Final a treat for hockey fans, casual viewers alike

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 28, 2010 

Tim Thomas of the United States (30) talks to goalie Ryan Miller (39) after an overtime loss to Canada. (George Bridges/MCT)

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — The video board over center ice, which provides a French equivalent of every English term, referred to the overtime in the gold-medal game between Canada and the USA on Sunday as "Pronlongation."

The public address announcer at Canada Hockey Place referred to it as a "Sudden Victory" period.

Actually, the culmination of the most exciting, competitive and suspenseful international hockey tournament ever played was a combination of both: A prolonged game with a sudden end.

After 12 days, three 20-minute periods and 7:40 into overtime, Canada's Sidney Crosby, who by his lofty standards was struggling through a pedestrian performance in the Winter Games, rushed the goal from the left side and blasted the puck past USA goalie Ryan Miller, who would be named the tournament MVP. When the red light flashed behind the American goal, the climate in the arena turned from pensive into the stuff of pandemonium.

For the silver medalists, there was a sense of accomplishment and pride — they had rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the second period, forcing the game into OT on Zach Parise's rebound goal with 25 seconds remaining in the regulation time — but the joyless expressions on the Americans' faces during the awards ceremony spoke louder than any of their words could.

"We lost," said Miller. "I feel like crap."

When the heartbreak of the sudden defeat wears off in a few days, the USA players should have a more expansive take on their Vancouver experience. They weren't supposed to contend for a medal. Instead they won their first five games here — including a monumental upset of Canada last Sunday — before taking the Canadians into the eighth minute of overtime.

"We proved," said forward Ryan Kesler, "that hockey is not just Canada's game."

"You look at the team we were playing against, they've got a lot of good guys over there," said USA defenseman Brooks Orpik. "Coming into the tournament, nobody was giving us a realistic chance of even medaling. It just shows that when you've got guys willing to check their egos at the door and play for each other, you always have a pretty good chance."

Thanks to Team USA's improbable march to the championship game, the Winter Games exposed hockey to a segment of American fans whose idea of a power play is a drama written by Arthur Miller.

Even those viewers who weren't sure precisely what they watching realized they were watching something that required a rare blend of athletic traits: skating skill, agility, dexterity, grit and grace, integrated within a framework of team play that doesn't inhibit an individual player's creativity.

"Hopefully, people catch on to the desire and the commitment and the passion guys showed here," said Orpik. "

As the North Americans maintained their collision course toward Sunday's dream-game rematch, I found myself wondering: Could a franchise affiliated with the best brand of hockey in the world — the NHL — work any better in the Puget Sound than it has in Nashville or Phoenix?

The departure of the SuperSonics from Seattle has left a three-month void on the pro sports between January and April. An NHL season can last more than twice as long. (Team Canada's Mike Babcock, former Anaheim Ducks coach, recalls Angels' manager Mike Sciocia telling him his ballclub had played 52 games over the course of a Ducks' playoff run.) It's one thing to be mesmerized by a 12-day competition that's already been called the greatest international tournament in hockey history; it's another to follow a pedestrian team plodding into Groundhog Day with a .500 record.

Beyond the obvious challenge of building a hockey-friendly arena, is the Seattle-Tacoma market capable of supporting an NHL team?

I find it inconceivable that it wouldn't. After all, Seattle is only 150 miles from Vancouver, which for the past two weeks has served as hockey capital of the world — a place where Canada's victory Sunday semifinals was celebrated on the streets with a gusto comparable to, well, nothing's comparable. Imagine the fervor around Pioneer Square after the Seahawks win the Super Bowl, and multiply that by 50.

In any case, those sports fans who found themselves following hockey for the first time during the Winter Games were treated to a tournament that just got better and better as the NHL players became familiar with other.

"This was pretty similar to the Game 7 we played last year," said Orpik, a member of the 2009 Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. "You had guys today sacrificing their bodies. Guys aren't really thinking about getting hurt.

"You've got 22 guys on a team that are used to playing 20 minutes a night on their NHL teams, and they come up here and play five or six minutes. Guys were willing to accept their role here and buy into it. That's why we had success here."

The Americans didn't have the most success, and they didn't realize their ultimate ambition. But they showed how beautiful a game hockey can be, and, who knows? If ever some momentum builds to bring the NHL into the Puget Sound region, the Olympic tournament that was decided on Sunday might be recalled less for its sudden ending than the way it served as a beginning.

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