Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Some History, Some Glory, and a Roster: Why You Should Get Behind the 2014 Men's Olympic Hockey Team

Now that the rosters have been announced, let's get down to business.

The History

Ninety-four years ago the Olympic Games brought ice hockey into the fold, and the first round called Antwerp, Belgium home. Seven nations participated in the new-to-the-Games event with the host country bringing up the final-placement rear. France finished sixth, while Switzerland and Sweden fell shy of medaling. Czechoslovakia took the inaugural bronze, and although the United States dispatched of the Swedes, it should come as little surprise that Team Canada blasted the competition en route to the gold. By the time the Winnipeg Falcons -- the all-Icelandic squad representing Canada -- were awarded their championship medal, they had outscored their opponents 29-1.

That first round of Olympic ice hockey occurred in April, but was referred to as summer games. Four years later, when Chamonix, France hosted, it marked the first run of a 70-year tradition in which the Winter Games and Summer Games took place in the same year. As far as ice hockey, the seven nations from the Antwerp Olympics returned to competition and welcomed an eighth club -- Great Britain -- into the fold. The new kid on the block made no bones about being so and returned home with a bronze medal. The United States again took the silver, while Team Canada -- this time known as the Toronto Granites, repeated their domination, burying 132 pucks, while only letting three find their own twine.

The 1928 games took place in St. Moritz, Switzerland, and the hosting nation saw its ice-hockey squad take home the bronze medal. Sweden silvered; Canada continued with its practice of sending already-assembled squads -- this time it was the Toronto Varsity Blues -- to compete on behalf of the nation. En route to their third consecutive gold medal, the Canadians outscored their opponents 38-0. These totals were down as they had a bye into the medal round, but the scope of dominance remained consistent, especially with a cat by the name of Conn Smythe as their bench boss. Allegedly, disagreements among United States ice-hockey administrators resulted in American non-participation in the event that year. New participants included Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Germany.

America returned to the ice in 1932 and did so in fashions both new and old: They hosted their first Winter Games (Lake Placid, New York), and continued their silver-medal-winning trend. Germany earned the bronze medal while Team Canada boasted a fourth-consecutive gold, this time as the Winnipeg Hockey Club, which scored 32 goals and allowed four.

In 1936 the Winter Games were organized by the Sports Office of the Third Reich. They took place in a town called Garmisch-Partenkirchen, a German municipality in the southeastern state of Bavaria. The games were opened by a man named Adolf Hitler. As if those details weren’t dramatic enough, Team Canada was unseated from their golden throne by the British who, in a shocking turn of events, produced a roster comprised of nearly 70 percent of hockey players who had either grown up in Canada or previously played in the great white north. This left the fight for the silver between the U.S. and their northern neighbors; the stars and stripes fell to bronze status after Team Canada slipped a lone goal into the American net to break a scoreless tie.

          The host team had a guy by the name of Rudi Ball on its squad, and his story is unique in that the Berlin-born, eight-time German champion did not make the initial roster for the ’36 games because of his Jewish faith. When word spread that a non-Jewish friend and teammate would refuse to play without Ball suiting up for Team Germany, the Nazis invited Ball to play. Though the Germans fell to fifth place after Ball was injured, the lone Jew for the Third Reich’s club attained a personal victory by securing a deal for his family’s safe passage from the country.

Nazi Germany hosting the 1936 games was not without foreshadowing: Sapporo, Japan had been awarded the subsequent winter event, but when the host-nation-to-be invaded China, the location was slated to return to the same Bavarian town of the previous Olympics. This, too, was nixed when Poland was invaded by the alternate-host nation. World War II’s reach forced a second cancellation of Winter Olympics as well, scratching Cortina D’Ampezzo, Italy from the 1944 ledger.

As we all learned in history class, Switzerland remained neutral, and as a result, St. Moritz found itself hosting the first post-war games in 1948. The United States hockey outfit outdid their embarrassment of 16 years prior, this time in the form of larger-scale confusion. Regardless of the fact that Team Canada had historically dominated the Olympic-ice-hockey competition with quote/unquote professional squads, a lack of clarity in terms of what caliber of player would be allowed hovered over this particular hockey tournament. So America sent two teams to Switzerland, one of a relatively amateur ability, the other closer to a professional level.

This conundrum almost caused the tournament’s cancellation, but the ultimate decision resulted in the amateur squad marching in the opening ceremony. The roster of professionals was allowed to compete on the ice, but with a slight asterisk: They would not be ranked; nor could they medal. In short, they were disqualified. For those left to contend for the championship, Czechoslovakia edged out the Swiss for the silver. Canada outscored their opponents 69-5 for another gold.

