Sidney Crosby's golden goal against the U.S. at the Vancouver Olympics, when slowed down and dissected, was a taut drama of four characters whose lives intersected at a historic point in time. Here is the play within the play of the year
Consider a moment. Now take that moment—maybe the most significant in sports in 2010—and break it down frame by frame into 100 or so smaller moments. Hit STOP, REWIND and PLAY. Now do it again. Follow the traveling puck, the dot that connects four men. Team Canada forwards Sidney Crosby and Jarome Iginla, American goalie Ryan Miller and referee Bill McCreary. Seated in front of oversized plasmas or small laptops earlier this fall, clicking through a DVD, they watch adjustments, assumptions, decisions and unadulterated dumb luck. No need for a spoiler alert. The climax never changes. Crosby scores with 12:20 left in overtime. Canada 3, USA 2. Olympic gold. These men know too well what will happen because they were there.
The golden goal in Vancouver is embroidered on the tapestry of hockey, part of a Crosby legacy that will one day veer into legend.
But what if Crosby had not scored to end the most significant game ever played on Canadian ice and an American like, say, Joe Pavelski, who had a credible chance seconds earlier, had?
The same people who still bask in the reflected glow of the goal light would be muttering about a hockey messiah who, other than a round-robin shootout winner, had experienced a middling Olympics.
Canadians would be lining their sackcloth with fur in anticipation of winter.
Hockey in the U.S. might have undergone a dramatic updraft that likely would have made Miller a breakout star, boosted interest among hockey agnostics in NHL cities such as Atlanta and Columbus and maybe even prodded owners of the 24 American-based teams to look past their wallets and embrace participation in Sochi 2014 so Team USA could properly defend its gold medal.
"If we'd lost to the U.S.," Iginla says, his eyes dancing, "they'd've probably made another Miracle movie."
The four men met separately with SPORTS ILLUSTRATED and talked through the most memorable goal scored by a Canadian since 1972 and the most deflating one scored against the U.S. since, well, ever. Viewed through the prism of personal experience they deconstructed the kaleidoscopic twists of those last eight seconds, offering explanation but not excuse, hammering happenstance into narrative. As their tales eddied and flowed, it was clear they were not simply reliving how four men came to be in one quadrant of Olympic ice on the last day of February—but telling a universal story of how the regimented and the random blend to make history.
Crosby barrels into the high slot with the puck on his stick, trying to barge past defensemen Brian Rafalski and Ryan Suter. Their teammates, forwards Zach Parise and Jamie Langenbrunner apply backside pressure, swallowing Crosby in a deep blue sea of U. S. and A. as the puck skitters ahead toward the American net. He is in jail. Crosby might be Superman, but unless he leaps defensemen in a single bound, his options are limited. The Americans are in control, which appeals to the man on the ice who most craves it.
Miller is a problem solver who likes to muse about the position he has played since age eight; he recognizes the egocentricity innate to goaltenders, wonders if the controlling nature of a goalie has psychosocial implications for a team. This is how he thinks. Sometimes this is how he talks. In any case he derives visceral pleasure from the challenge of denying shooters: Sid the Kid vs. Ryan the Id. During Miller's three years at Michigan State he would drop in at the basketball offices to visit Tom Izzo, not to have the coach help him think outside the box but to expand that box. Izzo, NCAA champion, and Miller, Hobey Baker winner, often would talk about how to meet expectations.
Three hundred fifty-four minutes and 59 seconds into his Olympic tournament, Miller has exceeded expectations. Those in the States who watch hockey once every four years reflexively attach themselves to goalies (Jim Craig in 1980, even Ray LeBlanc during a surprising run to the medal round in 1992) because it is the black-and-white position in a game with so many moving parts. The goalie stops the puck. Or he doesn't. Simple. And Miller has stopped it 138 times on 145 shots at the instant the puck dribbles toward him. In the past 13 days a goalie who plays in the modest market of Buffalo has become a quasi-celebrity, one whose back story—he is dating an actress, he owns a chic clothing store in East Lansing—has become front-page material. He is accustomed to hockey being a cult sport to which people pay attention at their convenience, but now his game is the main attraction at the five-ring circus. The phrase Miller-cle on Ice is tweeted and retweeted. Four years after being left off the Olympic team because of a broken thumb, Miller is at the zenith of the position. The thing making him uneasy is having all the attention lavished on him rather than on his U.S. teammates.
