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U.S. past ‘miracle’ stage in Olympic hockey (except vs. Canada)

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source: AP
Photo credit: AP

SOCHI, Russia – This seems to be the Olympics when everyone around United States hockey officially got sick of the Miracle on Ice. Well, it was inevitable. With the Olympics being in Russia, with famed Russian goaltender Vladislav Tretiak (who was pulled in the Miracle) lighting the torch, with my generation reaching the age of cloying nostalgia and with the U.S. men’s team looking for its first Olympics hockey gold since that 1980 team, everything pointed to overkill.*

*Which I happily participated in.

Thing is, hockey in America is nothing like it was in 1980. This was the point the U.S. hockey team kept hammering. Everything has changed. Now, professional hockey players are at the Olympic. Now, the U.S. team has some of the best players in the world. Now, the U.S. team has speed and size and depth that is the envy of almost every hockey-playing country in the world. When the U.S. team played Russia this time around, it was the Americans who were favored, and the Americans who played the villains when they got a favorable call and won in a gritty shootout.

So, yes, everybody was ready to move on from the constant reminders about a bunch of college hockey players who won a gold medal 34 years ago.

Trouble is, to get people to stop talking about the Miracle on Ice, you have to stop losing one-goal games to Canada when it matters most.

VIDEO: Highlights from Canada’s 1-0 win

The U.S. did lose another one-goal game to Canada in an Olympic semifinal Friday … this after the U.S. women one day earlier lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game … this after the U.S. men lost a crushing one-goal game to Canada in the gold medal game in Vancouver, one of the most famous hockey games ever played.

To be fair, the United States’ 1-0 loss to Canada was different from the others. It felt cleaner and did not leave much room for regret. That’s because the Canadians pretty thoroughly outplayed the Americans. Was it not for some head-stand saves from Jonathan Quick – “our best player tonight,”  U.S. coach Dan Bylsma said – the score easily could have been 3-0 or 4-0.

Meanwhile the “0” on the American end of the score was more or less locked in. It is hard to imagine a team playing more suffocating defense than Canada played Friday. The U.S. power play was rendered all but useless. And other than a couple of moderate chances early and Paul Stansny’s point-blank shots in front in the second period, the U.S. rarely even threatened to score.

VIDEO: U.S. can’t find an empty net in final minute

The game was played at a high level—the speed on the ice was mesmerizing — and it was entertaining in its own way. But it really was quite a let-down from the famous gold medal game of four years ago. Well, for one thing that was a gold-medal match, while this was a semifinal just to see who would play Sweden for gold. That was a quirk in the seeding, and it definitely altered some of the emotion.*

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Photo credit: AP

*Though back home, the “Loser Keeps Bieber” campaign – featured on a Chicago billboard and trending on Twitter – certainly created some fire.

Then there was the quiet. Here you had the two best hockey teams on earth – two of the most talented hockey teams ever put together – and it was so eerily quiet in the Bolshoy Ice Palace. Every now and again, a hearty soul would try to start up a U-S-A chant or beg the Canadians to finish one of their numerous goal-scoring chances and then it would dissolve into stillness.

Much of the time, the arena was quiet enough to read bedtime stories aloud.

So strange … but then maybe not. No event at these Olympics brought so much pain to the host country as hockey. The Russian hockey team lost to the U.S. in the aforementioned shootout that was, for many Americans, the emotional peak of these Olympics and was for Russian fans the very symbol of fraud. A goal-ahead goal by the Russians was nullified because the cage of the net was slightly off its mooring. Russians who even conceded the point that the net WAS off still believed that U.S. goalie Jonathan Quick had been the one to knock it off. Angry fans demonstrated in Moscow. Television networks replayed the disallowed goal again and again.

Then, more disconcerting, the Russian team disappeared in a 3-1 quarterfinal loss to Finland that featured no controversy and also no life from a gifted collection of Russian players who never quite came together.

So, it is logical that there simply wasn’t much enthusiasm left for the sport. Tack on the Russians’ famous reticence – something that various non-Russian figure skaters noticed during their soundless programs – and what you had was a striking lack of energy and volume. We grow so used to the biggest sporting events being loud and the tension being almost tangible.

But Friday, early in the second period, Canada’s Jay Bouwmeester – a tough defenseman not necessarily known for his playmaking abilities – slapped a pass that Jamie Benn deflected over Quick to give Canada that 1-0 lead. And then the rest of the game just kind of melted away almost unnoticed. Those sounds you associate with a close and important hockey game – the roars for developing chances, the groans when shots slip wide, the gasps when the winning team narrowly escapes – were largely nonexistent. It was a bit like being in a Vegas casino with no clocks. Time just gushes away.

VIDEO: Jamie Benn’s shot the only goal

In any case, the U.S. never came especially close to tying the game, and Canada came very close to extending the lead and it was clear, on this day anyway, that there’s still a gap between Canadian and American hockey. Maybe this is as it should be considering how intently Canadian life revolves around the sport (some 80 percent of Canada watched at least part of the 2010 gold medal game).

But it is a blow for a United States still trying to move past the Miracle on Ice. Bylsma made the point after the game that U.S. hockey is at a place now where it hardly needs a miracle to win a gold medal. He’s right, of course. All the U.S. really needs is a couple more goals against Canada. Thing is, that’s the proving to be about as elusive as miracles.