Oslo, Norway almost didn’t host the 1952 Winter Olympic hockey tournament when it was decided -- a year prior to the games -- that hockey as a sport would be dropped from the Games. This decision stemmed from the amateurism controversy from the 1948 Games in Switzerland, but the International Olympic Committee, in its Romanian-based congressional meeting, allowed hockey to remain on the ledger. If ever there was an example of irony, it is here: Team Canada -- represented by the Edmonton Mercurys -- took home the gold. The United States again regained its silver throne, leaving Sweden to wear bronze medals. These games marked the return of a German squad to the ice, and it should be noted that the tournament champions outscored their opponents by a margin of 71-14.

Italy finally got its chance to host when the 1956 Winter Games were played in Cortina D’Ampezzo. These games were not unique to the inconsistent theme of oddity that smattered the first 30 years of Olympic hockey competition. For starters, the division of Germany into two factions had fortified. Many differences separated the factions and any effort to produce an Olympic hockey squad was no exception. So they played each other, and the victorious West German squad advanced to the ’56 games. Secondly, the Soviet Union participated in its first Games, and in overall competition, won more medals than any other nation. They also took the gold in ice hockey. The United States delivered its token silver-medal performance, and in doing so, handed Canada -- The Kitchener-Waterloo Dutchmen -- a tasty schadenfreude sandwich with a side of bronze-fried potatoes. It should be noted that the Dutchmen -- a professional ice-hockey team -- were the last previously established club to represent Canada in the Olympic tournament.

Nineteen-sixty saw the Winter Games return to the United States, and this time the site was on the west coast. Squaw Valley, California to be exact. The opening and closing ceremonies did not involve Adolf Hitler, but rather were produced by Walt Disney. These games had three primary firsts: the use of computer-generated scores, the existence of an athletes’ village, and a gold-medal ice-hockey victory by the United Fucking States of America. Nine teams competed in the tournament, including newcomers Australia and Japan. Absent from competition were Italy, Austria, Poland, and Switzerland. Absent from Team U.S.A.’s roster was a guy by the name of Herb Brooks, who was cut one week prior to the commencement of these Games. For those keeping score at home: Canada won the silver; the Soviet Union claimed the bronze.

Four years later, in Innsbruck, Austria, the ice-hockey tournament grew to its largest size to date with 16 nations in competition. Australia bowed out (via dual destruction at the hands of the Japanese in qualification), and naturally Austria returned, as did Switzerland, Italy, Hungary, and Poland. The 1964 games welcomed Romania and Yugoslavia to their first Olympic ice-hockey tournaments. Medalists for these games went as such: the Soviet Union won the gold; Sweden silvered; and Czechoslovakia wound up with the bronze. Of interest: 1) East and West Germany played each other for the third and final time -- West Germany holds the all-time edge, 4-0-1 -- in qualification, and 2) mystery injected itself between the end of competition and the beginning of the medal ceremony, resulting in a change in the way scoring was tallied.

This had one effect on the outcome: Czechoslovakia became the bronze-medal winner instead of Canada. It should be noted that Canada did not approve of this shift, and a decision was reached 41 years later when the International Ice Hockey Federation did not vote in favor of Canada’s appeal to have that bronze medal from the ’64 games given to them. They were, however, offered a consolation prize in the form hot karma kebobs prepared by non-professional culinary specialists. The United States finished fifth in Innsbruck.

Grenoble, France hosted the 1968 games, and this tournament consisted of 14 participants. More change was at hand as qualification expanded in significance: the lowest of the low seeds would not be awarded the opportunity for medal contention and would instead be placed in the consolation bracket. In this case, Japan, Austria, and France were those seeds, and it was a head-hanger for the hosts, who not only did not win a game, but only managed nine goals across five games while letting in the better part of three dozen. These Games featured three athletes’ villages, the debut of Olympic Games in color broadcast, as well as a two-million-dollar price tag on the broadcast rights. The Soviet Union again took the gold medal. Czechoslovakia was kind enough to earn the silver so that Canada could have that bronze action. The United States finished sixth, just ahead of seventh-place West Germany and eighth-place East Germany.

It only took a 32-year delay, but Sapporo, Japan finally got its opportunity to host in 1972. Again the I.O.C. faced issues of amateurism as the first non-American, non-European Winter Games host city prepared for its opening ceremony. This affected the ice-hockey tournament in two primary ways: 1) Teams with communist regimes did not differentiate between amateurs and professionals when concocting rosters, leaving, in particular, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakian squads as early favorites to dominate, and 2) Canada was boycotting because they could not send professionals. In the end, 11 of 14 qualifying nations participated, and few were surprised to see the Soviet Union win gold again. The unexpected, however, came when the United States snuck past Czechoslovakia for a return to the once-familiar silver-medal slot.

