SOCHI, RUSSIA – So about that argument in favor of keeping NHL players in the Olympics …
Team USA managed to blow that premise to smithereens with its too-good-for-bronze attitude against Finland on Saturday night. The fact that the U.S. lost to an inspired Finnish team was not a shock. But to look completely disinterested throughout a 5-0 rout was infuriating.
Players talked numerous times the past two weeks about their love of the Olympic tournament and how they hope the NHL will allow them to continue to participate in it. That’s a popular sentiment, but it’s hard to argue on their behalf when they treat a medal game like spoiled meatloaf.
It’s a shame because this was probably the last time the NHL will allow its stars to represent their countries on the Olympic stage. It seems like a long shot that the league will arrive at the conclusion that the global exposure of this event overrides the disruption to the NHL schedule and the risk of injury.
NHL officials said they’ll make a decision on the 2018 Games in South Korea within six months, but those who prefer status quo probably shouldn’t get their hopes up.
If this was indeed it, what a swan song by Team USA’s collection of NHL stars. They should have just got on their charter and come on home after that deflating 1-0 loss to Canada in the semifinals, if Saturday’s effort was the best they had to offer.
The U.S. squad came to Sochi focused solely on winning gold after finishing runner-up in 2010 in Vancouver. That seemed like an appropriate goal, but not something meant to be taken so literally. Any medal is better than nothing.
Their meltdown becomes even more confounding when viewed against the backdrop of the Russia game. Team USA displayed so much passion and confidence and cohesion in a hostile environment that anything seemed possible that night.
Now, their Olympic experience just feels empty.
“We didn’t show up to play a tough team in Canada,” Zach Parise said. “Our last two games, we were just flat. We had nothing. It’s kind of embarrassing.”
Think about that for a minute. The captain of Team USA admitted that his team collectively failed to show up for a game against its biggest rival, Canada, in the semifinals of the Olympic tournament. I’d rather watch a bunch of fire-in-the-belly amateurs get creamed than to hear that admission.
You could see their no-show performance vs. Finland coming from a mile away based on the players’ body language and comments, or lack thereof, immediately after the Canada game. They had put so much emphasis on that one game — and that one opponent — that the loss sucked the life out of the players.
Many of them had blank stares in the mixed zone (interview area) and their answers generally lasted only a few seconds. The realization that they had blown their shot at gold was like air rushing out of a balloon.
The blame should be shared by everyone, but the team’s leadership carries the heaviest weight. This is not a question about the team’s talent or the way it was constructed. The U.S. had enough high-end players to win gold, though Canada still seems superior in terms of overall talent and depth. This is about performance.
U.S. coach Dan Bylsma was unable to find the right message or tactics once the tournament became serious business. Bylsma’s team played fast and loose in the preliminary rounds. That same group played passively and in a fog the final two games. That falls on the head coach to some degree.
A few of the team’s stars failed to deliver, too. Parise played hard and seemed to care about this event as much as anyone, but he recorded only one goal and no assists in six games.
Patrick Kane, the team’s most skilled player, scored no goals in the tournament and missed on two penalty shots against Finland.
This was a collective failure, though, one that leaves a sour taste as Team USA’s players return to their NHL lives. They didn’t expect to come home empty-handed. The cold reality is that they probably won’t get a chance to make amends for this ugly finish four years from now, either.