As the final seconds ticked off in Belarus” amazing 4-3 win over Sweden in the quarterfinals of the Olympic hockey tournament yesterday, one of NBC”s commentators proclaimed the victory “the greatest upset in Olympic hockey since the introduction of the current tournament format.”
With all due respect to NBC”s analysts, I”d take that a step further. I think Belarus” shocking win yesterday was the single greatest upset in Olympic hockey history.
Yes, even greater than the 1980 “Miracle On Ice” orchestrated by the United States. The Americans” 4-3 defeat of the vaunted Soviet team in Lake Placid is widely considered the biggest upset in sports history, let alone Olympic hockey.
By touting yesterday”s win by Belarus, I”m not saying that the “Miracle On Ice” wasn”t a monumental win for the U.S. The Soviets had won four straight Olympic gold medals heading into Lake Placid, but that run came to a halt when the U.S. stunned them in the semifinals. But, while what the U.S. accomplished 22 years ago was certainly memorable, I think what Belarus pulled off yesterday against Sweden was even more improbable. For those of you who think I”m absolutely crazy, consider this.
First off, let”s compare the heavily-favored teams that lost the Soviet Union in 1980 and Sweden this year. The Soviet team contained several hockey legends, such as goaltender Vladislav Tretiak and defenseman Viacheslov Fetisov. Following the loss in Lake Placid, the Soviets won three more gold medals in a row to complete a run of seven golds in eight Olympiads.
This year”s Swedish team isn”t that kind of juggernaut. But, the Swedes are a hockey powerhouse in their own right they won the gold medal at the Lillehammer Olympics in 1994 and are one of the four best hockey-playing nations in the world (along with Russia, Canada and the United States). The Swedes boasted several future Hall of Famers (such as center Mats Sundin and defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom), and they demonstrated just how good they were when they embarrassed Canada, 5-2, in the opening game of the medal round.
Now we”ll look at the two underdogs, the 1980 U.S. “Miracles on Ice” and the 2002 Belorussians. The U.S. team composed of college players wasn”t expected to win the gold, and nobody thought they could take down the Soviets. While that makes their win impressive, it”s not like the U.S. was some third-world country. As much as the Soviets were expected to win, it was still the United States Olympic team, which makes it hard for me to think of them as true “underdogs.”
That contrasts with Belarus, which redefines the term “underdog.” The Belorussians had to go through three preliminary games just to qualify for the round-robin tournament, which the 1980 U.S. team didn”t have to do. Then they had to play Russia, Finland and the U.S. (Belarus lost all three of those games). Yesterday”s game against Sweden was the Belorussians” seventh game in 12 days, and it showed they were exhausted by the middle of the second period. Toss in the fact that almost all of Sweden”s team plays in the NHL while Belarus has one NHL player, and you can see that Belarus had almost no shot.
This brings us to my final point. The only reason the U.S. had a chance against the Soviets in 1980 was that the game was played in upstate New York, in front of thousands of Americans waving flags and chanting “U-S-A!” at the height of the Cold War. To say that the U.S. had a home-ice advantage would be an understatement.
On the other hand, Belarus had about 10 fans cheering for it against Sweden. The E Center was probably three-fourths empty, since nobody thought Sweden would lose. With no crowd support and with three of its players going down with injuries, Belarus still managed to beat the top-seeded team in the elimination round to earn a spot in the semifinals.
Now, do I think Belarus will win the gold medal? Of course not. I still can”t believe it”s gotten this far. But, even if Belarus loses its next game 10-0 (which isn”t out of the question), I think its defeat of Sweden should go down in history right alongside if not above the “Miracle On Ice.”
Arun Gopal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.