The ’76 Winter Games returned in Innsbruck, Austria after the originally scheduled host -- Denver, Colorado -- saw its state opt to not vote in favor of public funding for Games preparation. Domination was again expected by the Soviet and Czech squads, and domination was delivered as they took the gold and silver, respectively. The big surprise at Innsbruck the sequel was the effort put forth by West Germany, who snuck out of Austria with a bronze medal. The United States slipped to the fifth-place spot while the Team Canada stayed at home, still sporting cranky pants about the whole professional-player thing. Perhaps the great white north should’ve taken up Communism as a hobby. Speaking of consolation, Japan finished right behind Romania and Austria (seven out of 12 overall) with a 20-18 goal margin, a suggestion that the Japanese hockey program had advanced.

Lake Placid, New York was of course the site of the 1980 Winter Games. It would be redundant to spend much time with this ice-hockey tournament. A few notes, however: 1) The American victory over the Soviet Union was not the medal-deciding game; the U.S.’ 4-2 win over Finland two days later was the victory that claimed gold for the United States for the second and only time in Olympic-hockey history. The Soviets did, however, take the silver medal, with Sweden clinching the bronze, the latter of which hinged heavily on a preliminary-round win by Poland over Finland. Czechoslovakia finished fifth behind Finland, with Canada in sixth. Japan fell to the bottom (12th), and another surprise of the tournament was the lone Olympic ice-hockey appearance from the Netherlands, who finished ninth, just ahead of West Germany.

Sapporo, Japan appeared poised to receive a make-up-call host appointment of sorts, and their top competitor for the 1984 Winter Games was Gothenburg, Sweden. Both were surprised when Sarajevo, Yugoslavia won the bid. In terms of standings, it was a return to business as usual when the Soviets won gold, and the Czechs earned the silver. Sweden repeated with a consecutive bronze, keeping pesky Canada at bay by a two-point margin. Fresh off of their miraculous victory, the United States did not advance to the medal round, falling 4-2 to Canada, 4-1 to Czechoslovakia, and flanking a victory over Austria by ties against Norway and Finland. They finished in seventh behind West Germany and Finland.

Those fourth-place Canadians got to host a Winter Games, and Calgary, Alberta was the spot in 1988. Not much to mention beyond medals -- Soviet Union, Finland, Sweden -- and Canada (sticking with fourth place), West Germany, and Czechoslovakia bringing up the latter half of the top six. In failing to qualify for the medal round again, the United States dropped games against Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union, and West Germany, while defeating Austria and Norway, culminating in a seventh-place finish.

The 1992 Winter Games were apparently in Albertville, France. Noteworthy of these Olympics: 1) The competitions took place in a post-Communism, post-Berlin Wall, single-Germany setting; 2) Yugoslavia was no more; in its place appeared Croatia and Slovenia; and 3) A large portion of former-Soviet regions appeared and competed as the Unified Team. It was said Unified Team that not unsurprisingly won gold in the ice-hockey tournament. Canada took advantage of all of the political shifts and snuck out of France with the silver medal, and Czechoslovakia quietly won the bronze. The United States finished in fourth place, and Denmark tried to sneak into the mix, too, but lost twice to Poland in qualification.

The aforementioned 70-year tradition was snapped after the Albertville Games, and instead of having both Winter and Summer Games every four years, the Olympics adopted the current model of having the two Games occur within two years of each other. The result was that Winter is still every four, Summer is still every four, but instead of a ton of Olympics at once every four years, you get a little bit of Olympics every two. So, after the ’92 Games in Albertville came the ’94 Games in Lillehammer, Norway.

Two other general notes about this set of Winter Games: 1) During the year in between the Games in France and the Games in Norway, Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, which is basically just saying that they went from a six-syllable country to two four-syllable countries. Thanks a lot, Czechoslovakia. 2) The Lillehammer Games involved Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding. Anyway, Sweden, Canada, and Finland took the medals, and the United States fell all the way to eighth.

