U.S. expects unique atmosphere playing host Russia
SOCHI -- On the fifth anniversary of his first game as a head coach in the NHL, Dan Bylsma will stand in the middle of a scene that should be unlike anything he has seen or experienced in the 1,825 days since he was hired by the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Bylsma will be standing behind the United States’ bench, coaching in an Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and Russia in Russia. It would only be bigger if there was a medal on the line.
"It's going to be different," Bylsma said after putting his American team through practice Friday. "But it's going to be big."
Much bigger than the game Thursday against Slovakia, which the Americans won 7-1.
However, Bylsma, who has coached in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Final and 65 Stanley Cup Playoff games, said he felt like a rookie coach again during his first Olympic game.
He can’t even imagine what it’ll feel like Saturday at Bolshoy Ice Dome (4:30 a.m. PT, NBCSN, CBC), when the Americans and Russians each play the second of their three games in Group A play at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.
“I had not experienced another game like it,” Bylsma said of the U.S. opener Thursday. “Before the game I had a chance to be on the bench with pretty much no one in the arena, no one on the bench, no one on the ice, and it felt like my first Olympic game. I was nervous. It was special. You’re about to take the ice, about to get ready for a big game.
“But playing the Russians in their home building, I don’t know if we’re going to have seen a building and a place like the one we’re going to see [Saturday].”
Not true. Thirteen of the American players here actually have. They were on the 2010 Olympic team that was lumped into the same group as Canada, meaning before they got to the gold-medal game, they had to play the Canadians on Canadian ice in the preliminary round.
Zach Parise remembers the nerves and excitement they had going into that game. Ryan Suter remembers the noise in Rogers Arena, dubbed Canada Hockey Place for the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. David Backes recalls the energy the Canadians got from their fans.
But most importantly, the American players that were in that game recall the result: USA 5, Canada 3.
“We understood that they were the favorites. We understood that it was their building,” said Parise, now the U.S. captain. “Honestly, we just went in and played hard, and whatever happened, happened. We got great goaltending that night from Ryan [Miller], and all of a sudden we found ourselves putting it into an empty net and wining 5-3. We had the nerves, we had the butterflies, but we just played hard, and we played well.
“I think we’re going to find ourselves in a pretty similar situation [Saturday] as we did in Vancouver.”
Except, of course, for a few subtle differences, such as the size of the rink, the skill of the Russians and the history of the two countries involved.
Canada might be the United States’ biggest hockey rival now, but whether they were alive or not, the game that still resonates with American hockey fans everywhere is the "Miracle on Ice" from Feb. 22, 1980, when the college kids wearing "USA" across their chests stunned the Soviets in the semifinals in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Patrick Kane said he has watched every documentary, movie and highlight from that famous game.
“I’m sure that’s probably the greatest moment maybe in USA sports in general, but definitely in USA hockey,” Kane said.
This American team is looking to change that.
“We’ve got a crew that would love to write our own chapter and maybe give the generation of kids that’s playing hockey today something else to look forward to or strive to repeat,” Backes said. “That’s some motivation we have.”
All they can do Saturday is take a step toward making that happen.
For all the hype the game will get, all the nerves and excitement the Americans and Russians will feel going into it, neither team is going to care about the outcome if they fail to leave these Olympics with at least a medal around their necks.
Each believes it can win gold. To go a step further, the Russians and Americans expect to win gold.
Before they can have a shot at that, though, they’ll get a chance at a rehearsal on the big stage.
If Bylsma thought the game against Slovakia was big and different, just wait until the arena doors open Saturday. An Olympic hockey game between the Americans and Russians in Russia -- it’s history even if it isn’t for a medal.
“I don’t know if I’m going to have the nerves,” Bylsma said, “but it’s going to be a special game.”