Shortly after Team USA suffered its heartbreaking overtime loss to Canada in the gold medal game on Sunday, defenseman Jack Johnson expressed his disappointment in winning the silver medal.
"I'm proud of what we did, but unfortunately, you lose silver," the 23-year-old Johnson told reporters. "You win gold. You win bronze. But you lose silver."
Technically, he's right, but realistically, he couldn't be any more wrong.
The tale of the 2010 hockey squad can't be told without starting the story in 2006. That's when the Americans traveled to Italy and were utterly embarrassed. The anticipation that built up in the four years following the U.S. gold medal game appearance in 2002 rapidly faded across the country. Team USA went 1-4-1, with its only win coming against Kazakhstan, a country only known for its fictional TV stars, not its hockey players.
It wasn't quite as bad a stain on the country as the 1998 team's trashing of hotel rooms in Japan, but the eighth-place finish was disappointing, to put it lightly.
So when GM Brian Burke assembled a young roster for this year's Olympic tournament, expectations were low. Most American hockey fans hoped for some competitive games and, if they were lucky, maybe even a chance to play for the bronze medal. With the stacked rosters of Canada, Russia and defending champion Sweden, the United States seemed to be a small fish in a big pond.
Yet that group outperformed expectations, won the silver medal and very well may have revitalized hockey in this country.
Early reports say that roughly 20 million American television sets were tuned in on Sunday, a 45 percent increase from the 2002 gold medal game between the same two countries. But perhaps the bigger aspect of that viewership was that not only were people watching, but folks who had previously never given much thought to hockey were interested. Among the most-Googled phrases on Sunday evening were "offsides in hockey," "what is icing in hockey?" and "Brian Miller."
Obviously, Ryan Miller's mother wouldn't be too happy to learn that the country doesn't know her son by his real name, but it's not a terrible thing for the sport. Instead, it simply shows that among the millions of viewers on Sunday afternoon, most were not die-hard hockey fans. What's better is that the level of play put forth by the Americans was enough to make those new fans interested in learning more about the game, and that's an impact that can't be overstated.
Obviously, since the lockout season of 2004-05, hockey has struggled to stand among the nation's top four sports. Even with the introduction of young superstars like Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, hockey has consistently been pushed to the background of the collective American sports consciousness, replaced from time to time with NASCAR, tennis, golf or soccer. Even competitive hot dog eating has its day in the spotlight every year. That drop-off in interest was part of what made the 2006 Olympics so crushing.
Though it's hard to state clearly what kind of lasting impact this year's games will have, it's fair to say the past two weeks were the best thing that's happened to hockey in America in a long, long time.
The other major boost that this year's team brought was its hope for the future. The average age on the roster was 26.5 years old. Only four players were over the age of 30, and some players were born as recently as 1987 (Phil Kessel, Bobby Ryan) or 1988 (Patrick Kane, Erik Johnson). This group represented the future of American hockey (provided the NHL allows its players to compete in 2014), and they represented it well. Unlike the 2002 team, which was filled with veterans, this year's team has established the popularity of a new generation of players that can become household names over the next four years.
So when Jack Johnson says that the U.S. lost the silver medal, it's an admirable, winning mentality, but he's wrong. The Americans beat the Norwegians, Swiss (twice), Canadians and the Finns to miss out on the gold medal by the slimmest of margins. They did so in a hostile environment, and they won over millions of Americans in the process. They showed guts, tying the gold medal game in the final minute with the goalie pulled, and in the end, they were just one shot worse than the best team in the world.
It's hard to look at that performance and call it anything but a victory.
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