Nineteen-ninety-eight took the Winter Games to Nagano, Japan. Prior to these Games, qualification expanded again. Nineteen teams were broken into four groups: (A) consisted of Switzerland, Great Britain, Denmark, Slovenia, and the Netherlands; in (B) was Ukraine, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and Yugoslavia; (C) included Belarus, Latvia, Hungary, Estonia, and Lithuania; while (D) comprised Kazakhstan, Japan, China, and South Korea. This was deemed Regional Pre-Qualification. Switzerland, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan advanced to Final Olympic Qualification, which saw Switzerland and Ukraine placed in one group with Germany and Slovakia (the latter two advanced); and Belarus and Kazakhstan were placed in a group with Austria and Norway (the former two advanced). Then for some reason, Austria played Switzerland (and won) for the final spot in Preliminary Round.

Winners from the Preliminary Round were added to new A, B, C, and D groups, and all of that ultimately meant that things were more competitive now, especially because the National Hockey League took a break from their regular season for the first time in an effort to let the best of the best participate. In other words, Canada finally got its wish. Although initially thought to go far, the United States fell to sixth and some players infamously trashed their hotel rooms. The Czech Republic won gold, while Russia claimed the silver, and Finland accepted bronze. Canada, another early favorite, finished fourth.

The Winter Games returned to the United States in 2002, and Provo, Utah was the host. Fourteen teams competed but it was the final round that provided all of the excitement: Russia squeaked past the Czech Republic; the U.S. shut out Germany; Canada edged Finland; and Belarus handled the Swedes. In the Semi-Finals, Canada blew out Belarus, and the United States met Russia on the 22nd anniversary of the Lake Placid tilt between the two nations. The U.S. emerged victorious for a gold-medal showdown with Canada. The contest generated a then-highest television ratings for a hockey game since the ’80 games, but the United States fell 5-2. Russia wound up with the bronze.

Turin, Italy hosted the 2006 Winter Games, and American hockey fans were left coated in disappointment. Canadian fans didn’t feel much better as their squad finished seventh, one spot ahead of the United States. Sweden won the gold that year, while Finland silvered, and the Czech Republic took home the bronze.

Four years ago it was Canada’s turn to host, and Vancouver, British Columbia got the nod. By the time the medal rounds arrived, the United States met Finland while Canada faced Slovakia. The results netted another Canada-U.S. gold-medal game. The U.S. pulled their goalie with 1:27 left and Zach Parise tied the game at 2-2 with 0:25 remaining. In overtime, Sidney Crosby beat Ryan Miller for the gold-medal win. Finland went home with the bronze.

The Roster

On Defense

John Carlson

This fifth-year NHLer mans the Washington Capital blue line with tenacity and his minus-two rating with a mere 12 PIMs suggest he means business in doing so. Hailing from Natick, Massachusetts, Carlson’s Caps are five games above .500 and their eyes are set on the Metropolitan Divison-leading Pittsburgh Penguins. As an alternate captain for Team U.S.A. in the 2010 World Junior Ice Hockey Championship, he netted the overtime game winner to beat Canada, his second tally of the contest. So, uh, braggin’ rights. Follow the 23-year-old on Twitter here.

Justin Faulk

This Minnesotan is a mere 21 years old, in his third year in the league, and through 40 games with the Carolina Hurricanes this season, he’s averaging over 24 minutes per game. With three goals and 13 helpers, Faulk sits at a negative-seven and has 24 PIMs. His club sits a game under .500 in the Metropolitan Division, and if I had to guess, I’d say -- aside from making it to the NHL -- Faulk’s claim to fame would be being a part of the 2010-11 National Collegiate Athletic Association ice-hockey championship he and his University of Minnesota-Duluth teammates earned. The Carolina d-man measures an even six feet and weighs 215 pounds. He occasionally tweets here.

Cam Fowler

Like Paul Stastny four years ago, Mr. Fowler has dual citizenship. And like Paul Stastny four years ago, Mr. Fowler elects to play for Team USA. I like this about him, and it even helps that he broke his letter of intent with the University of Notre Dame. The Anaheim Ducks nabbed him in the first round of the 2010 draft, and have enjoyed his services since. Through 42 games this season, Fowler has scored four times and assisted on 21. He’s a plus-10 at the midway point and has generated eight PIMs. He’s averaging a hair under 24 minutes of ice time per game. The 6’1” southpaw weighs in at just under two bills, and, well, he’s pretty new to Twitter.

Paul Martin

This defenseman is a Pittsburgh Penguin, but I won’t hold that against him. He did log six seasons with the New Jersey Devils to start his NHL career, and he will be one of the most-experienced veterans on the USA squad. He hails from Minnesota and helped his University of Minnesota squad win consecutive NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003. While named to both the 2006 and 2010 Olympic squads, he did not net any playing time in Turin, and was injured for the Vancouver Games. Through 23 games this year he has two goals, nine assists, eight PIMs, and plus/minus of negative-one.

