After Olympic final, you can believe in hockey again

After Olympic final, you can believe in hockey again

Published Mar. 1, 2010 1:43 a.m. ET

To be certain, there were no “Miracles on Ice” in Vancouver on Sunday.

Had USA beaten Canada in the men’s ice hockey gold-medal game, it would have been a major upset, sure. But the nonstop comparisons to 1980’s U.S. gold medal team leading up to Sunday’s game was a classic example of media pomp and hyperbole. It came from the same folks who knee-jerk compared the magnitude of Tiger Woods’ already-forgotten apology from two weeks ago to historic “Where were you?” moments like the JFK assassination or the moon landing. Herb Brooks’ Miracle on Ice squad was made up of collegiate amateurs. Everyone on the 2010 U.S. squad plays in the NHL.

The real miracle on Sunday — lower case “m” — occurred in the New York City snow, not the Vancouver ice. Walking down Manhattan’s busy Third Avenue roughly a half-hour before the drop of the puck, I saw some of Manhattan’s most popular sports bars — soccer hotbed Nevada Smith’s, Giants/Jets watering hole The Village Pourhouse and Yankees pub The Thirsty Scholar — packed to the gills with American flags, pumped-up patrons and contagious patriotic spirit.

And it was all for … hockey.

Of course, it wasn’t just in Manhattan sports bars. Across the country on Sunday, for the first time arguably since  1980, ice hockey was the topic on the tips of Americans’ tongues. They’ll be talking about it in front of water coolers in offices from Miami to Seattle on Monday. Who knows? It may even come up as a discussion topic on The View. And in the spirit of grandiose media hyperbole, you could even make the argument that Sunday’s game — in a time of volatile health care summits, tea parties and 24-hour cable news channels spitting venom across the aisles — made for one of the rare opportunities for unabashed American unity. In red states, blue states, tournament MVP Ryan Miller was on the tube and hockey was on the national consciousness.

The Canadians beat the upstart American squad 3-2 in overtime on Sunday. Anaheim Ducks star Corey Perry and Chicago Blackhawks sniper Jonathan Toews each scored first-period goals, and Sidney Crosby had the overtime winner seven minutes into the extra session. American stars Ryan Kesler and Zach Parise each scored. But it was Vancouver Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo standing on his head, making 34 saves to the tune of his home crowd’s chants of “Louuuuu” that helped Canada come out on top in the end.

But there was far more at play than mere silvers and golds on Sunday. There was a once-relevant sport actually mattering again.

Before Sunday’s game, NBC hockey analyst and two-time Team USA player Jeremy Roenick told a captive national TV audience that this was “the biggest game in hockey history.”  It was one of the few comments of the day that actually wasn’t hyperbole.

After spending decades jockeying for position with basketball as the country’s third-most popular sport, hockey has been pushed to the periphery in recent years, currently in a solid fifth behind NASCAR on the national sports radar.

In June 1994, on the heels of a riveting New York Rangers-Canucks seven-game Stanley Cup finals, Sports Illustrated ran a cover that famously read, “Why the NHL’s Hot, and the NBA’s Not.” Heading into the 2010 Winter Games, “hot” would have probably been the last word ever used to describe the NHL.

Buried in the TV ratings race, sandwiched between bull riding and infomercials on the cable TV Siberia that is the Versus Network and completely scratched from ESPN’s sports editorial calendar, professional hockey has fallen off the American sports radar in recent years. Before the Olympics, most casual American sports fans knew Team USA star Patrick Kane more for beating up a cab driver in August than for his incredible passing skills. Far more countrymen were familiar with Bode Miller’s life and Olympic story compared with Ryan Miller’s.

Blame rapid over-expansion, two lockouts in a 10-year span or the head-scratching television contracts that have kept only die-hard fans watching on a nightly basis, the NHL isn’t in the NFL’s league as far as national relevance. Hell, it’s not in the NFL draft’s. The UFC is arguably more followed on a national scale.

But now there’s momentum.

The United States defeated Canada in the World Junior Hockey Championships in January, three of the top NHL prospects in the world — defenseman Jarred Tinordi, winger Kevin Hayes and goaltender Jack Campbell — are U.S.-born kids, and seven of the current top eight teams in the NHL — Washington, San Jose, Chicago, Phoenix, Los Angeles, New Jersey and Colorado — play in American cities.

The NHL starts back up on Monday evening. Fresh off Sunday’s gold-medal game, you better believe more than a few more TVs than usual will be tuned into Versus’ nationally televised Red Wings-Avalanche bout. Like an old high school buddy adding you as a friend on Facebook out of the blue, hockey’s back in our lives.

At least for now.

For the NHL, the 2010 Olympics generated excitement for a forgotten sport, introduced our country to a slew of young home-grown superstars and provided an invaluable national spotlight on the game heading into the league’s playoff push.

No, Team USA didn’t pull off any miracle on ice Sunday.  But it did something rather miraculous. It made hockey relevant again.

Welcome back.