Monday, March 01, 2010

Carry Through

The 2010 Winter Olympics closed in grand fashion with the US-Canada gold medal game. While I had hoped to see a different outcome, as a hockey fan it was impossible not to be dazzled by what took place on the ice in Vancouver. It was no accident that yesterday's game and the previous US-Canada match-up the Sunday before were the two best games of the tournament. It was NHL style hockey at its finest, played at a high tempo pace with plenty of skill, energy, and physical play on display. Frankly, it will be tough as a fan to have to go back to the regular season NHL now. Until the Stanley Cup playoffs begin, the hockey will pale by comparison to what we just watched.

While we tip our hats to Canada and salute their fans and team, I would encourage our neighbors to the North to keep matters in perspective. Canada had the best team and they were playing on home ice. They were expected to win the gold. Now, there are always teams that are expected to win that don't, but essentially what Canada is celebrating is that they didn't choke. Team Canada was like the '85 Bears playing the Super Bowl at Soldier Field. Again, we're happy for you, but this win doesn't somehow validate anything about the worth of your country or even your hockey system.

Yesterday's game also shouldn't be touted as having meaning beyond what it was, which was a great battle between two talented teams. After the game, some dolt from NBC was interviewing US goalie Ryan Miller and asked him if he had considered what the game might mean for "hockey in North America." First off, the dude just lost a gold medal game in overtime. You really think he's had a chance to reflect on what the bigger picture might be? Secondly, there is no bigger picture. Hockey really can't get any bigger in Canada than it is today. And the notion that somehow this game or the performance of the US team might lead to meaningful long-term growth in the popularity of hockey in the US is ill-founded. It reminds me of what happens when the US makes a run in soccer's World Cup and we're told that now, finally the sport has broken through with American audiences. Only it hasn't and once the initial buzz wears off the American sporting public goes back to ignoring soccer as it has for years.

One of the problems with hockey in the US is that its leaders refuse to accept it for what it is; a regional sport that will always have limited national appeal. Hockey is not going to ever become like basketball, baseball, or football in the US. But that's okay. What's wrong with being a sport with more selective appeal? Instead of harboring these embarrassing aspirational fantasies of generating mass appeal, why not strive to make the sport the best it can be for those who truly care about it?

Other than hockey, I really didn't watch that much of the Vancouver games. A little curling here, a little skiing there, checking out the ice dancing costumes, opening ceremonies, etc. But I'm still glad they were on. They filled a big void in the sports schedule. Post-Super Bowl and pre-March Madness is a real dead zone for sports.

But now that the Winter Olympics have carried us through to March, things are looking up. In addition to the NCAA basketball tourney, March also brings the Minnesota boys high school hockey tournament, WCHA playoffs, WCHA Final Five, and NCAA regional playoffs. The March sports schedule is full, both in number and games that matter.

And it's more than just sports. In Saturday's WSJ, Samantha Bee had a humorous piece detailing why February is really the cruelest month. And she's right. Those of us in cold weather climes know that while February may be in short in days, it's the month that really tests your winter moxie. The holidays are long past, but Spring, elusive magical Spring, still seems like a dream. You don't dare get excited about a warm day in February because you know that it's a tease. You know that you're still going to be get snow. It's still going to be cold. You just have to hunker down and slog your way through it.

The Winter Olympics were a welcome distraction and helped us work through the worst of the February doldrums. They got us to March and now we can see the light at the end of winter's long tunnel. Well done Vancouver.

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