On Saturday morning U.S. time, the U.S. Olympic hockey team faced off against the Russians on ice in Sochi. The match wasn’t quite the 1980 Miracle on Ice, but it wasn’t far off. Both sides left it all on the ice. The Americans and Russians battled to a thrilling 2-2 draw, kept a stalemate through the 5-minute overtime, and went to a dramatic shootout. The St. Louis Blues’ T.J. Oshie took most of the shots for the Americans, and scored the winning shot to end the game. USA 3-Russia 2. The victory set Team USA up to win their group, which they did, sending them straight to the quarterfinals. The Russians have had to win their final group game and an extra playoff match against Norway (which Russia won 4-0) to get to the knockout stage. For the remainder of the Sochi Olympics, and maybe for the rest of his life, Oshie will have a new nickname — T.J. Sochi.
Team USA took 25 players to the Sochi games, all of them National Hockey League players. Team Canada’s 25-man roster is plucked entirely from the NHL. Team Russia also hails mostly from the NHL — 16 of its 25-man roster ply their trade in the USA, with the rest coming from different professional leagues around the world. Pavel Datsyuk, arguably the best player in the Russian kit, is a forward for the Detroit Red Wings. Twenty-four of Sweden’s 25-man roster are NHL players, 16 of Finland’s player are NHL players, 17 of the Czech players, 14 of Slovakia’s, 8 of Switzerland’s…you get the idea. This year’s tournament wouldn’t be the same competition at all if NHL players were not representing their countries on the ice in Sochi.
Prior to 1998′s games in Nagano, Japan, the NHL did not participate and its players did not play in the Olympics. That’s part of what made Team USA’s 1980 gold medal victory in Lake Placid, NY, so special. The Americans fielded a team of amateurs to take on the pros from behind the Iron Curtain including the Soviet Union’s Big Red Machine, and America’s plucky amateurs shocked the world on home ice.
While the amateurs-versus-the-world storyline was romantic, the fact is, it did not showcase the best hockey players in the world. The NHL is the world’s top hockey league and its players sat the Olympics out until 1998. Since the Nagano games, Olympic hockey’s inclusion of professional players has turned its tournament into a kind of hockey World Cup, a competition that hockey has not held since 2004, but which never rose to the profile of either soccer’s World Cup or the Olympic competition.