February 11, 2014

Olympic Hockey Brings Out Friendly Rivalry

By Carly Grimaudo 
Special to GoHolyCross.com 

This weekend kicked off the start of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia when the world's top ranked athletes flocked to the XXII Olympic Winter Games and their fans and supporters flocked to the front of their television screens to watch them begin their quest to top the podium. Whether one is from the United States, as far East as New Zealand or anywhere in between, the Olympics, both winter and summer, symbolize a time of widespread unification; they represent a time to come together as a nation and express the utmost nationalism one has in their being. Here in America, pride and patriotism ring out from the Northern tips of Maine, down to the most southern parts of California as we all sit, wait and wish to see our fellow Americans atop the podium, beaming with joy while the 'Star Spangled Banner' blares out for the world to hear. The Olympics are sacred, as they only come once every four years. There's something overtly special about the spectacle and combination of athleticism, competition and national consciousness that makes every American watching, even if it's on their smart phones or through live Twitter feeds, feel a part of the glory from seeing athletes don red, white and blue as they strive for gold.

Like the recently elapsed Super Bowl, half the fun in the Olympics lies in the way we watch and interact with our closest friends throughout, celebrating together in victory and sulking together in defeat as if we ourselves were the ones competing. In a twist of events though, what if your closest friends aren't Americans? What if they're your Canadian teammates and the sport you play has been a feature of every edition of the Winter Games? The answer is a situation that NCAA hockey players across the country encounter every four years the Winter Olympics roll around, and something that a four-year NCAA athlete will only get to experience once in their lives. In the highly unique case of having teammates and best friends from the country of an Olympic hockey rival, the fun no longer rests in the cheering, 'cellying' or even watching together, but the bragging and unlimited chirping a victory entitles one to for the next four years.

When asking the Holy Cross men's ice hockey team's Canadians what their gold medal predictions for the Olympics are, every single one of them will reply, "Canada" without hesitation, and maybe even add "Duh" to the end as did confident Canadian and freshman Cameron Lawson (Vancouver, British Columbia). The team's Canadians have not a worry in the world, and are certain that Canada will not only appear in the Gold Medal game on Sunday, Feb. 23, but will come out as the world champion once again. The reasoning for this conviction might have something to do with the Vancouver Winter Games four years ago.

Flashback to February 2010 and recall the gold medal match-up between Canada and the United States that went down in history as one of the best games ever played. Flashback to Jonathan Toews and Corey Perry giving Canada a 2-0 lead, and then recall Ryan Kesler getting the United States on the scoreboard with a deflected second period goal. Relive that moment, with an empty U.S. net and just 24.4 seconds left on the clock, when Zach Parise buried Patrick Kane's rebound behind Roberto Luongo and threw his body against the glass in celebration, an image many vividly remember like it was only a day ago. Any American's memory would love to cut the game short after Parise's beauty of a goal, but for Canadians the final play of the 67:40 game replays over and over again, as do the emotions and pride associated with it. Exactly 7:40 into overtime, Sidney Crosby, the most simultaneously criticized and applauded player in the hockey world, slipped one of the most famous goals in Canadian hockey history through the five-hole of U.S. tender Ryan Miller, claiming the game, the title, the glory, a gold medal and four years of limitless chirping for Canadians like Lawson, sophomore Nathaniel Domagala (Oakville, Ontario), freshman Brett McKinnon (Kelowna, British Columbia) and junior goalie Matt Ginn (Lindsay, Ontario).

With the 2014 Sochi Winter Games as the only time the current Holy Cross men's hockey team will ever experience a Winter Olympics together, these crucial bragging rights won't just expire in 2018 at the conclusion of the PyeongChang games. They're ones that Americans and Canadians can potentially grab for the rest of their lives, to bring up every time these teammates meet together as post-grads reminiscing on the time (insert future Olympic champion here) claimed the 2014 title. While it's also possible for the Sochi gold to be grabbed by Russia, Sweden, Finland or any other team with the world's top players, Holy Cross hockey's Canadians, as well as Americans like senior captain Ryan McGrath (Pittsburgh, Pa.), senior assistant captain Adam Schmidt (Warrington, Pa.), sophomores Jake Bolton (Ellington, Conn.) and Matt Vidal (Manorville, N.Y.) and freshmen Mike Barrett (Orland Park, Ill.) and Nick Finn (Canton, Mass) are hoping to see their country's best bring home the golden hardware.

