Disappointed and defeated, the U.S. women's hockey team members stood on the ice and watched, once again, as their rivals hurled their gloves in the air and celebrated what was almost theirs. Gold—and hockey itself—still belongs to Canada. And as much progress as U.S. hockey has made, the pivotal losses in Sochi to its neighbor to the north proved as much.
The U.S. men, after employing a bold, aggressive offense throughout the preliminary round, played much of their semifinal against Canada in the fetal position. The women—ahead 2--0 with less than four minutes left—were beaten more by their own self-doubt than by Team Canada. For another Olympics, the U.S. teams were like the little brother and little sister of North American pucks, held at arm's length and swinging at the air.
But younger siblings get older—maybe not as fast as they want to, but they do grow up. Hockey remains a niche sport in most of the U.S., but it has been expanding. The number of registered players over the last 10 years has increased by 14.3% to more than 510,000 nationwide. And exposure and successes at the Olympics help the sport flourish even in states like Alabama and Texas. If the U.S. under-18 boys' teams, winners of four of the last five world championships, offer a window into the future, there may be a day when the U.S. men can overtake Canada.
You could argue that, ignoring the final score at the Bolshoy Ice Dome, that day has already come for the U.S. women. Winners of four of the last five world titles, Team USA dazzled for most of its time in Sochi. Captain Meghan Duggan's wicked shot and forward Amanda Kessel's no-look feeds sparkled, while forward Hilary Knight earned kudos from NHLers on Twitter for a perfect seam pass, threaded through the legs of a defenseman, in the final. The U.S.'s fast and skilled brand of hockey, at times, left Team Canada looking dated.
But in the end you can't ignore the final score. Or the final moments of regulation and overtime, when Team USA let a team that hadn't scored in 56 minutes find the net three times in less than 12. "I think we had the edge in mental toughness," said Canada forward Hayley Wickenheiser after winning her fifth Olympic hockey medal. "We understand the moment and how to deal with big games."
And there was no bigger game than the final in Sochi. Team USA's clashes with Canada are often memorable, but this one was unforgettable. The 35-year-old Wickenheiser called it the most satisfying win of her career. From Knight's shot-pass that set up the second U.S. goal, to Canadian forward Brianne Jenner's power move to the slot that put Canada on the board, the game was a string of stirring moments. One, though, will haunt the U.S. for years to come. With Team USA hugging a one-goal lead with 85 seconds left on the clock, center Kelli Stack swiped at a loose puck in the defensive zone, a Hail Mary toward Canada's empty net. From 116 feet out, she missed the six-foot-wide goalmouth by an inch, the puck bouncing off the post.
In the following minutes, as the U.S. scrambled and took untimely penalties, Canada's Marie-Philip Poulin, who dashed U.S. dreams four years ago with two goals in the gold medal game, struck again (to tie) and then again (to win in OT). The game capped a tournament that showed tremendous growth for the women's game. The format change, which put the U.S. and Canada in the same preliminary group, led to more competitive matches all around; there were seven one-goal games in Sochi, up from four in Vancouver. And for the final, more than 19 million people in North America watched live on TV or a stream.
Still, for the U.S. players it's difficult to make out the silver lining on their silver medals. Most Olympians are thrilled with a medal of any shade, but for the Americans the silver symbolizes their shortcomings instead of their achievements. It's a reminder that their archrivals north of the border have gold—not that Canada has been altogether shy about advertising that fact. In a nation of 35 million couch-bound NHL coaches, hockey gold isn't so much a goal as it is a fulfillment of the country's birthright, Manifest Destiny on Ice. Inventors of the sport, Canadians carve their national identity with skate blades.
If the U.S. proved anything in these three weeks, it's that it has the raw parts to make it to the top. Both the men and the women spoke confidently about their chances. The U.S. men shed the underdog image they rode to silver in 2010, while the women repeatedly told reporters before Sochi it was "gold or bust." It was good posturing, but that confidence melted away in the face of their Canadian foes. Team USA may have said all the right things; the next step will be to truly believe them too.
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Suitcases taken to Sochi by NBC skating commentators Johnny Weir and Tara Lipinski. Their wardrobe included 22 pairs of shoes, 25 blazers, 10 pounds of jewelry and four fur coats. (The coats were all Weir's.)
Positive results out of 2,631 drug tests performed in Sochi—the most extensive testing program in Winter Olympic history. The most notable athlete to get busted was Swedish hockey player Nicklas B√§ckstr√∂m.
Career medals won by Ole Einar Bj√∏rndalen of Norway, making the biathlete—who won two golds in Sochi— the most decorated Winter Olympian in history.
Signatures, as of Monday, on a change.org petition asking the International Skating Union for an "open investigation" and "rejudgment" of the women's competition, in which Russia's Adelina Sotnikova upset reigning Olympic champ Kim Yuna of South Korea.
Years since an American driver won consecutive golds in bobsled. Steve Holcomb, who won the four-man in 2010, settled for the bronze in Sochi.
Curling gold medals won by Canada, the first country to sweep the men's and women's events since the sport was added to the Games, in 1998.
BOB MARTIN FOR SPORTS ILLUSTRATED
JOHN BERRY/GETTY IMAGES (WEIR AND LIPINSKI)
WINAI TEPSUTTINUN/FOTOLIA.COM (SYRINGE)
SOCHI 2014 (MEDAL)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (KIM)
AL TIELEMANS/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (CURLING STONE)
ALEX LIVESEY/GETTY IMAGES (HOLCOMB)