When it seems like the whole world is against you and the only people who believe in you are sitting inside your locker room, the world can seem like a pretty lonely place.
Or, if you’re wearing the red, white and blue, playing the role of underdog on the Olympic stage can be a truly liberating feeling. After all, you have history on your side.
As the hockey world was giving the U.S. Men’s Team the proverbial cold shoulder, this group of untested and relatively unknown hockey players reveled in anonymity, happy to leave the attention, and the pressure, for the Russians, Canadians and other so-called Olympic powerhouses to deal with.
In short, the U.S. Men’s Team felt like it was playing with house money.
The long-shot Americans came within seconds of hitting the golden jackpot on the anniversary of two other Olympic upsets before falling to the heavily favored hosts in overtime of the gold-medal game at the 2010 Olympic Winter Games in Vancouver.
“Any time someone thinks you can’t do something you want to prove them wrong,” said defenseman Erik Johnson, one of 19 American players under the age of 30.
“We knew that we were the underdogs in the tournament and we kind of embraced that role. I think we have a tremendous group of guys in the [locker] room who could get the job done. We had a quiet confidence that we felt would get us far in the tournament.”
That confidence level began building long before the team arrived in Vancouver. The seeds were sown in the summer sun of suburban Chicago during an orientation camp where general manager Brian Burke told the non-believers to pack their bags if they didn’t think this was a team that could win gold in Vancouver.
“I said during the orientation camp that we were coming here to win. No bold predictions. No bulletin board stuff. But that was our goal,” Burke said while holding court for the media before the gold-medal game.
“There were a couple of comments that this won’t be this team’s year. Team USA may be the best team in Sochi [in 2014], but not Vancouver. I said to the players in the first meeting that anyone who thinks they’re here prepping for Sochi, please get up and leave right now. That’s not what we’re doing here.”
Almost from the outset, Burke seemed to know something the so-called hockey experts didn’t. If convincing victories against Switzerland and Norway weren’t enough to garner support, a stunning
defeat of the high-powered Canadians began to invoke memories of miracles past.
It was, after all, the 30th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid, N.Y., and the 50th anniversary of the first Olympic gold for the Americans in Squaw Valley, Calif.
It didn’t surprise the players, though. There was a strong belief in the U.S. locker room and a quiet confidence that didn’t care what others thought.
“It’s really irrelevant what the media or other teams think about us, or whether we’re the underdogs or not,” said forward Dustin Brown.
“We know what we’re here to do, and as long as we have that belief system in our room and go about our business in the proper way we’ll be fine.”
Of course it helps when you have Ryan Miller holding down the fort on the back end. Following the great Olympic legacy of American goaltenders such as Jack McCartan, Jim Craig and Mike Richter, the boney kid from East Lansing, Mich., proved every bit the equal of other international goalies who garnered all the attention heading into the tournament.
Throughout his time in Vancouver, Miller outplayed every goaltender he came up against, including Martin Brodeur, Jonas Hiller and Miikka Kiprusoff, on his way to garnering the tournament most valuable player award.
“We all knew what Ryan Miller could do. He’s been our best player,” Burke said. “He’s given us a comfort level that’s allowed our team to play a certain way because we trust him back there.”
Staked to the top seed and a bye into the quarterfinals, American hockey fans may have been celebrating, but the team’s general manager was seething. From his perch high above the ice at the Hockey Canada Place, Burke saw a team being carried by a fraction of the roster.
“We need all hands on deck,” he said. “Thank God we have some guys pulling on the rope, but we need everyone pulling on the rope.”
Burke’s words seemed to be the wake-up call some players needed, as everyone showed up for total team wins against the Swiss and Finland to set up the rematch that everyone in North America, including NBC who foresaw a ratings bonanza, was calling for.
The game didn’t disappoint the millions who tuned in around Canada and the United States. After falling behind 2-0, the Americans cut the lead to 2-1 on a goal from local hero turned villain, Ryan Kesler.
Just when it seemed like Cinderella’s glass slipper wouldn’t fit anymore, Zach Parise poked in a loose puck to tie the game with 24.4 seconds left in regulation.
As Wilson said, big-time players come up big when it matters most. Just like Parise did for the Yanks, Sidney Crosby wristed home the golden goal early in overtime to send the country into a frenzy.
“I think both teams are winners, but more than anything hockey in general was the winner,” Wilson said afterward.
“I couldn’t have asked anything more of our players. They did us proud. They played hard for 60 minutes, including right to the end of regulation.
“It’s just a shame that both teams couldn’t have won a gold medal today.”