34 years to the day that we had one of the greatest moments in sports history with the Miracle On Ice, the United States Men’s hockey team went out and completed the Debacle On Ice. A complete and sudden collapse from a team that many were suddenly picking to medal after their tremendous start to the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games. The Women’s team were on their way to the inevitable collision course with Canada for the Gold Medal in that event. Everything seemed great for USA Hockey, especially when the ladies had a 2-0 lead in the 3rd period of that Gold Medal Game and looking as if they would stifle the Canadians and end the contest.
And then it all went horribly wrong.
Team USA Women suddenly stopped playing with the 2-way desperation that they had for the first 56 minutes of the game. And with 3:26 remaining, a deflection off of a USA defender gave the Canadians some life. 2:31 later, with the Canadian net empty (and nearly scored upon moments before by Team USA), American (and Jessie Vetter nemesis) Marie-Philip Poulin tied the score at two (remember, Poulin scored BOTH goals for Canada in their 2-0 victory in Vancouver four years ago). So close, yet Team USA just locked up in the final 4 minutes to allow Canada to crawl back into the game. And in overtime, that lack of killer instinct would bite Team USA. Say what you want about questionable calls, but sure enough on the power play, Poulin scored again and gave Canada the 3-2 victory and what seemed like an improbable Gold less than an hour before.
Then the Men come along to play Canada for a spot in the Gold Medal Game. 10 minutes in, it looked like the US was going to be in good shape. But Carey Price made some big stops for Team Canada, and that seemed to put doubt into American minds. Jamie Benn scored early in the second period on a deflection and that was all Canada needed. Team USA never put forth much effort in losing 1-0 and having to settle for a Bronze Medal Game against Finland.
And today (as of this writing), Finland showed that they had far more passion, heart, desire, and guts in completely whitewashing the US 5-0 en route to claiming the Bronze in Teemu Selanne’s last Olympic Games (we think). He scored twice, and Team USA left Jonathan Quick hanging out to dry all night long at Bolshoy Ice Gardens.
So who to blame for this debacle…this unmitigated disaster of 48 hours in USA Hockey?
For starters, both coaching staffs are to blame. In the women’s team case, you had an overconfident group just deciding to play out the string in the last 4 minutes, feeling that they had it in the bag. A coach should NEVER allow complacency to set in at any point in a game. But that staff, led by Kasey Stone, didn’t settle their team down and it showed. For the men, Dan Bylsma just showed that he is only as good as Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin playing against NHL 3rd and 4th lines can be. In the Semifinal Game against Canada, he was completely outcoached by Mike Babcock DESPITE HAVING THE LAST LINE CHANGE and didn’t make ANY adjustments until late in the 3rd period…and by that time, there was no time for the new combinations and tactics to be successfully implemented.
Secondly, you have to lay blame at the feet of the captains. For the women, this quote from captain Meghan Duggan:
“I looked over at (backup goalie Molly Schaus) and I said ‘there is no way they are going to score two goals on Vets she is hot right now’. You get a couple of bounces, they are swarming around the net…”
Sorry, as a captain you CAN NOT let that mentality creep into your mind. Because then that mindset gets into everyone else’s minds. And then we see the lack of urgency that we saw for 56 minutes and then we see Canada tie it and then win it in OT. Don’t get me wrong…I am a big Meghan Duggan fan. I’m also a fan of Amanda Kessel, the Lamoreaux twins, Gigi Marvin, and Julie Chu. They’re all tremendous talents. But if the mentality is “there’s no way they’re scoring”, then you’re just setting up for disappointment.
On the men’s side, Zach Parise used such terms as “we didn’t show up to play today” and “humiliated” to describe the Bronze Medal failure. His Minnesota Wild teammate Ryan Suter summed up the Canada game by saying ”We didn’t show up to play. It’s too bad. … We sat back. We were passive. You can’t play scared. I thought we sat on our heels and just didn’t take it to them at all.” Assistant Captain Dustin Brown, he wearing the “C” for Los Angeles while back in the NHL, was “stapled to the bench” (as Pierre McGuire put it) in the second half of the game against Finland.
