By Michelle Kaufman
The Miami Herald
VANCOUVER, British Columbia—A handful of tickets are available for as much as $4,000 to $5,000 apiece on e-Bay, but otherwise, good luck finding anybody willing to part with a seat for today’s Olympic gold medal hockey game between Canada’s $127 million star-studded roster and the unheralded, yet undefeated, United States.
The blockbuster final is all anybody’s talking about on the trains, in the jam-packed downtown streets, and on CBC. This nation that puts hockey on the back of its $5 bill will put everything on hold at 12:15 PST and tune in. More than one-third of the Canadian population is expected to watch across six time zones as Sidney Crosby and Co. try to avenge last week’s 5-3 loss to the Americans in the qualifying round. A victory will give Canada, which has surged to 13 gold medals, the record for most gold medals in a Winter Olympics.
These Olympic Games began with heavy rain and the horrific death of a luger, and they reach a crescendo on the final day with the hockey game of all hockey games. It’s Canada, where hockey is considered a birthright, where a TV commercial says: “Let’s make sure the world knows whose game they’re playing,” against the U.S., where the NHL is an afterthought, and NBC waited until the final to broadcast live from coast to coast.
It’s Stanley Cup Game 7, on steroids. Even the Jonas Brothers are Tweeting about it.
Few expected the young and inexperienced Team USA to be here. Brian Burke, the team’s Harvard-educated general manager, was one of the few.
“We always felt our team was better than the media did,” Burke said on Saturday, before the team’s final practice. “Not throwing a rock. People get paid to sit down with those rosters, look at the names, and say who’s got the best team. No one thought we’d be in this game, no one.”
Forward Ryan Kesler, who plays for the Vancouver Canucks, agreed. “There’s no pressure on us because nobody thinks we’re going to win, nobody but us.”
Burke is a big reason this collection of gritty NHL role players made it to the championship. The Toronto Maple Leafs general manager, a lawyer by trade, went for youth, speed, and character. Once he found the players he wanted, he infused them with an extra dose of fighting spirit and patriotism.
Burke set aside personal tragedy to be part of the Olympics. His youngest son, Brendan, 21, was killed in an auto accident on Feb. 5, and Burke was marching in the Opening Ceremonies a week later in his son’s memory. Brendan was openly gay, and when he told Burke a year ago, the USA manager was not only was accepting, but offered to make public service announcements discouraging gay bashing. He also plans to attend the Toronto Pride Parade in Brendan’s memory.
“The real heroes in our country don’t wear hockey jerseys,” Burke has been known to say, and he wanted his players to realize that, too, so he fostered the Operation Homefront program, in which a wounded soldier who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan was assigned to each player. They tried to match the player with a “Wounded Warrior” from his hometown, college, or NHL city.
The soldiers sent personal care packages to the players, which included a letter, an American flag for their lockers, and a memento ranging from helmets to bullets to military ID tags.
“They are not just playing for our dressing room, but for the wounded warriors and all Americans,” Burke said.
And if there was any chance the U.S. players would get cocky after beating Canada last Sunday, Burke squelched it by criticizing the team, saying were it not for goalie Ryan Miller, they’d have lost. He challenged them to play better, which they have.
Much has been made of Team USA’s youth (average age 26.5), but Burke sees it as “an asset”, not a liability. “We have footspeed and energy and things young people bring to a game, and we’ve used that to our advantage,” he said.
The U.S. has never trailed in this tournament and is the only undefeated team. Unlike the Canadians, who had to sweat to close out a 3-2 semifinal win over Slovakia, the U.S. cruised past Finland, 6-1, to reach the final.
Eighteen months ago, when Burke and the USA Hockey staff started putting together this team, Burke predicted they would win the gold. And he meant it.
“There was some talk that this won’t be this team’s year, this will be Sochi’s team (in 2014), and I said to the guys, ‘Anyone who thinks they’re here prepping for Sochi please get up and leave right now. That’s not what we’re doing here. We’re going to Vancouver to win.’ It wasn’t bulletin board stuff, it was our goal, and we haven’t finished the job yet. We have one more game to win.”
It won’t be easy. Beating Canada once on home soil is remarkable. Beating them twice is unthinkable. The Canadian team has been playing better since goalkeeper Martin Brodeur was replaced by Roberto Luongo after the U.S. loss.
“They’re a much better team than they were a week ago,” Burke said. “I know that sounds silly, but it’s true. And so are we.”
Canada coach Mike Babcock says his team is poised to win.
“We have a second chance, and we want to make good on that,” he said. “We think we’re prepared and excited about that opportunity. You walk around on the streets and everyone is so jacked up to be Canadian and be part of this. It’s all fantastic. Someone’s going to be very happy Sunday night, and we expect it’s going to be us.”