Hockey will be the real winner in Olympics

The Associated PressFebruary 28, 2010 

— Only five players on the U.S. Olympic hockey team were born the last time their country won the gold medal.

Americans who experienced that famous victory in Lake Placid 30 years ago will never forget it, but for many younger fans, it lives on only in books, highlights and an occasional movie. Today, this young U.S. team has a chance to earn its own moment in the sun with another unexpected triumph.

"It's unbelievable the amount of excitement that's going on back in the U.S. right now about our team," American Ryan Callahan said. "I think that's good for hockey all around."

The last day of the Vancouver Games is shaping up as the most dramatic, with the U.S. facing Canada for the gold medal in the sport the hosts care about most. The Americans already jolted hockey fans everywhere with a 5-3 win over Canada in the preliminary round last week, but they'll need to repeat the feat if they want to take home the gold.

If the U.S. does win, it won't be nearly as shocking as the 1980 victory. This year's team is full of NHL players who will become opponents again after leaving Vancouver. It's a far cry from the group of amateurs that knocked off the mighty Soviets three decades ago.

But it's hard to underestimate the boost today's game could provide for the NHL, which is still trying to recover from losing an entire season to a lockout in 2004-05.

"Obviously, the NHL right now is trying to get its fans back a bit," Callahan said. "I think a game like this brings everybody's excitement up, and it's good for everybody to have a matchup like U.S.-Canada in the finals."

Olympic hockey has changed significantly since 1980, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the addition of NHL players adding more parity. NHL players began attending the tournament in big numbers in 1998, and three different teams have won gold since. Canada beat the Americans to win the 2002 tournament at the Salt Lake City Games.

The U.S. entered this year's Olympics an underdog, but not a big one.

"You can never replicate 1980," American Brian Rafalski said. "It's just too much equality now in hockey. There will never be another one of those."

Rafalski was 6 when the U.S. beat the Soviets and then Finland to win the gold in Lake Placid, but even the oldest American player doesn't have much in the way of memories.

"I remember sitting there but not really knowing much about it," Rafalski said. "I hadn't started playing hockey yet."

For Canadians, the wait hasn't been as long since their last gold medal -- although in these parts an eight-year dry spell can feel like 30. Canada broke a 50-year Olympic drought by winning gold in 2002, but the team struggled in 2006 and the pressure has been high this year on home ice.

"We've been building up for this for years," said Canada's Jarome Iginla, a key player on the 2002 team. "We've talked about it as Canadians and hockey players and wanting to be a part of this team -- wanting to get a chance to win a gold medal. Now we've worked hard and got that opportunity and it's nice that it's coming soon."

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