Budapest withdrawing 2024 Olympic bid; now L.A. vs. Paris

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Budapest will withdraw its bid to host the 2024 Olympics, leaving Los Angeles and Paris as the two candidate cities for an IOC vote to determine the host in September.

The decision was made to avoid “a loss of international prestige” for Hungary, with its governing party saying the bid had a very small chance of success, according to The Associated Press.

The move comes five days after Budapest’s mayor said he may propose withdrawing the bid due to more than 250,000 signatures collected urging a public vote on whether to bid. The Hungarian prime minister and Budapest mayor were to meet Wednesday to discuss the bid.

Previously, Hamburg and Rome withdrew their 2024 Olympic bids. Hamburg’s bid ended in November 2015 after 51.6 percent of voters in the port city were against the bid. Rome squashed its bid in October after opposition from its new mayor.

The last time two or fewer cities were finalists for a Summer Olympics was 1988, when Seoul beat out Nagoya, Japan, in an IOC vote.

The 2022 Winter Olympics also came down to two cities, with Beijing defeating Almaty, Kazakhstan.

It is possible that both the 2024 and 2028 Olympics could be awarded at the IOC session in Lima, Peru, in September.

“This is a discussion,” IOC president Thomas Bach said on Saturday, according to the AP. “It also depends on the timing. This is, you know, why I appreciate also the public discussion.

“There are many options.”

Los Angeles and Paris are bidding to host the Olympics for a third time, which only one other city has done — London. Los Angeles previously hosted in 1932 and 1984. Paris hosted in 1900 and 1924.

The U.S. is in the midst of its longest stretch between hosting the Olympics since the 28-year gap between 1932 and 1960. It last hosted a Summer Games in 1996 and a Winter Games in 2002.

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Bob Costas details his favorite Olympic memories

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Bob Costas is often asked his favorite Olympic moment. He always gives the same answer.

“That’s Muhammad Ali lighting the torch in ’96 in Atlanta (video here),” Costas said after stepping down as NBC’s Olympic primetime host earlier this month. “It was such a well-kept secret that maybe 10 or 12 people in the whole world knew it was going to happen. They rehearsed it one time at 3 a.m. Dick Ebersol, who had the original idea of having Muhammad be the guy, would not tell me or Dick Enberg who it was going to be. He said, ‘You will recognize him or her. But I want your reaction to be as spontaneous as everyone else in the stadium.’

“And the way they staged it, he literally stepped out of the shadows and into the spotlight. It was such an arresting moment. I’ve said this before, you hear a lot of sounds in the arena, but you seldom ever hear an audible gasp. And there was a gasp before it kind of set in. And then it turned into thunderous applause and cheering.

“And it wasn’t just excitement. It wasn’t just admiration. It was all those things plus respect, and I think an understanding that he represented so much — athletic excellence, grace. Whether everyone always agreed with him at every stage along the way, you had to respect the integrity. He walked the walk. He put millions of dollars and the prime years of his career on the line for his beliefs. And people had to respect that.

“And they were also moved by how poignant it was that the man who once was the most beautiful and nimble of athletes on the entire planet and the most entertainingly loquacious of athletes had now been reduced to a man trembling as he held the torch and a man essentially unable to speak, even by that point, and yet he was willing to present himself to the world that way. And somehow even in that new state he was a dynamic and charismatic figure and a profound figure. So if I have to pick one, that’s my one.”

It’s not the only one.

Costas’ favorite Winter Olympic moment — from the four Winter Games he covered — came on the final day of the 2010 Vancouver Games.

“When Sidney Crosby scored the winning goal,” Costas said of the men’s hockey final. “That was like the soccer goal that Brazil got this past summer. That was one that everyone else wanted to win, but the host country needed to win. I mean, the U.S. was busting its ass to win that game. They wanted it bad. But Canada was desperate to win that game. And the U.S. ties it in the last 30 seconds and sends it to overtime. So now you’ve got the drama of overtime — the whole country’s on pins and needles, it’s the last event before the Closing Ceremony. The whole triumphant feeling of the Closing Ceremony would have been very different had the Canadians lost that game. Not only did they win it, but the national golden boy Sidney Crosby scores the winning goal. You can’t ask for much more than that.”

Most of Costas’ memories were of watching Olympic events on a monitor at the international broadcast center, sometimes working 12-hour shifts.

The 2000 Sydney Games were different. Given the time difference, he finished hosting duties (primetime and late night) around 5 p.m. local time. He would then walk across Olympic Park and attend events on some days — usually basketball, gymnastics or track and field.

Costas’ favorite in-person Olympic event was Cathy Freeman taking 400m gold in Sydney “because of what she represented,” being of Aboriginal descent.

Costas also wanted to note a moment from the 2002 Salt Lake City Opening Ceremony.

“When they brought in the tattered American flag that had been at the World Trade Center on 9/11,” he said. “That was a very moving thing, and so was the Ali thing in ‘96 in Atlanta.”

A regret?

“I never saw a single Dream Team game in person,” he said. “I mean, I saw them all on monitors. I’m watching a bunch of things all at once, but I’m in a studio. It’s part of what the job is.”

And Costas’ favorite Olympics of the 12 he covered?

“I’ve always been partial to Barcelona [1992] because it was my first primetime Olympics,” he said. “Barcelona is really a fascinating city, very distinctive. … Athens [2004], although it was an imperfect Olympics, it cost the country a whole lot a financially, it meant a lot to me because I’m a Greek American.”

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