Good things rarely come of me writing about hockey. The last time I tried, it resulted in about 15 seconds of the worst This Week in Tech episode ever recorded. Still, last Sunday’s Olympic hockey final merits a comment in a World Cup year, so here goes…
I was up in Boston last weekend visiting friends and dancing until 3:00 in the morning, because I do that sometimes. Having never been to Boston before, I had a short list of thing I wanted to do while there. Somewhere near the top of that list was visiting an Irish pub to watch some football, since the fan base for the association game is a little bigger in a city like Boston than it is here in North Carolina.
Alas, dancing until 3:00 in the morning two nights in a row required more sleep than I had anticipated, and I found myself sprawled out on an air mattress in Tewksbury on Sunday morning, watching the Carling Cup Final on my phone. Convinced of the cosmic sense this made, I got over this quickly.
After Manchester United hoisted another trophy and Martin O’Neill told his Aston Villa players, “This is why we can’t have nice things!”, some friends called me up and invited me to join them at Quincy Market for the afternoon. Not wanting to hunt for parking for half a day again, I decided to drive to Alewife Station and take the T into the city. We met up and wandered into Faneuil Hall to sample the wares.
The Olympic Hockey Final between the USA and Canada, however, was never far from our view. I kept an eye on it on my phone, and several people who noticed that stopped to ask me what the score was. The chowder bar that was offering free samples — and them’s good eatin’ — also had the game on a TV behind them. None of us could ignore it, so we figured we should settle down somewhere to watch the rest of it.
“Sam’s Cafe at Cheers.” Hey, that works.
In the shadow of classic sitcom bric-a-brac and in the company of some good-natured folks from Montreal, we settled in at the bar and watched the remainder of the game. There was talk of 1980 and “our boys” pulling off miracles, but this game was different. This was two teams full of the best players on the planet, playing for national pride, and playing on a level I’m not sure I had ever seen before. I missed most of the USA v. Canada group stage tilt, but what little I saw of that screamed, “This is top shelf.”
The Gold Medal Game only amplified that feeling. Only twice can I recall being so transfixed on a hockey game, and both those times were Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals — once in 1994, when Mark Messier and the New York Rangers made their famed run, and again in 2006, when the Carolina Hurricanes knocked off a resilient Edmonton Oilers teams to bring the Cup to North Carolina.
This, however, felt even bigger than that. This was Brazil v. Argentina on ice, Spain v. Italy with sticks and pucks, a game between two of the best national teams on the planet who happen to be continental rivals, playing for all the marbles, with all the tension associated with it. When Zack Parise scored that equalizer with 24 seconds left in the 3rd period, you could feel one country deflate and another celebrate. When Sidney Crosby scored the golden goal in overtime, he transformed into Zinedine Zidane on skates and lifted an entire nation with him.
And as that thought occurred to me, so did this one — this is as close as we will ever get to experiencing the emotions of a World Cup Final in our lifetimes, isn’t it? No North American team has reached the semifinals of the FIFA World Cup since the inaugural event in 1930, when the USA won a 3-team group stage to get there, and Americans cared even less than they do now. Given the disparity in talent between North America and the football-fanatical continents of Europe and South America, the possibility of a CONCACAF side getting out of the quarterfinals seems awfully slim.
Perhaps you could make an argument for the Confederations Cup, which Mexico won once on home soil in 1999 and which the USA came close to winning last summer, but the Confederations Cup simply doesn’t carry the same weight a World Cup does, and this Olympic hockey tournament felt much more like the latter. When it was over, just about every sports fan who watched it was already looking forward to what 2014 would bring.
And so was the International Olympic Committee, who desperately needed a successful hockey competition to keep this continent interested. Figure skating has its audience, and its reputation. Speed skating is entertaining, but it only gets traction once every four years. Skiing and snowboarding have been forced to evolve into X-Games-like competitions just to keep people interested. Curling remains a curious niche. Hockey is the most mainstream sport these winter games have, and making Olympic hockey the sport’s de facto World Cup remains crucial to keeping the Winter Olympics relevant here.
When it was over, we congratulated our Canadian friends at the bar, left this place where, as it turned out, nobody knew our names, and headed our separate ways. I took the T back to Alewife, got into my car and drove to the exit, only to find they were charging for parking on a Sunday — $7, cash only. Of course, I only had $3 on me. So the toll booth guy sighs heavily, grabs a tiny envelope, writes down my rental car’s license plate on it and hands it to me. The envelope obnoxiously said something to the effect of, “You owe us $7, or the next time we see your car, we’re towing it.” I probably could have thrown it away, but the gall of that little envelope was just too much to ignore.
So yesterday, I mailed them back their $7. In dimes.
That wasn’t quite as entertaining as USA v. Canada, but it came close.