Four years ago Canada beat the U.S. in an epic gold medal game. Now Team USA has revenge — and gold — on its mind as it heads to Sochi
Every four years NHL teammates are transformed into bitter rivals, taking off their pro sweaters in favor of their national colors for two weeks. Teammates like Chicago Blackhawks stars Patrick Kane of the U.S. and Canada's Jonathan Toews, who have celebrated two Stanley Cups together, are suddenly on the opposite ends of the ice, competing for the gold medal. It's what makes the men's hockey tournament one of the most intense and high-profile events of the Winter Games.
"[Your NHL teammates] become teammates with guys you're always competing against," says Sidney Crosby, the Pittsburgh Penguins' captain and Olympic hero for Team Canada. "All of a sudden they're on the same team and you're on a different team. It's a little weird that way."
Any friendships or NHL team spirit must be put aside — at least for the span of the Games. After all, national pride is on the line, and no two countries know that better than the U.S. and Canada.
An All-time Classic
At the 2010 Vancouver Games the two nations met in a rematch of the 2002 Olympic final. Canada crushed the U.S., 5—2, in 2002, but eight years later, things were much tighter.
With less than a minute to go in the third period of the 2010 gold medal game, Canada clung to a one-goal lead. The U.S. was not about to give up. With 24.4 seconds left in the game, forward Zach Parise picked up a rebound and slipped the puck behind goalie Roberto Luongo for a thrilling goal that sent the game into overtime. The U.S. still had a chance to win its first men's hockey gold since 1980.
"We had tons of momentum," U.S. forward David Backes of the St. Louis Blues remembers. "Heading into overtime, we had to relax and not be too excited."
On Canada's side, coach Mike Babcock was focused on getting his team regrouped. "We made it clear to our players that it was going to be over fast. There's too much talent on the ice. We said, 'Put your foot on the gas and go after it.'"
When the U.S. and Canada returned to the ice, the intensity hit a new level. Seven minutes and 27 seconds into overtime Canada's Scott Niedermayer took the puck from behind his own net and dished it forward to Crosby. The Kid charged into the offensive zone, tried to put a move on two defenders but got stood up. The puck trickled toward the net, and American goalie Ryan Miller pushed it into the corner. Crosby picked it up on his stick, skated along the boards, then passed it back to Jarome Iginla. "It was kind of a broken play," Crosby recalls. "There was nobody between me and the goalie for a split second, so I remember yelling for the puck and [Iginla] put it in the right area, and I just tried to shoot it as quickly as I could. I didn't even really look at the net."
Crosby's coach in Pittsburgh — and the coach of the 2014 U.S. team — Dan Bylsma was watching the game on TV. "When the puck squirted out to Sidney, I was sitting in my chair and stood up as he was going toward the net because I thought, This one's going in," he remembers. "And sure enough, it did."
Crosby's goal clinched Canada's second gold in three Olympics and the U.S. was the runner up — again.
Heading into Sochi, the U.S. isn't focused on a rematch — but it's definitely on its radar. "I don't know if it's a redemption Olympics," Bylsma says, "but you'd certainly love to have that U.S.-Canada match again."
Backes puts it simply: "I think the group of guys who were there in Vancouver feel we've got some unfinished business."
Some familiar faces are expected to make the trip to Russia. (Final rosters had not been set when SI KIDS went to press.) For the U.S., Backes will likely return as will Parise and Miller. Meanwhile, Crosby is a virtual lock to lead Team Canada in a gold medal defense. But the odds of the U.S. and Canada meeting again to play for gold are long.
Besides the rosters being different, there's the location of the Games. In 2002 and '10 the teams played in Salt Lake City and Vancouver — both close to home. Plus, the Americans and Canadians will have tough competition from Russia, Sweden, Finland, and Switzerland. "History shows that playing in Europe, the North American teams haven't fared so well," Backes says. "And this is as deep an Olympics as we've ever seen. It's going to be a great tournament."
That's what it all comes down to: amazing hockey. The Olympics feature the top players from 12 nations playing at the highest level — and on the biggest stage. "The opportunity to [show] our great game is spectacular," Babcock says. "And best-on-best is as good as it gets."
For more on the 2014 men's tournament, check out what teams we think will give the United States and Canada some stiff competition!
Photos: David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated