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

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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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*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.

Katie Ledecky leads loaded 200m freestyle final at nationals

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Katie Ledecky easily had the top time in the 200m freestyle heats at the USA Swimming National Championships on Wednesday morning, setting up a loaded final at night.

Ledecky, already qualified for worlds in the 800m and 1500m frees, swam 1:55.87 on Wednesday morning in Indianapolis.

She’s joined in the final by Olympians Melanie Margalis (1:57.27), Leah Smith (1:57.61) and Simone Manuel (1:58.00) and Mallory Comerford (1:58.39), the surprise 100m free winner Tuesday night.

USA Swimming Nationals, part of the TeamUSA Summer Champions Series, presented by Comcast, determines the U.S. team for the world championships in Budapest next month. The top two per individual event are in line to make the team, plus up to the top six in the 100m and 200m frees for relays.

Wednesday finals are at 6 p.m. ET. NBCSN, NBCSports.com/live and the NBC Sports app will air coverage from 7-8 p.m.

SWIM NATIONALS: Broadcast Schedule | Event Schedule/Results

Ledecky is down to her last two events of nationals, a meet for which she did not fully taper. She’s already on the world team in the 800m and 1500m frees by winning the 800m free by nearly nine seconds on Tuesday. She will likely be on the 4x100m free relay, too.

If Ledecky finishes top two in the 200m free and the 400m free (Friday), she will be in line to contest six events in Budapest, her busiest schedule yet at an Olympics or worlds. In 15 career Olympic/world events, she brought home 14 golds and one silver.

In the men’s 200m free, Olympic bronze medalist Conor Dwyer barely made the final in the eighth and last spot by .12. Townley Haas, who had the fastest split time in the Rio 4x200m free, led the qualifiers, which also included Olympic 100m freestyler Caeleb Dressel in third.

Olympic 100m breast champion Lilly King led the qualifiers into the 200m breast final. King, who failed to make the Rio 200m breast final, clocked 2:24.68, ranking her 13th in the world this year. Olympians Katie Meili and Breeja Larson join King in the final.

Olympic silver medalist Josh Prenot and eighth-place finisher Kevin Cordes highlight the men’s 200m breast finalists.

Kathleen Baker, a Rio 100m back silver medalist, set a personal best in the 200m back by eight tenths to lead the qualifiers into that final. The two Rio Olympians in the event — Maya DiRado and Missy Franklin — are not competing at nationals.

Olympic champion Ryan Murphy and fifth-place finisher Jacob Pebley safely made the men’s 200m back final.

MORE: Missy Franklin: ‘What if I’m never as good as I was?’

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Danell Leyva’s gymnastics streak ends as he pursues acting

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When Danell Leyva trained gymnastics, he needed to devote 100 percent of his time and effort to become a triple Olympic medalist.

“Now that I’m acting, I’m doing the same,” Leyva said recently. “One hundred percent of my time and effort and focus is surrounding acting and the acting world.”

That leaves no time for gymnastics.

Danell Leyva‘s run of 10 straight years competing at the senior U.S. Gymnastics Championships comes to end this summer. Leyva doesn’t really see himself returning to the sport, but he’s also not ruling out.

“It’s hard. It’s hard on the body, a lot of different factors,” Leyva said. “But I feel like [pursuing acting] is what I should be doing now. I feel really happy doing what I’m doing right now.”

Leyva moved from Miami to California in December, four months after bagging two silver medals in Rio. He signed up for acting classes, filmed two commercials (one already aired), appeared in a Nickelodeon show and was a choreography consultant for “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.”

Biggest of all, Leyva bought and opened a production company with one of his managers.

It’s called “Parallel Entertainment,” an obvious homage to Leyva’s best gymnastics event — the parallel bars — where he won the 2011 World title and a 2016 Olympic silver medal.

They have a few shows in development stages already.

“The dream is to definitely make movies,” Leyva said. “I have to set big, lofty goals. Otherwise I can’t keep myself motivated.”

He found similarities between athletic and dramatic pursuits.

“Gymnastics is hard for the sake of being, in my opinion, the hardest sport in the world,” he said. “To make an Olympic team is insane, and to be able to say that you’re part of the few percent that actually won a medal is definitely even harder. That goes exactly the same with acting. Do you know how many actors there are in the world? Just to be in a movie is an immense accomplishment. Imagine being nominated for an award, any award.”

If Leyva does return to the gym, the Cuban-American will resume one of the greatest careers in U.S. history.

Leyva’s accomplishments include a world parallel bars title, an Olympic all-around bronze medal in 2012 and then Olympic silver medals on parallel bars and high bar in a 90-minute span in Rio. He has everything except for an Olympic title.

Which does he savor most? He can’t choose.

“The all-around medal was bittersweet because it wasn’t higher than what I thought it could be, but it was my first Olympic medal,” he said. “The world title was bittersweet because of the fact I was doing so well in the all-around [two days earlier], and I decided to see what the high bar tasted like. Then the two [silver] medals back-to-back [in Rio]. High bar I will say was a little disappointed in myself because I should have stuck that landing [Leyva had a small hop [usually a one tenth deduction] and lost by .266 to Fabian Hambuechen].”

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