Although Rafalski is deep into his shift, Miller, at the edge of his crease, backhands the loose puck toward the corner to his right.
McCreary is anticipating that Miller will freeze the puck—he guesses Rafalski is tired—and prepares to blow a quick whistle but then sees the goalie send the puck to the corner. Legs churning, Crosby pursues it as Suter and Rafalski, whose helmet has been knocked askew, sort out who will chase him and the play. Within one second, a benign one-on-four morphs into a one-on-one in the corner.
Iginla, who jumped onto the ice three seconds earlier, ponders his possibilities: He can position himself near the hash marks in anticipation of Crosby slinging the puck up the boards or he can switch positions with his center, allowing Crosby to skate back up the wing on the vacated ice. Judging the angle of Crosby's torso, Iginla is certain his center will keep walking up the wall.
Iginla is an optimist. He can no more help seeing the good in a situation than Miller can help analyzing it. Although his line has so far failed to produce the anticipated stream of goals—Crosby, Iginla and Eric Staal have nine among them at this moment—he continually reassures them that they will get the Big One. He thinks he inherited his sunshine from his maternal grandfather. Rick Schuchard would drive Jarome to his youth hockey games and, if the team lost, on the ride home would say, "Oh, that other team sure got lucky." Once when Iginla's team finally scored near the end of a trouncing, Schuchard bellowed from the stands, "There goes the shutout!" He built the framework of his grandson's worldview one bromide at a time.
And Iginla pays it forward, at least once by credit card. During the 2002 Olympics, Iginla was introduced to four Flames fans who had driven from Calgary to Salt Lake City without tickets or a place to stay. When he learned they had been sleeping in their car in a hotel parking lot, he excused himself, made a few calls and booked them into the same hotel where his family was staying. Iginla later would score twice in the gold medal victory over Team USA, karmic proof there is a hockey god. (Crosby will ask only one player for an autographed stick in Vancouver—Iginla.)
As he skates toward the corner, Iginla figures if nothing develops for Crosby, the center might bounce the puck back to him so he will have a chance to roll for a shot.
Iginla is right. Crosby swivels his head and spots Iginla heading toward the corner, leaving him a path along the boards, a situation that is more ripe with promise than trying to manufacture a scoring chance from the extended goal line. Rafalski adjusts his helmet. Initially unsure whether Crosby or Iginla ultimately will wind up with the puck, McCreary must choose to stay along the boards or dart behind the net, a decision that will ultimately bring him more attention than his old-school mustache.
Some 2½ hours earlier McCreary had flipped the puck like a coin at midfield—the puck flip is the referee's signature; he started doing it 15 years ago, as a way of saying hello to his 5-year-old daughter, Melissa, who had suffered a stroke—and dropped it to start the match. This is McCreary's third Olympics, third gold medal game. (He called the 2002 final when Iginla scored twice.) NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson approvingly says McCreary "referees from the neck up." This means he knows how to control the flow of the game, understands when to intimidate players in order to lower the temperature of a match and realizes when he should swallow his whistle. McCreary is confident in his assessment of situations and players. Team USA general manager Brian Burke calls him "one of the best referees in the history of the NHL."
Still McCreary is surprised to be here—in the final, in Vancouver at all, really. He is in the last year or two of his career, "past my time," and he is not certain the International Ice Hockey Federation is as enamored of him as his NHL bosses. He doesn't think he fits the IIHF "style." In a meeting before the medal-round games, an official from Finland tells him that he has to get off the boards and get to the net area more.
