U.S. hockey coverage overhyped

By Kevin Wilson: CNJ columnist

Sunday was great for me — as a hockey fan, as a Ryan Miller fan and as an American. But calling it historic seems a little offsides.

Yes, the United States’ 5-3 win, with Miller in net, sent ripples through Canada. The Vancouver Sun’s headline was, “Woe Canada.” On Monday, Canada’s Olympics officials conceded they wouldn’t be able to catch the Americans in total medals won.

But it wasn’t the event NBC and ESPN kept telling us it was.

Leading up to the U.S.-Canada game, NBC pummeled its viewers with tales from the 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team, which beat the Soviet Union 4-3 in one of the country’s greatest sports upsets, then rallied to beat Sweden for the gold.

I enjoyed the specials, and understood the anniversary upon us (2010-1980=30 … thanks, NBC). But I wondered out loud why this was necessary when the U.S. was set to face a different opponent. Hey guys, how about you drop the tearjerkers for a second and tell us why the team we’re playing today is favored?

The game that followed was great. The U.S. scored 41 seconds in, and Ryan Kesler put the nail in the coffin with an empty-net goal, as the Canadians had pulled goalie Martin Brodeur for an extra attacker.

Both teams are likely to advance out of group play anyway, so I’ll save the theatrics for a medal-round matchup. Too bad ESPN wouldn’t.

After the highlights ran on Sportscenter, an on-screen graphic asked, “Miracle on Ice II?”

In short, ESPN … no. But in length, the answer is more emphatic, because historical context requires more than a graphic.

The 1980 U.S. men’s hockey team was full of college kids. The Soviet team they were about to face was going for its fifth-straight gold medal. Its stars were considered amateurs, but had posh government jobs that essentially made them ringers. They’d gone 27-1-1 over the last four Olympics and once beat an NHL all-star team 6-0.

Now, every team that has a chance at a medal is an NHL all-star team. Sunday’s opener saw Alex Ovechkin dominate for Russia, and former NHL great Peter Forsberg was in the late game for Sweden. When every team has pros, it’s tough to say any win’s a huge upset.

The 1980 team won against a Soviet squad that so dominant it never pulled its goalie in the upset’s final minutes, because it forgot what it was like to be in a close game. That was a miracle.

I appreciate history, no doubt. But there’s a certain point where history gets trivialized, as what’s currently good gets conflated because it shares tangential relationships with what was great. I’m hoping NBC and ESPN learn from this, but I have doubts.

Sunday’s game was an upset of some proportion. However, it was also one team of NHL players beating another team of NHL players. Two weeks ago, we called that an NHL game. And 30 years from now, we won’t call it a miracle.