In sports, there are champions. They’re quite happy, what with the celebrations and the historic achievements and all. Then there are teams that are defeated so others can win championships. Depending on the expectations, they’re either content to have had the opportunity, or miserable for having blown one.
But then there’s a third category, which makes the melancholy of a runner-up look like the glint of a kitten’s smile by comparison: those teams that know, wholeheartedly, they could have won a championship but had the opportunity ripped away from them.
Not by an ill-timed injury or terrible officiating, because those things happen. No, by a bunch of gluttonous suits putting arguments about money over responsibility to sport, athletes and fans. People who restrict players from playing, or end seasons altogether, because of financial issues.
Which is why we lament the Montreal Expos of 1994, whose championship run was halted by the players’ strike that ended the season, or any number of teams — the Ottawa Senators, Detroit Red Wings and New Jersey Devils among them — that never had a chance to win the 2004-05 Stanley Cup due to Gary Bettman’s lockout.
It is better to have played and lost than to have never played at all. Thus, there’s nothing worse than knowing that the U.S. men’s national Olympic ice hockey team was probably, finally going to win the tournament this year — and that’s been ripped away from us.
The NHL’s decision to pull out of the 2018 Winter Olympics pulled a gold medal off the necks of the Americans. I can see this as vividly as any Montrealer in the mid-1990s could see Pedro Martinez covered in champagne in the Expos’ post-World Series clubhouse. This cosmic alignment among generations of star players has been a decade in the making and might never happen again.
“It’s pretty disappointing, obviously,” said Toronto Maple Leafs star Auston Matthews, the 20-year-old American phenom who would have been the team’s No. 1 center. “We have a lot of young Americans in the NHL now. It would have been nice to play with them.”
Yeah, no kidding.
The game ended with Sidney Crosby — of all people, of course it was Sidney Crosby — scoring an overtime goal against Miller, who was the primary reason the Americans were even in the gold medal game. My night ended, having written several stories of Canadian adulation while suffocating my bile with journalistic duty, by walking back to the house we were renting. The air was that not-cold-enough-for-winter type that lingered throughout the games. I looked down at my shoes, only to glance up occasionally down side streets that were still filled with Canadian fans reveling in the victory. It was in those moments when I knew, in my heart, that the Canadians winning gold was the only acceptable outcome. As much as it hurt.
Feb. 21, 2014, to put it in clinical terms, sucked.
I had watched the Americans defeat the Russians in Sochi on those T.J. Oshie shootout goals and believed we were witnessing a storybook being written, because the American hockey brain is tricked into believing such things when we unexpectedly beat the Russians.
But we saw something else against Canada: We saw a team that literally felt it didn’t belong on the same ice as their opponents, because they lacked the same level of offensive weaponry. That believed it didn’t have the talent to compete. That it had to win 1-0, so it played like it. We saw the same mentality at the World Cup, from the way it played to the construction of a team that — lest we forget — existed in 2016 and had Justin Abdelkader and David Backes on it.
February 2018, that mentality was going to be done. Finished. Over. The ice would have not been tilted to the Canadians, or to any team. It was going to be the first time in more than a decade that Team USA could trade blows with Canada and not pray their goalie stole the game, like we’re a slightly more talented Latvia. Auston Matthews, Jack Eichel and Johnny Gaudreau alone change the game — when your No. 1 center has the skill set of Mario Lemieux and the determination to win of Jonathan Toews, the Americans’ default attitude setting wasn’t going to be defeatist.
I won’t go so far as to say that the NHL and the IOC conspired to keep players out of the 2018 Games to save Canada the embarrassment of getting dominated by the United States of America. But I won’t outright dismiss the theory.
I pray to the hockey gods that 2018 Team USA isn’t the 1994 Montreal Expos — that powers beyond their control haven’t slammed shut a championship window.
There’s a part of me that does, because in 2022 — provided the IOC, NHL and NHLPA all end their respective urination competitions — Kane, Kessel, Suter and Pavelski will all be four years older. The window for this excellent group of experienced Olympic veterans and dynamic newbies is open for the next month. After that, it’ll be a different team.
And yet, that’s where I’m optimistic about the next American Olympic team with NHL talent. Matthews (Arizona), Jones (Texas), Gostisbehere (Florida) and others are products of nontraditional markets. Those pipelines are now flowing with talent: The roster for the 2018 World Junior Championship spanned from Orlando to St. Louis to Minneapolis to Spokane. We’re casting a wider net for athletes and snagging better hockey players. No one ultimately knows how the pieces will fit, but a 2022 team with Matthews, Eichel, Jack Hughes and Casey Mittelstadt up the middle makes one start believing in the inevitability of a gold medal, rather than the dream of one.
But not in 2018. “The Inevitability” will be playing NHL regular-season games while the rest of us are watching “The Dream” play out for a disparate collection of American players in Pyeongchang.
Can the Americans win with a roster that includes Brian Gionta and … others? Sure, why not? It’s a chaotic, unpredictable short tournament where most teams are on equal footing and everyone’s one hot goalie away from a medal.
If there’s a silver lining to the NHL players staying home, it’s that Canada probably won’t win gold and that Russia probably will, only they can’t call themselves “Russia” because of the doping scandal, so it’s like Russia never won. There’s really nothing more appropriate in our current social climate than finding joy in the misery of others.
But for American hockey fans, our best chance to win gold in ages was stolen from us. To paraphrase the late Herb Brooks: “This was our time. Their time was done. It’s over.” I’ve been waiting my entire life for USA Hockey to win something significant enough so we can stop referencing two games played 38 years ago as the defining moment for a hockey nation.
I can wait four more years. But I also believe that this year was, in fact, the year.