Two days before the gold medal game, McCreary learned he would be part of the most watched game in North America since the Miracle on Ice in 1980; another hallmark in a career brimming with them. (He also has worked in 15 of the past 16 Stanley Cup finals.) He will officiate with Dan O'Halloran, another well-regarded NHL referee. Like McCreary, O'Halloran is a Canadian. Even with experienced American-born NHL referees available, two Canadians are calling a Canada--USA final. This would not happen in any other Olympic sport—ever—but the IIHF and NHL make a daring assumption that professional referees are, well, professional.
Gregson who, with Konstantin Komissarov, the secretary of the IIHF's officiating committee, gave the game to McCreary and O'Halloran instead of force-feeding an American into the mix, is sensitive to the issue of neutrality; 11 years earlier he essentially had been labeled the worst thing a ref can be: a homer. Late in a scoreless Game 6 of the 1999 Maple Leafs--Flyers playoff series in Philadelphia, Gregson, who is from Ontario, called an elbowing penalty on Flyers star John LeClair. When Toronto scored on the ensuing power play to eliminate his team, Philadelphia chairman Ed Snider ranted in the home dressing room, assailing Gregson's impartiality while denouncing the call as "a disgrace to the game." When the referee supervisors and IIHF and NHL officials convene in Vancouver before the medal-round games, Gregson opens the meeting by saying, "Will we be using the best or are there political ramifications to our decisions?"
McCreary tries to make himself inconspicuous along the boards, trying to guess Crosby's next move.
Crosby crosses with Iginla, the center lugging the puck toward the hash marks and the right wing dropping to the goal line. There are now crevices in the American defense, a residue of Crosby's determined skating, but he fails to notice an avenue of clear ice from the boards to the middle in which he might have been able to squeeze a pass to Scott Niedermayer or Drew Doughty, the pinching defensemen. The opportunity vanishes. The puck rolls off the blade of Crosby's stick—he hasn't cupped it sufficiently—and ticks the front of his left skate, which pushes it toward the blue line. McCreary thinks about jumping out of the path of the puck but stays planted because if he hops and holds on to the boards, he would hang in no man's land, unable to make it to the net quickly enough to rule on a goal.
In the three seconds since Crosby tried to bully his way past the defensemen, options have been weighed, choices made. Still nothing has alarmed Miller. Rafalski pressures Crosby. Good. Suter wanders to the corner to track Iginla. Well, fine. Parise, a left wing with a mature grasp of positioning, stands sentry outside the crease. In a perfect world Parise would chase the play and a defenseman would take the front of the net, but forwards and defensemen are free to make adjustments. Besides, hockey is an imperfect world.
The kaleidoscope turns. The one-on-four that evolved into a one-on-one is now a four-on-four.
The puck that glances off Crosby's left skate hits McCreary on the inside of the referee's right skate. (Stuff happens. The ref can be an impediment in any game. There are roughly 17,000 square feet of ice surface in Canada Hockey Place and the four officials—two referees and two linesmen—need to be somewhere.) Although McCreary has no idea it has struck his size eight, his skate has killed whatever momentum the puck had been carrying in the slushy residue along the boards. The puck sits there, inert as Monty Python's parrot.
Crosby overskates the dead puck. If an American corrals it—Rafalski appears to be in position to do so—the U.S. can counter three-on-two. Crosby senses the danger. He must make sure the puck does not slip past him. He must shovel it deep, toward Iginla in the corner, before Rafalski closes.
Crosby plants his left skate, unleashing a geyser of snowy spray that flies waist high—frozen testament to the immense power of his legs. The area along the boards looks as if someone has shaken a snow globe. With only his right hand on his stick, Crosby stabs at the puck.
The broken play is mended by Crosby's one-handed lunge, which propels the puck down along the boards to Iginla a foot in front of the extended goal line. Iginla originally thought the battle for the puck would be 50--50, a coin toss, Crosby vs. Rafalski, but the situation turns up heads for Canada because Crosby chips the puck before the defenseman can nudge it in the opposite direction to Langenbrunner, who is about six feet up the boards.
This time, Miller will wryly note later, McCreary lifts his skates and the puck slides past.
