The U.S. men’s hockey team opened Olympic play early Thursday morning (7:30 a.m. Eastern) against Slovakia and will look to make another deep run in Sochi to follow up its 2010 performance in Vancouver. The U.S. is considered among international hockey’s Big Seven countries — along with Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Slovakia, and Sweden — which are said to be able to beat each other on any day given that both teams are at full strength.
Since the beginning of the modern era in 1956, the United States has taken home six medals: two golds and four silvers. The 2014 squad has yet to leave its mark on the history of U.S. hockey, but here are five performances that it will be measured against.
Note: Pictures may not match game described.
5. Silver medal in Salt Lake City, Utah (2002)
In the second Olympics following the addition of National Hockey League players to the games, the 2002 U.S. team followed up on a disappointing 1998 Olympics with a spirited run to the gold medal game. The U.S., captained by Chris Chelios and coached by Herb Brooks, took down Germany in the quarterfinals and bested Russia, 3-2, in the semifinals on the 22-year anniversary of the Miracle on Ice (more on that later).
The Americans’ final hurdle was a gold medal matchup with Canada, which was seeking its first gold in 50 years. Canada came out victorious on the backs of two-goal performances from Jarome Iginla and Joe Sakic and with the help of a lucky loonie. The U.S. loss marked the team’s first Olympic defeat on home soil since 1932.
4. Silver medal in Sapporo, Japan (1972)
Without a gold medal and the NHL stars of later teams, the 1972 team has fallen out of the consciousness of most Americans, but that doesn’t make its silver medal any less impressive. The amateur squad, coached by Murray Williamson, was expected to finish fifth in the then-round robin format of the Olympics. Instead, the team pulled off a 5-1 upset against the much-feared Czechoslovaks and a 4-1 upset against Finland to ascend to the second podium spot.
Craig Sarner, of Minnesota, and Kevin Ahearn, who played at Boston College, led the U.S. with four goals each. The most valuable player might have been goalie Mike “Lefty” Curran, though. He stood on his head against Czechoslovakia, recording 53 saves, according to accounts of the game. The men’s hockey players were the only male Americans to medal in Japan, and until 2010, were the only U.S. men’s hockey team to earn a medal on foreign soil.
“Glory is very fleeting,” Curran told the New York Times in 1992. “The country was enamored with us at the time, but it was brief. It lasted a month and it was over.”
3. Silver medal in Vancouver, Canada (2010)
Another gold medal in North America seemed within reach for the 2010 team, but with a flick of his wrist, Canada’s Sidney Crosby gave the Americans a rude sendoff on Canadian soil. Crosby’s game-winning goal in overtime overshadowed an exceptional week of performances by U.S. goaltender Ryan Miller, who was crowned the tournament’s most valuable player after allowing just eight goals in six games.
Also lost in the post-Crosby mayhem was a clutch goal by Zach Parise with less than 30 seconds left that sent the game into overtime and deferred the Canadians’ gold medal. Parise and defenseman Brian Rafalski led the Americans with four goals each in the tournament. Parise and Miller are among 13 players from 2010 to play in Sochi.
2. Gold medal in Squaw Valley, California (1960)
There is no Disney movie to tell the tale of the 1960 team’s run for generations to come, but rest assured that this squad’s road to the gold medal game was no less spectacular. The 1960 team, made up of a group of amateurs coached by Jack Riley, was similar to its counterpart 20 years later in that it featured a feisty group of kids from Boston and Minnesota. The team started off with decisive wins against Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Australia before moving on to its next series of round-robin games, where it would face a gauntlet of the world’s best hockey teams.
During its stretch run, the U.S. would benefit from the outstanding play of two sets of brothers: Bill and Bob Cleary, of Harvard, and Bill and Roger Christian from Minnesota. The U.S. took down Canada first, 2-1, led by goaltender Jack McCartan’s 39 saves on 40 shots. Two goals from Bill Christian helped the U.S. take down the mighty Soviets, 2-1.
Then, the U.S. ended its 7-0-0 Olympic run with a resounding 9-4 drubbing of Czechoslovakia to seal the gold medal. One man, as you might recall, did not get to celebrate that win. Future U.S. head coach Herb Brooks had been the last man cut from the eventual gold medal team. Kevin Allen wrote about Brooks’s 1960 experience in USA Hockey: A Celebration of a Great Tradition.
“When it became clear that the U.S.A. would win,” Allen wrote. “Brooks’s father turned to him and said, ‘It looks like the coach made the right decision.’”
1. Gold Medal in Lake Placid, New York (1980)
Jim Craig. Mike Eruzione. Herb Brooks. The names hold meaning even to the most casual of hockey fans. In the semifinals, a U.S. team of 20 collegians took down the dominant Soviet Union, which had trained year-round, in a 4-3 thriller at the Olympic Fieldhouse in Lake Placid, New York. Buzz Schneider and Mark Johnson scored in the first period for the U.S., prompting the Soviets to pull legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak for a replacement. The Soviets took another lead in the second period, but Johnson tied it again, setting up Eruzione for the go-ahead goal. Craig didn’t relent in net, and the Americans advanced to the gold medal game, where they would take down Finland, 4-2.
The International Ice Hockey Federation named the match the top international hockey story of the 20th century. The game captivated Americans and encouraged a new generation of youth players to pick up the game. When the U.S. won its next major championship, the 1996 World Cup of Hockey, the players pointed to the 1980 team as their inspiration for wanting to play hockey, according to the IIHF.
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