- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 29, 2014

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Is it next Friday yet? If not, why not? After four years of waiting for the Winter Olympics, the last few days seem to be dragging along.

Let’s get this party started.

Few things get these juices flowing quite like the Olympics — particularly the winter version. Sure, the summer version is fun, too, and I’ve been fortunate enough to cover two of those (Atlanta, Sydney). But the strong preference is for the Winter Olympics, where most of the sports you see are not things you see regularly and the one you do see on a regular basis is intensified almost to the point of insanity.

There is nothing — repeat, nothing — quite like an Olympic hockey tournament.

I couldn’t name a skier besides Lindsey Vonn, who isn’t competing in Sochi. But I love watching Olympic skiing.

I couldn’t name a luger or a bobsledder but let’s face it: Watching things going really fast on ice with a good chance of going out of control is exciting.

Figure skating? Besides Ashley Wagner, the West Potomac High grad, I can’t name one. But I’ll still watch every second of it I can fit into my schedule.

Hockey? I know the identities of participants well, on most of the teams. If there’s an Olympic hockey game on television and I don’t have it on, check for a pulse. I may have checked out. Bury me with the remote in my hand.

When the U.S. team gathered at the Kettler IcePlex in August for orientation camp, coach Dan Bylsma — normally the guy who runs the Pittsburgh Penguins — set the first meeting for 7:12 a.m. The reason is the team has to play seven games in 12 days to come home with the gold medal.

Those of a certain age remember well the last U.S. gold medal, in 1980 at Lake Placid, N.Y. On Friday, Feb. 22, the United States beat powerful Russia 4-3 in one of the greatest hockey games ever played (though the Russians may have a different thought on that).

That game, however, was not the one that won the gold medal. The U.S. beat Finland 4-2 two days later to win the gold, rallying from a 2-1 deficit after two periods. Two of Team USA’s three goals in the final period against Finland were assisted by future Washington Capital Dave Christian.

Legendary U.S. coach Herb Brooks delivered a quick, intense speech of the kind that made him famous between the second and third periods: If you lose this game, he told his team, you will carry it to your graves.

If you were around for those Games and are a hockey fan, there’s simply no way you can’t be hooked for life on Olympic hockey. Of course, following the U.S. team since then has kind of like been following the Capitals — a series of heartbreaks that make you question your sanity.

Since the run to the 1980 gold, the U.S. has collected all of two medals in men’s hockey. It won silver in 2002 and again in 2010, when Sidney Crosby scored in overtime to give the gold to host Canada. As if the brilliant Crosby breaking hearts of Capitals fans isn’t enough; this time he did it to an entire country.

In 20 trips to the Games, the U.S. has won 11 medals. It got gold in 1960 as well as 1980. It has won silver eight times.

What’s going to happen this year? The U.S. team, which includes John Carlson of the Capitals, is confident it can win the gold medal. Of course, so are numerous other teams. How realistic are the U.S. chances?

Stephen Whyno, who covered hockey for The Times for two years and now covers hockey for Canadian Press, thinks the U.S. is going to play for a medal — but come up short. Whyno has Sweden winning the gold medal over host Russia with Finland beating the U.S. for the bronze. Canada, he thinks, will finish fifth. If Whyno is right, at least one Capital will be happy. Nicklas Backstrom is playing for Sweden.

Whyno thinks goaltending will carry the U.S. to whatever place it finishes. Ryan Miller, so strong at the 2010 Games, and 2012 Stanley Cup MVP Jonathan Quick will provide the U.S. with goalkeeping that’s likely to be as strong as any team at the Olympics. But, Whyno notes, the defense corps is young. The centers, he said, aren’t as good as countries like Sweden and Canada.

But if the goaltending is strong, who knows? Stranger things have happened.

Who had the U.S. winning gold in 1980?

One thing is absolutely certain: It is going to be a great 12 days of hockey and a great 16 days of the Olympics. If you need me for something between Feb. 7-23, don’t bother to call or leave a message. I’ll be busy.