Ryan McDonagh

This Minnesotan was drafted by the Montreal Canadiens in 2007, but a few years later the rights to him were traded to the New York Rangers. Through 41 games with New York this season, he has generated six goals and 17 assists. His club sits a game above .500 and he has amassed eight PIMs and a negative-four on the plus/minus. He’s semi-active onTwitter and played college hockey at the University of Wisconsin.

Brooks Orpik

You shouldn’t hate Brooks Orpik because he plays for the Pittsburgh Penguins. You should like him because he brings a lot to the table, i.e. two NCAA championships with Boston College, a relationship with USA Coach Dan Bylsma, and, well, he averaged 17 minutes per game for Team USA at the 2010 Vancouver Games. At 33 he’s a touch long in the tooth, but he’s amassed eight points, is a plus-four, and has racked up 12 PIMs for Pittsburgh through 34 games this season. He is not apparently fond of the idea of Twitter. But don’t hate him for that, either.

Kevin Shattenkirk

Shatt Deuces might be the best Twitter handle by a professional athlete out there. Moreover, Kevin Shattenkirk might be the most valuable defenseman to Team USA in Sochi. And yes, it was very easy for me to type that sentence, based on a) facts, and b) my huge bias. Shattenkirk logged three impressive seasons at Boston University, including a championship in the 2008-09 season. He started his pro career with the Colorado Avalanche but became a key part of one of the quietest blockbuster trades in recent NHL history, a move that sent Shattenkirk and Chris Stewart to the St. Louis Blues in exchange for Erik Johnson, Jay McClement, and a future consideration. With 28 points through 38 games, Shattenkirk is a plus-nine for the blues, and has 14 PIMs. He also has three goals and 12 assists on the power play, which may mean little in Sochi, but you can bet he’ll be a part of that unit.

Ryan Suter

In Suter, we get more Olympic experience for the 2014 squad, and then there’re the numbers: four assists and team highs in both plus/minus (nine) and average ice time (22:50/game) as an alternate captain for Team USA in Vancouver. That’s what I call some high-quality veteran leadership. The Madison, Wisconsin native is, in my buddy JasonFisher’s terminology, in the prime of his career, at age 28. He’s logging nearly 30 minutes a game for the Minnesota Wild this season, and has 24 points, 18 PIMs. This guy will man the blue line with the best of them. His unverified Twitter account appears pretty quiet, but if you’re so inclined.

At Forward

David Backes

It’s always a major challenge to try and pinpoint my favorite St. Louis Blue, but T.J. Oshie and Barret Jackman are always in the conversation. So is David Backes. I could easily make equal cases for either three, but the argument for Backes speaks for itself. He’s the captain, he puts pucks in the net, and he’ll knock you around if you’re hanging out in the wrong neighborhood at the wrong time. It’s no surprise that many of these cats come from Minnesota, and Backes was not only born in Minnesota, but he thrice matriculated at Minnesota State. Backes didn’t log a ton of time at the Vancouver Games, but he did generate a game-winning goal and two assists through the six contests. Through 35 games with a Blue Note on his jersey this season, he’s compiled 30 points, 70 PIMs, and is a plus-11. Six of his goals are on the power play and he’s logging just under 20 minutes a game. Follow him and his warm/fuzzy dog foundation here.
Dustin Brown

The list of teams I hate appears to grow with every Stanley Cup-less St. Louis Blues season, and for reasons I shouldn’t have to mention to any hockey fan, the Los Angeles Kings have solidly positioned themselves in the top three. I used to dig them, back in the Andy Murray days, and when Luc Robitaille was a fixture there. And I still like them in comparison to the other professional sports teams in L. A., but boy do I currently loathe them. But that’s okay. Once every four years I take time off of hating teams more successful than mine, and if you’re American-born and a strong enough player to have your named penciled in to the Team USA roster, then I’ll root for you. Mr. Brown brings Olympic experience to Sochi, and in all honesty, he’s a freaking bear. He wears the ‘C’ for the Kings, and two years ago, became only the second American captain to hoist Lord Stanley’ coveted chalice. As much as it pains me, I’m eager to cease my hatred for the guy so that I can cheer for him and his teammates. Peep his Twitter profile here.

Ryan Callahan

The 5’11”, 190-pounder has been on Injured Reserve since December 11, and will likely be unavailable for Olympic action. He logged an average of nine minutes a game in Vancouver, netting an assist through the three contests. This is his eighth season in the NHL, and he’s played all of them with the New York Rangers.