Crosby notices Rafalski's momentum has carried him away from the changing flow. He sees Rafalski is flatfooted, which prompts....
Iginla never especially liked the nickname Shane Doan gave him when they played junior hockey in Kamloops, B.C. He thought it sounded soft. Iggy. Like Eggy or something. Of course when your full name is Jarome Arthur-Leigh Adekunle Tij Junior Elvis Iginla, you shouldn't quibble. And if you object whenever a teammate uses a nickname that sounds as if it came from the comics section ... well, that cements it, doesn't it?
Iginla has grown comfortable with his nickname through his 13 years with the Flames. Iginla hears "Iggy" daily. Now he hears "IGGY!!!," ornamented with capital letters and exclamation points. He is planning to spin out of the corner and away from Suter, but the vehemence in Crosby's voice leads him to reconsider. Iginla certainly can differentiate degrees of urgency, and Crosby's yell is imbued with an unmistakable tone of, Get me the puck right now! Iginla's head is down. His eyes are on the puck. But the scream that drifts above the bedlam of 17,748 at Canada Hockey Place—"IGGY!!!" is clearly audible on the replay—demands he shift to a Plan B.
As Iginla suspects, Crosby, pushing off his left skate, has lost Rafalski.
When Crosby was 13 and the best player his age in the world, he met Andy O'Brien, a strength and conditioning coach, at a hockey school in Prince Edward Island. When Crosby was 14, O'Brien moved his business to Halifax. Crosby was his only local client to start. For the past 10 years O'Brien has worked with Crosby on building exceptional core strength. He has trained Crosby to develop hockey-related biomechanical and neurological efficiency. In three sessions over six hours on almost every summer day—90 minutes on the track, 90 minutes of weights and 45 minutes of targeted muscle work interspersed with recovery periods—they nurtured the key elements of first-step speed: low center of gravity, shin forward, weight distribution on a single leg. They trained on unstable surfaces, like balance boards and Bosu balls, to enable Crosby to move his limbs dynamically while stabilizing his spine and pelvis. The result is Crosby's superb hockey haunches, what O'Brien calls his "massive ass." Crosby's obsession with angles (shin, torso, everything) is Euclidian; he forwards to O'Brien action photos of himself torn from magazines and newspapers and asks, "How do my angles look?" After 2,000 hours in O'Brien's company, and innumerable more hours of training on his own, no hockey player can accelerate from a dead stop to 25 mph quite like the bowlegged Crosby.
Sometimes one moment is 2,000 hours in the making.
From his standing start, Crosby gains the edge of the face-off circle to Miller's right before Rafalski appreciably moves off the boards. He approaches the face-off dot before Rafalski gets to the edge of the circle.
The scoreboard clock still reads 12:22.
The recalcitrant puck is spinning, refusing to behave. Iginla struggles to retain control. He is wearing Suter like a size 42 regular. And as Suter is about to check the off-balance Iginla to the ice, the winger flicks the puck across the face-off circle to Crosby, praying he has not reacted too late.
Miller, the Vezina Trophy--winner last season, plays for the Sabres, which means he faces Crosby, the Pittsburgh captain, four times a year in intraconference games. He knows Crosby usually looks at the net when he prepares to shoot. Crosby receives Iginla's pass on his backhand, tape to tape, then moves it to his forehand. Studying Crosby's posture, Miller concludes Crosby is not contemplating a shot. Crosby generally releases the puck with his hands in front of his body, and they are now too far back. With the open lane—Parise is perhaps a step high but still in the play—the goalie expects Crosby to take another lateral stride to the front of the net, dip to his backhand and try to tuck the puck under the crossbar.
Miller shifts his hands on his stick, readying a pokecheck.
Because of his peripheral vision, Crosby knows Miller is relatively deep in his crease. In stories after the gold medal game, Miller's hands are identified as the factors that induce Crosby to shoot. In fact he never sees Miller move them. At first Crosby is not fully aware the goalie even has extended his stick. He rejects the lane to the front of the net not because of the incipient pokecheck but because he expects Parise to cut him off. Unsure of how Miller will play the situation—one pad down? butterfly?—Crosby decides to release a quick shot from the bottom of the circle, aiming low. Five hole or glove side. Either, really.
