a golden touch.
As for the Miracle on Ice references? I offer what Brooks said with the first question of his post-game news conference.
“Herb,” a reporter asked excitedly, “did those last wild 10 minutes today remind you of anything?”
“Yeah,” Brooks said. “The last 10 minutes.”
Bye bye, nostalgia.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or email@example.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760). Also catch “Monday Sports Albom” 7-8 p.m. Mondays on WJR.
SIDEBAR MEDAL COUNT Leaders through 69 events
…………………………………..G………S………B………TOTAL Germany………………………10…….16……..7……….33 United States………………..10…….11……..9……….30 Norway………………………..11………7……..4……….22 Austria…………………………..2………4…….10……….16 Russia…………………………..5………6………3……….14