Patrick Kane

With every effort to avoid the idea of hating NHLers that give my Blues fits, the presence of Patrick Kane on the Team USA roster pulls things in the opposite direction. If you were to compile your American ice-hockey Olympic squad without Kane on it, you would probably be committed to a low-security mental-health facility. He’s probably the best single piece of talent on the entire squad, and what he brings to the ice is immeasurable. I could go on for days about his ability to play at the highest levels during the biggest moments of the most-important games, but instead consider this: At age 25, the Buffalo, New York native has already won two Stanley Cups, silvered in an Olympics, and, through 42 games this season with the confounded Chicago Blackhawks, he’s amassed 53 points (23 goals, 30 assists). The Olympic experience he’ll bring to Sochi -- three goals and two assists in the Vancouver Games -- can only be summarized as invaluable. Kaner’s Twitter profile.

Ryan Kesler

Kesler comes from Livonia, Michigan, and has played all 619 games of his NHL career in a Vancouver Canuck uniform. At age 29, he’s off to a great start in 2013, having scored 15 times and assisted on 12. He logs over 22 minutes a game, brings Olympic experience to the table, scoring twice in the Vancouver Games. He brings a grit to a roster that will take every bit of it it can get, but he also adds special-teams smarts and a wicked wrist shot to the mix. Follow him on Twitter if you’re so inclined.

Phil Kessel

This guy's from Madison, Wisconsin, stands an even six foot, and weights a hair over 200 pounds. Translated, he’s a beast when it comes to forwards. Drafted by the Boston Bruins, he has logged most of his NHL games in a Toronto Maple Leafs uniform. In Vancouver, he tallied two points through six games, and already has 37 points across 41 contests for the Leafs. You can check out his Twitter profile here, but don’t get in his way in the slot; he will mow you down.

T.J. Oshie

Mount Vernon, Washington is home to this awesome St. Louis Blue that shares a birthday with my daughter. Other awesomeness about him: He spent three seasons in a North Dakota Fighting Sioux sweater and put up some super-dope numbers as a student-athlete. The 27-year-old was drafted by the Blues in 2005, and, barring injury, will set a career high in points this season. One of my favorite things about Oshie is his ability to deliver the reverse check, and I’m certain he’ll utilize this technique in Sochi. Follow him on Twitter if you please.

Max Pacioretty

Seven years ago, the Montreal Canadiens drafted this kid out of New Canaan, Connecticut. He’s 25 years old, and through 32 games this season, he’s already scored 17 times. He’s putting in roughly 18 minutes of work per game, and he’ll likely make a nice third- or fourth-line addition in Sochi. He doesn’t appear to tweet, but has acquired a few followers.

Zach Parise

If somebody not named Zach Parise was Team USA’s most valuable player in the Vancouver Games, then I’m doing it wrong. Both he and Brian Rafalski tallied four goals and four assists in the 2010 Olympics, and actually, Rafalski logged more playing time than Parise. Going strictly from memory, however, I recall Parise's name being called time and again, whether it was clearing a puck at a crucial moment, or, delivering, as I mentioned, one of the biggest goals in American Olympic hockey history:

For fun, here're these bar-crowd reactions to the equalizer:

Parise was a New Jersey Devil when the Vancouver games took place, and he’s in the middle of his second season with the Minnesota Wild. He’s tallied 27 points through 37 games this season, and this campaign marks the third straight in which he’s averaged 20 minutes per game. The 29-year-old Minneapolis native is apparently on Twitter, but far from active.

Joe Pavelski

More Olympic experience will join Team USA in Sochi as this 29-year-old Wisconsin native returns to international action. Joe Pavelski has spent all eight of his NHL seasons with the San Jose Sharks, and with 37 points through 41 games, will likely have set a number of career highs by the time this season concludes. There’s this for whatever it’s worth, but more importantly, Pavelski tallied three assists in Vancouver, and contributed over 12 minutes of playing time per game.

Paul Stastny

The deeper we get in the alphabet, the more Olympic experience we see with Team USA. Paul Stastny is no exception. Stastny has spent all eight of his NHL seasons with the Colorado Avalanche, and has amassed 25 points through 37 games this season. In Vancouver, he played over 16 minutes a game, scoring once and assisting twice. Follow him on Twitter here.

Derek Stepan

A right-handed shot from Hastings, Minnesota, Derek Stepan is gainfully employed by the New York Rangers. After two seasons at the University of Wisconsin, Stepan left school for the NHL and has yet to miss a game in his professional career. He’s got 25 points through 41 games this year, and is averaging upwards of 20 minutes per game. It’s hard to imagine more hype for any other Team USA forward, and at 23 years old, Stepan has the youth to deliver on said hype. He’s a pretty big fan of sharing pictures on Twitter.

