FOR THE FIRST TIME SINCE 1994, THE NHL WON'T PARTICIPATE IN THE OLYMPIC GAMES, SO WE WONDERED WHAT WOULD HAVE HAPPENED IN A TRUE BEST-ON-BEST TOURNAMENT. THE WINNERS? HOCKEY FANS AND ...
HE BECAME an American icon with a single snap of the wrist, but Auston Matthews will need more practice if he ever wants to make American Idol. As the star-spangled banner rose at Gangneung Hockey Centre following the U.S.'s stunning 4--3 gold medal victory over Canada, mikes caught the 20-year-old center belting out the national anthem. "I was standing next to him," said teammate James van Riemsdyk. "It was brutal. More like Francis Scott off-Key, am I right?"
It wasn't simply that Team USA stayed sharp and the Canadians went flat. The Americans' improbable path in PyeongChang was marked throughout by bright stars (Johnny Gaudreau scored a team-high five goals; Cory Schneider sparkled with a .969 save percentage) who shone from dawn's early light (round-robin wins over Slovenia and the Russians began around 7 a.m. EST) to twilight's last gleaming. As 2 a.m. neared in Toronto—where a frosty reception no doubt awaits him upon his return to the Maple Leafs—Matthews barreled across the opposing blue line, less than a minute into overtime. O, say, can you ... hear the beauty in Doc Emrick's call?
Matthews in all alone ... forehand ... backhand ... He SCORES!
Like Al Michaels asking about our faith in the supernatural, those words will ring for generations. Since that fateful February in 1980, the U.S. men have earned just two silvers, the most recent coming eight years ago in Vancouver at the hands of Canada captain Sidney Crosby's sudden-death winner. But a new era is cresting, marked by speed, creativity and, most important, youth.
No, the skill gap at PyeongChang wasn't nearly as cavernous as when Herb Brooks's boys toppled the Soviets at Lake Placid, but this was still Team Canada. (John Tavares as the third-line center? Blueliners P.K. Subban and Shea Weber on the bottom pair? Ridiculous.) As such, an hour after tying the final at 3--3 on a late power-play goal, U.S. winger Phil Kessel was still shaking his head, "I still can't believe it. We beat the Canadians."
Down the hall the mood was dour. No doubt that Canada would be favored in a seven-game series—any interest in further delaying the regular season, commissioner Bettman?—though that notion offered no consolation. Nor did the two crossbars pinged by Crosby in the second period; the 45 saves by Schneider; the blocked shot that sprung Matthews free as the clock ticked down.
Luckily, the tournament hosts were much sunnier. South Korea never stood a chance in its three group stage games, but its faithful fans were briefly elated upon taking a 1--0 lead over Canada, when a puck got lost in Brent Burns's beard and suddenly reappeared behind goalie Carey Price. Fewer than 3,000 hockey players are registered in Korea, but for two weeks nation and sport proved a perfect match. When Jaromir Jagr cameoed with the sixth-place Czech Republic, stores in the MyeongDong shopping district sold out of mullet wigs. And instead of guzzling his usual midgame Coca-Cola, winger Alex Ovechkin slogged down Pocari Sweat, the popular sports drink that tastes like it sounds.
Television numbers in the States were erratic, a predictable result given the time difference, but the late-night, all-North America final became a ratings bonanza and another instant Olympic classic. And to think: This all would have been a fantasy had it not been for secret 11th-hour negotiations between the IOC and the NHL, brokered by the NHL Players' Association.
As Matthews stood on the ice, stealing kisses of his precious medal, he whispered, "This almost feels too good to be true."