These Americans are just as confident in their country, and have every right to be despite coming up short last time around. Bolton even noted, "It's pretty obvious that the U.S. will be bringing home a gold medal," adding that "the Canadians are just battling it out for second place in Sochi." Though the American-born players couldn't unanimously find common ground in where the strength in the U.S. roster lies, the majority believe that the outstanding goalies including Jonathan Quick, Jimmy Howard and Olympic veteran Miller are going to be key factors, preventing the opposition from getting the upper-hand on the final scoresheet. The remaining few credit speed, defensive core and a solid center of the ice as the U.S.'s key areas. "They have some very good two-way hockey players who are big and strong like Kesler," said Schmidt of the Olympian who scored a pivotal goal in last Olympics' Gold Medal game. Another player sure to be a huge influence on the U.S.'s fate this Olympics is Kane, last year's Conn Smythe Trophy winner. "He has great hands and is an overall great player who's really fun to watch," said Finn, who named Kane as his favorite player on the U.S. along with Schmidt and Barrett the Chicago diehard.

With varying medal predictions, favorite players and opinions on roster strength among the Americans on the team, one thing they can all come together and agree on is the desire for an American gold over the Canadian rival. "The game is that much more exciting given the serious bragging rights at hand," said McGrath. "When country pride is on the line, the game takes on a whole new meaning. It provides an opportunity for teammates that typically root against one another's teams during the NHL season to unite under the stars and stripes and cheer on the U.S.A. together, " he added.

When evaluating their team the Canadians, like the self-assured Lawson find "no weak points" in their country's roster as many of them attribute the roster's depth and player knowledge to the expectant success of the team in upcoming competition. "Canada has the most talent, but is also the smartest team on the ice with players like Crosby, Toews, John Tavares and a list that goes on forever," said Domagala. "They have 14 forwards, eight defensemen and three goalies that can all be difference makers and take a game over themselves," added Ginn. Such on-ice depth is revealed through individual choices in favorites that include Crosby for McKinnon and Lawson, the hometown hero Tavares for Domagala and both goalie Carey Price and former teammate Matt Duchene for Ginn.

As gold medal contenders who have another stacked roster this year, the Canadians will be a huge threat to any opposing country seeking to dethrone them. Not only does Canada have a medal to defend, but it will seek a victory to uphold their traditional hockey prominence as the game's founders. Like McKinnon said, "I'll be most excited just to see Canada win and prove that we are still a dominant hockey nation." Canadian hockey pride is also surfaced by the games for Domagala. "Watching my country compete in the game that has given me so much makes me feel very proud of things I have accomplished as well as very proud of where I come from," he said. "It's a special time for everyone, and the Olympics is all about uniting countries together in peace to compete and enjoy each other's company, which is exactly what I get to do for four years at Holy Cross," he added.

Though the men's hockey team unites in ways on and off the ice and has an indescribable unbreakable bond, watching the Olympics is the one exception when the players go their separate ways. "I absolutely will not be watching with any of my Canadian teammates," joked McGrath. "It's fun to have some added competitiveness between us, but I won't be watching with the Canadians if the U.S. and Canada battle it out," seconded Schmidt. Whether they actually watch together or not, if and when these two teams meet again, especially if it's at the Gold Medal game on Feb. 23, the result will ensue with some sure jabs towards the losing side. One thing for certain is that it won't add anything beyond fun and games to the chemistry of this team of best friends. "It doesn't change anything about the dynamic, it just allows for there to be more jokes and chirps," assured Barrett.

Another thing the result will also assure is either Ginn wearing a U.S.A. jersey or Vidal representing Canada around campus for an entire week depending on the outcome of the games. If Canada returns home with the gold again this year, Vidal will have to sport Ginn's Canadian hockey jersey and vice versa, but Vidal isn't exactly worried as he's already looking forward to some extra satisfaction if the U.S. brings home the gold. "Getting to see Ginner's smug look everyday wearing a U.S.A. jersey for a week would absolutely add to a U.S.A. victory in Sochi," chuckled Vidal. Acknowledging the circumstances of this particular Olympics he added, "Ill get to chirp Ginner for the rest of our lives since this will be the only time we will be able to make a bet like this."

Chirps, bragging rights and friendly competition like that between Ginn and Vidal aside, the XXII Olympic Winter Games will make for an amazing experience and long-lasting memories that the five Canadians and 22 Americans of the Holy Cross men's ice hockey team will cherish and talk about for the rest of their lives. Now grab the popcorn and let the games begin.