So two consecutive games Team USA…and their leaders…didn’t show up to play…when a medal for your country is on the line. That is nothing short of pathetic. Why ever wear the Red, White, and Blue if that’s how you are going to approach games? It’s embarrassing to the hockey fans in this country to put out an effort like that. Then again, Parise and Suter did leave their team for the “greener” pastures of their home state (with Parise having been captain in New Jersey and Suter an alternate in Nashville), so I think we could have seen what their “leadership” is like.
But most importantly, you have to give a Russian-sized portion of the blame on the executive and decision makers with USA Hockey (more so for the men than the women).
If you want to make a case that Mark Johnson should still be behind the USA women’s bench, go ahead. My only issue there is that the coaches needed to have a better handle on their team’s emotions. The women’s roster was the best roster they could have put forth, in my opinion.
But with the men…well now! David Poile led this group, but as we learned from stories written by people embedded with USA Hockey in the selection process (which, by the way, NEVER should have been allowed), I got the feeling that David Poile (GM in Nashville) was more or less bullied into making some decisions. Brian Burke (Gm of the 2010 team) was the Director of Player Personnel, and to me the head bully in selecting the team. Also helping make decisions were Paul Holmgren (PHI), Stan Bowman (CHI), Dean Lombardi (LA), Ray Shero (PIT), Dale Tallon (FLA), Don Waddell (formerly of ATL) and the coaches: Bylsma and Tony Granato (PIT), Peter Laviolette (fired from PHI), Todd Richards (Columbus). That’s twelve minds. Twelve egos. Twelve differing opinions. And Eleven too many.
How many people chose the 1980 Olympic team? One. Herb Brooks. I’d say it worked out well, wouldn’t you? But these are the pros playing, so if you want to make a case for a few more, fine. But TWELVE???
And the result was players being left off the team that should have been on the team. Bobby Ryan is the poster child for this movement. Ryan was labeled as a “sleepy skater” by some in that group, and Burke famously opined “He is not intense. That word is not in his vocabulary. It’s never going to be in his vocabulary. He can’t spell intense.” Ok, but he’s still one of your top players in the talent pool. So you want guys with intensity. Yet, there’s the case of Jack Johnson and Erik Johnson. Both guys were referred to as “zero maintenance guys”. Or in other words, you don’t have to get on them to motivate them to play better. They just do. Yet, because they were not playing as well as capable in the first half of the year, the “brain trust” of USA Hockey left them off the roster. Ok, you can make a case for Keith Yandle as well with his offensive capability. Yet we got Justin Faulk, John Carlson and Derek Stepan (who started his season late because of a contract dispute). Nice players no doubt, but not players I would have selected over both Johnsons (or Jack Johnson and Yandle) and Ryan. Also, TJ Oshie was picked specifically for the shootout, so you all can debate whether or not he should have been there as well.
Ultimately, USA Hockey has to take a long look at who they want making the decisions for the 2018 games in South Korea. As of now, there’s a lot of doubt that the NHL will allow their players to participate (though a source of mine has said that NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and the NHLPA are going to make sure that NHL participation continues into those games as well). But regardless of who plays, USA Hockey has to make sure that the decision makers for 2018 don’t repeat the same mistakes that this group made. USA Hockey needs to make sure they have a front office in place that will dedicate the time to scouting their own players and make the best decision for Team USA. They need to have coaches in place that will properly motivate the players to play a full 60 minutes each and every single game. And they need to have captains that will not only lead by on-ice example, but also be mentally strong and disciplined enough to know how to lead when adversity or near achievement stares them in the face.
Otherwise, we may see a repeat of the failures from 2014. Failures that disappointed a National hockey fan base. A Debacle On Ice.