James van Riemsdyk

Hailing from Middletown, New Jersey, “JVR” left the University of New Hampshire after two years, and was selected by the Philadelphia Flyers (second overall) in the first round of the 2007 NHL draft. I’m the farthest thing from a professional-hockey executive, but I’ve never understood why the Flyers traded van Riemsdyk to the Toronto Maple Leafs, where he’s enjoyed remarkable success, including 14 goals and 15 assists through 39 games this season. The 24-year-old is all but guaranteed to be productive for the United States in Sochi. He looks to be a solid follow on Twitter.

Blake Wheeler

At age 27, Blake Wheeler, from Robbinsdale, Minnesota, is already playing for his third NHL team. After stints in Boston and Atlanta, Wheeler joined the Winnipeg Jets, and has arguably played the best hockey of his professional career since joining the team. Originally drafted by the Phoenix Coyotes, Wheeler spent three seasons in a University of Minnesota Golden Gophers sweater. He’s up there with Shattenkirk in the creative-Twitter-handle department.

Between the Pipes

Jimmy Howard

Born in Syracuse, New York, Jimmy Howard logged three seasons at the University of Maine, where the Black Bears were one goal shy of obtaining the NCAA title. He’s logged seven full seasons with the Detroit Redwings, and in his eighth, he’s earned six wins in 22 tries. His squad has managed to stay four games above .500 in their new digs, the Eastern Conference’s Atlantic Division, and although I’m happy for the guy, I can’t imagine he’ll see any action in Sochi. It’s nice for the guy that he beat out a few other NHL goaltenders, but my hunch is that his two other netminding buddies will shore up the duties.

Ryan Miller

Netminding will perhaps be the most important element for Team USA if they want to claim their first Olympic gold medal in 34 years, and Ryan Miller as a starting point is as good as it gets. He was phenomenal in Vancouver but will have to be even better in Sochi. The 33-year-old from East Lansing, Michigan continues to stop pucks for the Buffalo Sabres, and through 28 contests this season, he’s only been able to post 10 wins. He’s got a .927 save percentage and a 2.69 Goals Against Average. One has to believe those numbers would be better were he not the starting goaltender for the worst team in the NHL. You know the drill.

Jonathan Quick

Jonathan Quick was also inVancouver, and although he did not see any live action, the argument could be made for most-improved goalie of the three (Quick, Miller, and Tim Thomas) that represented Team USA in the 2010 Games. The Milford, Connecticut native is 27 years old, and has posted more-than-solid numbers since Vancouver, including winning a Stanley Cup with the 2012 Los Angeles Kings. He’s only seen action in 16 games this season, but has won 10 of them. You can follow him on Twitter, but above all you should know that, for that championship Kings team, he won a little thing called the Conn Smythe Trophy.

For the Glory

The Ancient Greeks had a term that, in modern-day terminology, translates to euphoria. Old fuddy-duddies like myself might say goose bumps. Nelly refers to it as pimp juice. Call it what you will, it can be summarized by a line I heard on sports-talk radio a few weeks ago: Sports (and sports fans) “are the last bastion of civic pride.”

Think about that for a minute.

You could make the argument for many cities, and, to a smaller degree, some towns, but Kansas City is, in my opinion, the perfect example. When it comes to the NFL, we band together over our Chiefs. But look through the college-sports glass, and we’ll tear each other apart over elements of the KU/MU variety. I wrote about this example, but it maybe resonates a little less these days with Mizzou having shifted to the Southeastern Conference.

Four years ago, the thing’s strength polarized, and when I wrote that piece, we were only a month removed from the Vancouver Games. Whether or not you followed Team USA’s path to the gold-medal game against Canada, you rooted with passion as a Missouri fan for whatever team Kansas faced. You made mild distinctions (and jokes) when separating football from basketball, and on the other end of the spectrum, Kansas fans chided the Mizzou faithful’s exuberance, decried their lack of championships. Then, in repeated fits of instant amnesia, we would bond in hatred of the Raiders, the Chargers, and -- if you’re anybody who knows anything -- above all the Denver Broncos.

On the surface it might not look like it, but peel away a few layers and there’s significant fluidity to that dichotomy. Kansas natives move to Missouri. Missourians who start families move to the Kansas side. Siblings attend rival schools and teams, nowadays, change conferences. At the pro level, frustration has caused some to shed their lifelong fandom and hop on the bandwagon for a more successful franchise. Some simply abandon their former sport of choice. Families relocate, and sometimes, so do teams. Get down to the core of who we all are, though, and you might spell out “M-I-Z” on fall Saturdays, you may offer guttural rock-chalk chants at Allen Field House, and you probably bury your differences to Tomahawk Chop together on Sundays. But the red, the white, and the blue inside each of us trumps it all.

