(Photo credit: Andre Ringuette/HHOF-IIHF Images)
If you follow hockey anywhere in the world, today was an important day. Early this morning (ET) in Ufa, Russia, Team USA’s Under 20 Men’s Juniors beat the defending Champions from Sweden, 3 – 1, to win Gold. Team USA played inspired hockey for the better part of two weeks, avenging a loss to Team Canada in round-robin play to advance to the Gold Medal game today.
The World Junior Hockey Championship is a tremendous event that kicks off each year on Boxing Day (December 26 for the uninitiated) culminating in a final, ten days or so later. These young men, kids really, work their whole lives to achieve a level of excellence as “amateurs” in pursuit of professional glory. But the opportunity to pull on their Country’s uniform in international play is a singular moment. Many of them will actually play some form of professional hockey somewhere in the world but this tournament, this opportunity to compete like an Olympian, may only come once…two dozen boys, under 20 years of age, representing an entire nation, in a tournament held in Russia. Against that backdrop, Team USA came together, like a family and in a way that it seems only a hockey team can, to reach the ultimate prize.
We are fans of the sport – fanatics is probably more appropriate – and we look forward to this event each year. When you consider that greed has imperiled hockey at the NHL level so far this year (and a topic for another day), the anticipation was greater than ever. That said, we are a house divided, me in particular, struggling when Team USA and Team Canada face off. We missed seeing the annual game between the two nations on New Year’s Eve, when the tournament is hosted in North America, a tough tradition to maintain this year when the game was broadcast live at 4 AM ET!
For those who don’t follow the sport but who are mesmerized by Olympic competition, this event can feed your soul. You appreciate that these kids are living a dream, for a single shot at glory, sporting their Country’s colors, hearing their anthem following each win and battling for each other and with each other to win Gold. Only one team can win of course, so the disappointment of nine other groups of kids cannot be overlooked. I love the sport, love the event, but I can’t avoid pulling against other teams…say what you want about the end of the Cold War but I NEVER want Russia to win…even at home. I’m a Nationalist at heart, it’s why I wrestle with my allegiances when Canada plays the U.S. I don’t apologize for it. It’s part of what makes it fun. You need a bad guy and Russia is it for me in International Hockey and always will be.
Setting that all aside, I watched the Gold Medalists this morning, shoulder-to-shoulder along the blue line, arms around each other, medals about their necks and bellowing the national anthem, woefully out of key and reassuring everyone that hockey was the right path. Nobody collects a pay check for this tournament. Nobody gets a lucrative contract extension for it. It’s an awesome reminder of what sport is supposed to be about.
Purity. Camaraderie. Endurance. Perseverance. Excellence. Victory. Team.
As USA Olympic Head Coach Herb Brooks stated in his pre-game speech in 1980 at Lake Placid, “Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
I can’t wait until it all starts again, in Malmö, Sweden, in December. We’ve got a title to defend!