If Crosby holds the puck for a fraction of a second longer, Miller assumes he can salvage a deteriorating situation. The goalie, who has extended his stick like a man reaching with a broom for a quarter that has rolled under the sofa, thinks he can drop into his butterfly quickly enough to force Crosby to change his shooting angle.
"When he doesn't hold it," Miller says, turning from the computer, "now you know you're screwed."
Miller is late on his butterfly. Five hole. The puck is in the net. Pandemonium. Crosby flings his gloves skyward in a spasm of joy, an emotion that overwhelms rational thought. He is elated not for having scored a goal but for having won a game, even if the two are inextricable. Can you understand? If Crosby can detect the outlines of the big picture ... well, that's all he can see in the blur of celebrating teammates. He knows this is about something larger than one player, no matter how prepared or how gifted. What's the cliché? There's no I in Canada.
Iginla hears rather than sees the goal. He is still on the ice, courtesy of a check by Suter that McCreary considered penalizing, but six months later, with the benefit of stop-rewind-click, knows was a legal play. The hike along the Olympic abyss has worn on Iginla—"We're winning games and everybody's asking, What about Sid? He didn't get a hat trick, he didn't get two goals," he says—but now a wave of relief washes over him. He is a sensitive man, aware of the wide world beyond the Olympic bubble. He knows that no matter what, the sun will rise Monday morning. He also knows that now it will shine that much brighter on a country whose identity is welded to the sport.
Miller, on his knees, hunches over the ice and bows his head.
On a brilliant September afternoon in New York City, after about a half hour of DVD to-and fro, Miller is done. Really, he needed no video prompting. He played the game. Miller had stuffed it into the file cabinet of experience and moved on, although something in his eyes hints those eight seconds never will be far away.
"Right when [Crosby] did what I didn't think he would do, I knew the puck was in," he says. "I didn't get angry. Just disappointed. [What I did] was in-between what I should have done: held my net, the safe thing. But I played the whole tournament pretty aggressive. I just thought if he got in that area, that low, I would be on top of him by the time he figured things out. I probably only watched the replay once, until now. Why should I? I lived it. But history happens. Life goes on, and things unfold. You look back too much, you go crazy."
MCCREARY MUST DECIDE WHETHER TO STAY ALONG THE BOARDS OR DART BEHIND THE NET.
CROSBY ASKS ONLY ONE PLAYER FOR AN AUTOGRAPHED STICK IN VANCOUVER—IGINLA.
CROSBY'S SCREAM DRIFTS ABOVE THE BEDLAM OF 17,748 AT CANADA HOCKEY PLACE. "IGGY!!!"
"RIGHT WHEN CROSBY DID WHAT I DIDN'T THINK HE WOULD DO," SAYS MILLER, "I KNEW THE PUCK WAS IN."
Photograph by ROBERT BECK
A TIME FOR CHOOSING The play takes shape as Crosby (center, in white) bears down on the American net. Iginla (far left) trails the play, while referee McCreary prepares to position himself along the boards. Instead of freezing the puck, goalie Miller decides to push it into the corner to his right.
UNSTOPPABLE Crosby's powerful skating was on full display throughout the play. Here he fights through Suter (left) and Rafalski to chase the loose puck into the corner.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
[See caption above]
LARRY W. SMITH/EPA
TIMING PLAY To position himself for the winning shot, Crosby worked a quick give-and-go with Iginla (12) after the puck stopped against McCreary's skate.
ROOF RAISER Crosby's Olympics had been lackluster until he turned a one-on-four into a moment of national catharsis.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
FLAT WRONG Based on his assessment of Crosby's posture, Miller did not anticipate the shot that would ultimately bring him to his knees.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
GRAND FINALE As the linesman retrieves the puck from the back of Miller's net, Team Canada celebrates. Team USA is left to wonder, What if?