The reasons why you should be fired up for these Games might be transparent, but that matters very little. This country shouldn’t need motivation to get together and bond over a team sport, but it does. Think of everything that has happened in America in the last 14 years. Much of it generated internal strife and conflict. George W. Bush beat Al Gore in a controversial election in 2000, and when he was re-elected in 2004, he won by the narrowest margin an incumbent president has ever experienced. In the interim, of course, was September 11.

We saw our president denounce gay marriage in January of 2004, and a month later, the first licensed gay marriage in America took place. We’ve seen massacres take place at educational institutions (Virginia Tech, 2007 and Newtown, 2012, to name a couple). We went to war in 2002, were saddened and embarrassed by Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. Barrack Obama was elected in 2008, re-elected two years ago, and in the interim was quasi-responsible for the capture/murder of Osama bin Laden. We’ve had sniper shootings, court cases, i.e. Trayvon Martin, ObamaCare, and one of the worst recessions in United States history. There was the Boston Marathon bombing, and far too many other acts of senseless violence to list. And the sad truth about all of those things is that they represent ways in which our country and culture either progresses or regresses, dependent upon your point of view. The two exceptions were tragedies involving massive attacks against Americans on our home soil.

What, besides those two exceptions, has unified us?

The only thing I can think of is Michael Phelps and his successes in Beijing, 2008, and in London, 2012.

It’s no coincidence that it’s sports, and even less so that it’s the Olympics. National unification, in my opinion, was and is the sole reason behind the modern Olympic Games. It’s a common ground, a competition for which constituents of countries can “join together with the band.” And we simply don’t do enough of it. No nation should bond solely in the afterthought of tragedy. One as strong as ours should be mentally, emotionally, and spiritually equipped to do so for an assortment of reasons. And here’s the problem with us rooting for Michael Phelps: Swimming is an individual sport.

            I don’t have a problem with Phelps, and I’m a fan of swimming. I’ve done my fair share of it competitively, and when I’m motivated enough to exercise, it’s my choice of cardio. I like that there was massive support of Phelps’ achievements actually in China and in England, as well as on sofas in front of televisions and in barstools here in the United States. I thought it was great. And I haven’t forgotten that he participated in a number of medleys, but at the root of all of those races were individuals trying to do better as individuals, and somehow that was supposed to represent interstate pride.

The reason I have a beef with that is because, a lot of times, it feels like that’s what we’ve become: a huge population of individuals. LinkedIn prompts us to congratulate our connections on their new jobs. Folks take to Facebook to complain about the weather or to celebrate the anniversary of their union to another person. And don’t get me started on birthdays. At its principle, the idea of taking an entire day to celebrate your own personal entry into the world is annoying at best. But anymore, certain -- cough -- segments of society -- cough, cough, females, cough -- have turned the festivity into a birthday week.

I know there are people out their working with troubled youth and mentoring victims of abuse. I’m aware that philanthropy lives on, that people volunteer for stuff, that Occupy movements -- obnoxious as they can sometimes appear -- stand for positive change. Or at least, at one point they meant to. It just seems that that stuff gets a small amount of publicity, that we tend to channel our energy into self-promotion and the sorts of investments that yield some form of personal return. I of course recognize the irony in venting about this in a blog that publishes posts on a self-named Uniform Resource Locator. And I don’t, for even a second, want to imply that I’m out there doing all this good in the world, that I’m any less selfless than the average person, because I’m not.

My whole point is that I think -- silly as it might sound -- that getting behind…I mean, really getting behind Team USA’s men’s hockey team at the Olympics is the best kernel available for popping a representation of the better nation we could be. And I say “men’s” because it’s the better product, the one that will probably get more attention and perhaps better time slots. For the record, the United States women’s Olympic hockey club has had more success than the men’s over the last 16 years, medaling at all four Games, but I’m a firm believer in baby steps, and in this case, baby steps means (at least) starting with supporting the men’s team.

Maybe it’s utopian of me, but it seems like pulling together as a country to root for an athletic competition that embodies the notion of team sport resonates with both the spirit of the Olympics and becoming a better culture and nation. It doesn’t matter if you’re a hockey fan or not. You can learn the game’s basics by paying attention to one or two entire games. Consider this then, your official challenge to don your Team USA spirit and get behind the boys wearing red, white, and blue.

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