USA vs. Canada: the triumph of black-and-blue hockey
The USA vs. Canada hockey match for gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics is taking place because, in a tournament where many hockey prima donnas don't want to get their hands dirty, they did the yeoman work.
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Team USA plays the same way, though for a different reason than national pride alone: It was built this way. Burke and his team did not pick America’s 23 most skilled hockey players. They picked the best player for every position they needed.Skip to next paragraph
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The result is that each player is perfectly suited for the role he has to play, whether it’s scoring goals or blocking shots. “We’re not asking 30-goal scorers to do grunt work,” he said in a press conference Saturday. “We have grunts to do the grunt work.”
Team captain Jamie Langenbrunner stressed this point after the 6-1 semifinal win over Finland: “You don’t have to score goals to do something positive for the team: block shots, make hits, don’t retaliate to a punch.”
All these seemingly lesser virtues were apparent in the game against Finland, where the team defense was, in many respects, even more impressive than the offense. Led by Zach Parise and Ryan Kesler, skilled forwards who embody the idea of defending from the front, the US resembled a swarm of bees as much as a hockey team.
Technically, the offense scored six goals in the first 13 minutes of the game, but that surge was borne on waves of unrelenting pressure all over the ice, forcing turnovers.
“We wanted to make sure we surprised them with our speed and our puck pursuit,” said USA coach Ron Wilson after the game.
These are hockey basics: don’t turn the puck over in the neutral zone, finish your checks, get traffic in front of the net – not the sort of thing that should be foreign to hockey’s best players. Yet in the Olympics, where most top teams come together the day before their first game, there’s not time to dwell on anything but the basics.
“You have to simplify everything,” said Wilson. “You don’t come in and dazzle them with 35 new drills.”
Among the tournament’s best teams, the US and Canada have been the best not only at sticking to the basics, but doing them with passion and complete commitment.
It is a complete reversal from four years ago, when the US and Canada took two aging, stale teams to Turin and were both deservedly gone by the quarterfinal round. The rink surely plays at least a part. North American hockey rinks are smaller then European rinks, putting a premium on the physical qualities that Burke prizes.
But neither the US nor Canada played with nearly so much heart as they have here – a reflection of how the teams were built and whose fans are here cheering.
Today, the roles from the Finland game will be reversed for the US. The US will hope to weather a Canadian storm of emotion at the start. “We’re going to have to survive the first five to 10 minutes, which Russia wasn’t ready to do,” said Wilson.
But for team USA, the recipe will be nothing new, Kesler said: “We’ve got to use our speed to try to hit them, to try to work them.”
Black-and-blue hockey for gold.