Miracles on ice

Emotional wins, but no true miracles in sight--yet

03.05.2009
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PostFinance Arena Berne  Switzerland

Fabrice Lhenry and his teammates pulled off a small miracle of their own. Photo: Matthew Manor/HHoF-IIHF Images

BERNE – Beating all odds, downing a formidable opponent, and doing it while representing your country is the ultimate story of a hero. No, wait. The story gets even better when it’s not about just one hero, but a group of people coming together, and beating their foe as a team. And to make it truly legendary--a miracle--nobody outside the team should believe in them.

The best-known example occurred at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. The host Americans, a bunch of college kids, managed to beat the mighty Soviet Union 4-3, and went on to win the gold medal. This event is known as the "Miracle on Ice."

In hockey, not every win is a miracle, even if the most pessimistic coaches might think so sometimes. And not every surprising win is a miracle, either. Sweden rallying from 5-2 to a 6-5 OT win over the Americans is not a miracle, hardly surprising, even. (It does add up to a great game, though, that’s for sure).

To qualify in the finest category of hockey upsets, the game has to mean something. Something has to be on the line.

Second, a miracle is a miracle only if it’s completed. Pushing the other team to their heels and then losing in the last minute of play is a nice story, but legends aren’t nice. That’s why the Hungarians are still just a sympathetic team with excellent fans. But history is written by winners. 

Everybody loves upsets, and the smaller nations climb upward by beating big nations one after the other. For example, Finland beat Czechoslovakia for the first time in 1967 after a heroic play by goaltender Urpo Ylönen. The next year, in 1968, Finland beat Canada for the first time, in the Grenoble Olympics in 1968, 5-2.

One win didn’t mean that Finland would win every game against the Canadians and the Czechs, but at least they knew it could be done. All they needed was a hot goalie, and a good day.

That’s what Latvia and France had in this tournament against Switzerland and Germany respectively. Latvia got outshot by the Swiss 40-20, and Switzerland had 40 more shots that either missed the net, or got blocked by the Latvian defencemen who threw themselves in front of the puck like there was no tomorrow.

Latvia’s shootout win over Switzerland was important, because it brought the team very close to making the quarterfinals. But for France, the win over Germany was crucial, securing their spot in the top division, a goal the team had, but that few outside the locker room thought they’d meet.

France took a 2-1 lead in the first period, and defended it for the remaining 43:21. Germany had 13:54 of power play time in the game, and France played almost four of the last five minutes shorthanded.

That’s the closest to a miracle we’ve come so far.

“What an incredible win, this is a great feeling. We knew we had a chance to win the game and save ourselves and we took the opportunity. Everybody worked so hard,” says defenceman Baptiste Amar.

But even within miracles, there are degrees of miraculousness. Sometimes a miraculous win still only matters to few people outside the team, but sometimes it engages an entire country.

The win sure was emotional for the French team, and when the players lined up on the blueline, arms around each other’s shoulders, singing the French national anthem at the top of their lungs, it was a moment to cherish, even if you weren’t French.

“Some guys have been with the national team for 14 years and have never made it to the second round,” Amar adds.

Coach Dave Henderson thinks the Qualification Round spot was important in other ways too.

“This is huge. This is the first time in 40 years we have no naturalized players, they're all home-grown. That’s important,” he says.

But was it a miracle?

“I don’t know how important this is for French hockey in general. Hockey is not that popular, you know, but for our group, our team, our generation, it was very important,” says team captain Lauren Meunier.

So maybe not. Anything can happen in one game. Let’s say that France’s win was a Level 2 miracle, if Lake Placid 1980 is Level 5.

True miracles are still waiting to make an appearance here in Switzerland, but the tournament is far from over.

RISTO PAKARINEN

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