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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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*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.

Kerri Walsh Jennings eyes 2020 Olympics

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - AUGUST 17:  Kerri Walsh Jennings of the United States celebrates a point during the Beach Volleyball Women's Bronze medal match against Larissa Franca Maestrini and Talita Rocha of Brazil on day 12 of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Beach Volleyball Arena on August 17, 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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If Kerri Walsh Jennings had to decide now, she’s in for Tokyo 2020.

In recent weeks, Walsh Jennings has warmed more and more to trying for a sixth Olympics at age 41, after taking bronze with April Ross in Rio. In 2020, the three-time Olympic champion will be older than any previous Olympic beach or indoor volleyball player, according to Olympic historians.

In December, Walsh Jennings told an NCAA women’s indoor volleyball championship crowd that her kids’ first words to her after she came home from Rio were, “You didn’t win gold,” according to Flovolleyball. Her response? “Tokyo 2020, kids.”

On Jan. 10, a tweet from Walsh Jennings’ account tagged “TokyoGold2020” and “AllIn.” Her Twitter bio now includes, “aspiring to be MY best #Tokyo2020.”

Then in an interview with Seth Davis published Wednesday, she reaffirmed it.

“You’re asking me right this moment. I’m in to go win a gold medal [in 2020],” she said. “That’s like, period, end of statement with regard to me. I’m a family of five, and this journey requires total commitment from not just myself but my kids and my husband and so many other people. So I need to get on the same page with my hubby because it’s a lonely life when I’m traveling the world. He’s an athlete as well [beach volleyball player Casey Jennings], but he’s retired from the international scene, so he’s home. If I go four more years, which I want to, I need to consider lots of things, but, yes, I’m in.”

Walsh Jennings and Ross are set to make their 2017 season debut in Fort Lauderdale next month. Previously, Ross was planning to take 2017 off to have a child.

MORE: U.S. beach volleyball Olympians open season with new partners

President Obama honors Olympians in final press conference (video)

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Barack Obama has honored Olympians in his final days as president, including specifically naming gold medalists Simone Biles and Michael Phelps on Wednesday.

At his final presidential press conference, Obama brought up the Olympics when asked if he thought there would be another black president.

His answer at the 41:45 mark in the above video:

“I think I’ve used this analogy before. We killed it in the Olympics in Brazil. And Michelle and I, we always have our — the Olympic team here. And it’s a lot of fun, first of all, just because, you know, anytime you’re meeting somebody who’s the best at anything, it’s impressive.

And these mostly very young people are all just so healthy looking, and they just beam and exude fitness and health. And so we have a great time talking to them. But they are of all shapes, sizes, colors. You know, the genetic diversity that is on display is remarkable.

And if you look at Simone Biles, and then you look at a Michael Phelps, they’re completely different. And it’s precisely because of those differences that we’ve got people here who can excel at any sport.

And by the way, more than half of our medals [in Rio] came from women. And the reason is is because we had the foresight several decades ago with something called Title IX to make sure that women got opportunities in sports, which is why our women compete better, because they have more opportunities than folks in other countries.

I use that as a metaphor, and if in fact we continue to keep opportunity open to everybody, then yeah, we’re going to have a woman president. We’re going to have a Latino president. We’ll have a Jewish president, a Hindu president. Who knows who we’re going to have.

I suspect we’ll have a whole bunch of mixed up presidents at some point that nobody really knows what to call ’em.”

MORE: Obama appoints four Olympic medalists to positions