Russian wins ice hockey gold
China Xinhua News

 

It went, miraculously, to overtime.

No one thought it would. No one believed the Germans, 66:1 bet to win gold in PyeongChang, would stay competitive with the Russian men in the ice hockey finals. In the end, in sudden-death overtime, Russian forward Kirill Kaprizov took a pass from Nikita Gusev and blasted a shot into the net to end Germany’s incredible run, and take the game 4-3.

Team OAR won gold. Team Germany won silver….a most unexpected silver.

After losing their first two games in the tournament, Team Germany started winning, and then defeated Sweden in overtime 4-3, and Canada 4-3 in the semifinals, setting up their improbable match against the Olympic Athletes of Russia (OAR). Germany had never been to a finals before, and were happily aware that a silver medal was still all gravy.

But they realized early on, they had a chance for gold. At 16:44 of the third period, Jonas Muller took a pass from Yasin Ehliz, held the puck looking for an opening, and then rocketed a shot into the net. Germany led 3-2. All they had to do was hold on for a little over 3 minutes to achieve their first ever gold medal.

Thirty seconds later, Russia got called for a penalty. Could it really be that easy? Did they really believe in miracles?

With only a minute 11 seconds left in the game, the Russian goalie, Vasili Koshechkin, went to the bench. Players on the ice were five on five, but the Russian net was empty. Then, at a most inopportune time, the Germans had a brain cramp. As they approached the Russian blue line, the Germans dumped the puck, essentially handing the puck back to the Russians. They could have passed it back towards their own zone, and killed off more precious seconds, but instead, the Germans gave up control of the puck to the Russians.

And they took advantage.

The Russians carried it into the German zone, and you could feel an opportunity building. The puck came loose to the left of the German goalie, and the Russian forward, Gusev swatted at the puck, somehow knocking in a shorthanded goal, with only 55 seconds left in the game to tie the match.

As NBC analyst Mike Milbury intoned, “Just when you thought it was destiny for Germany….”

When the game goes to overtime, they play four on four, which is thought to be an advantage for the better skating, better passing team. That would be the Russians. And while Team OAR did not dominate, they made the great passes when they needed, the final snap pass to Kaprizov putting an end to an incredible ice hockey finals.

So for a second time in the 2018 PyeongChang Olympiad, we saw the raising of the Olympic Flag in place of the Russian flag, and the Olympic anthem playing in place of the Russian anthem.

But you could sense that the crowd and the players were singing a different song.

The Russians didn’t care. They won one of the most incredible Olympic ice hockey finals ever. And they were the champions.

roger jackson own the podium
Roger Jackson, CEO of Own the Podium

To be the best athlete in the world often means overcoming overwhelming fatigue, excruciating pain, and suffocating fear and anxiety. As described by Olympic swimming champion Dick Roth, pain not only must be tolerated, it must be befriended.

I often thought, world-class athletes – they aren’t like you and me. Defying pain, building up super-human endurance, reaching world-class levels – is that trainable?

I posed that question to Roger Jackson, three-time Olympian, and gold medal rower in the coxless pairs at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. Jackson was the CEO of Own the Podium, an NPO tasked with enabling Canada’s athletes to develop into Olympic champions. The only two times Canada had ever hosted the Olympics – 1976 in Montreal and 1988 in Calgary – no one from Canada won a gold medal. Own the Podium had a mission – help Canada achieve the highest medal haul in the 2010 Winter Games, to be held on home turf in Vancouver, Canada. While Team Canada did not come out on top in the medal count, Canada did win the highest number of gold medals, 14, which also happened to be the most total gold medals ever won by a country in a Winter Games.

“We had always been fifth in the world,” Jackson told me. “I was asked by the Canadian government and the Vancouver Olympic Organizing Committee to build a program to win the most medals in Vancouver. I had five years. I hired strong leadership. And I insisted on 100% commitment from our athletes. If you were willing to be disciplined and committed to the world-class training regimen we created, we would fund you. We worked with the athletes on plans, assessed the performance of the plan three times a year, identifying issues and upgrading the plans as we needed.”

Jackson emphasized that Olympians who want to be champions have to have this attitude – no compromise. “Family, school, wife – they cannot compromise your training. You need to sleep, rest and work your ass off. That’s the tone of the very best.”

Jackson said that’s why the Canadian rowing teams were traditionally strong, and why all Canadian teams had a chance, even the unknown Roger Jackson / George Hungerford coxless pair team. Canadian rowers trained hard and did not compromise.

Jackson, Roger | Hungerford, George
Canada’s Roger Jackson and George Hungerford celebrate their gold medal win in the rowing event at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. (CP Photo/COC) Roger Jackson and George Hungerford du Canada célèbrent leur médaille d’or au deux d’aviron aux Jeux olympique de Tokyo de 1964. (Photo PC/AOC)

“In the University of British Columbia Rowing program, we were told to do something, and we had to do it,” said Jackson. “Maybe we couldn’t believe we could do it, but we’d have to try. We would row three or four miles every morning and again every evening. And because there were so few teams to compete with us as other competitive teams were so far away from us, the coach had all the different teams compete against each other. At the end of each morning workout, we would row a 2000 m race against our other crews. The slowest boats would start, being the pairs and seconds later the fours would start and later the eights would start, all converging on the finish line at about the same time. And to win, you would never give up.”

“We would get to the finish line totally exhausted, dry retching, heaving. And, on occasion, the coach would say, ‘not good enough. Do it again.’ And so we raced 2000 m again. And if it wasn’t good enough, he’d tell us to do it again. I was eating 8,000 calories a day and still losing weight, but I knew that no one else had this incredible work ethic. That was the attitude that made us do things we didn’t think we could do. So when we got to the starting line in Tokyo, I knew we had done everything we could do to prepare ourselves to win.”

Do it again. Again. Again. Again. Again. Sound familiar?

Here is a famous scene from the film, Miracle, about the 1980 USA Ice Hockey Team that won gold at the Lake Placid Olympics. Coach Herb Brooks has taken his team to play the Norwegian national team and the game ends in a tie. Brooks isn’t happy with the team’s dedication and commitment, and makes them skate sprints over and over and over….until finally, the team’s captain, exhausted beyond reason, has an epiphany.

We don’t all let loose that mighty yalp in victory, jump on the pile, brother upon brother, bonding with a screaming universe that borders on the spiritual.

We sometimes go inwards, burrowing towards the source of the volcano, feeling the rumble grow. But we won’t show you. This moment isn’t for you.

When I read this passage below in “All Together“, by William Stowe, about his eight-man crew’s victory at theAll Together US trials for the chance to bring Olympic Gold back to America, I am reminded of the film “Miracle“, about the stunning 1980 victory of the men’s US ice hockey team over the USSR. In this scene, just after play-by-play announcer Al Michaels screams “Yes!”, the coach of the team, the legendary Herb Brooks, finds his way to the end of the bench, smiles at his wife, and then vanishes alone into the passageway under the stands.

He is alone. He is feeling the rumble grow. And he is happy.

Stowe had a similar experience, 16 years earlier. As he writes, his team has pulled off a mammoth, and somewhat unexpected victory to win the US trials.

We were all basking in our victory and had no reason to hurry in packing up the boat for its return to Philadelphia. I could only think about getting the USA uniform and being a part of the American team. Later when I got to my car in the parking lot, I looked around and saw that no one was watching. Only then did I let out the victory whoop, the one I had been holding back for hours, and dance a victory jig. I had no conception of what we would have to do and how hard we would have to train to best represent America in the Olympic games three months hence. I simply was savoring the moment.