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Sunday, February 23, 2014

When the Games End by @ToonsBrian

Chances are you don’t recognize the name Stanley Ralph Ross. But if you are even remotely familiar with the history of sports coverage, you most certainly know his words:

Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport … the thrill of victory … and the agony of defeat … the human drama of athletic competition”
These are the words that began every ABC’s Wide World of Sports broadcast. They were words that, themselves, captured the essence of sports and the observance of sports. For the most part, at least. 

What Ross failed to recognize – or, at least, acknowledge – in that iconic introduction is an aspect of sports that is equally prevalent: anticipation. The “games men play” would lose some of their luster if not for the stories leading up to them. Those stories are what allow fans to connect to the athletes they pull for. They offer a way to relate. A way to live vicariously. A way to own the thrill or the agony, regardless of which comes to fruition.

Leading up to the 2014 Olympic Semi-Final match between Teams USA and Canada, I was a ball of stress. I know with 100% certainty that I was not the only one, even if the only proof I needed was one of the conversations I was having in the minutes prior to the drop of the puck.

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Through my work with Pens Initiative, I’ve been fortunate enough to make a number of connections who I communicate with on a regular basis. Mike DeNicola from The Orange and Black Pack is one of those whom I have regular conversations with.

Like myself, Mike is well versed in Star Wars lore, is fond of the color orange (although for vastly and unacceptably different reasons), thinks both advance stats and The Beatles are overrated, and managed to marry upward. Also, we both love the sport of hockey and not just our own respective teams, yet remain unapologetically ‘Merican in our approach to these 2014 Games.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised when I got his message with less than ten minutes until the start of the first period.

“Dude, I…I dunno if I can handle losing today.”

While I hadn’t, to that point, had the guts to put it out there, that was the very thought weighing heavily in my mind that very morning. Especially since my hopes had been built up by Team USA’s inspired level of performance to that point. I was more into relishing the thought of that big win that ultimately didn’t come.

Still, it was that very thought that kept me from getting any much-needed sleep leading into the game that morning. Anybody who works midnights realizes the significance of morning sleeps.

The darkest day of the tournament for Team USA
 As the actual game trudged on towards what would be its eventual 1-0 final score, the answer to how I would handle the loss became more and more relevant.

It was inevitable that the loss would hurt. In the end, sports are no different from life in general. Loss hurts. So you quite simply take what you can take from it and move on.

Here are just some of the things that we can take from this Olympic tournament:

A Helluva Run – Leading into these Sochi games, by and large, the US was expected to be on the outside looking in. To many “experts,” they weren’t even supposed to contend.  Hello, Medal Rounds.

In the preliminary rounds, Phil Kessel and James van Riemsdyk were in the Top 4 among scorers with 8 and 7 points respectively.  Team USA as a whole had the best goal differential. The team was one regulation win from being the number one seed in the qualifying rounds.

Speaking of that one missing regulation win…

That Russian Game – Not enough can be said about that game. Everything about it, from a US perspective was (almost) perfect. 

It had a slow build, at just shy of 34 years. 

There was a great villain in Vladimir Putin, who declared that Russia’s performance in these Games would hinge solely on the performance of the men’s hockey team. 

There were human rights interests.

There were stray dog stories.

There was TJ Oshie.

Oshie was a controversial pick in and out of the selection committee’s meetings. As chronicled by ESPN.com’s Scott Burnside, Dan Bylsma staunchly fought to have him on the team. As push came to shove, Bylsma stuck with his guy over and over again in the shootout, the very reason he put his neck out for Oshie’s inclusion. Decision validated.

Now, despite the dreadful finish for Team USA, at least we can own that memory, made sweeter by Oshie’s humility following that performance.

A Teaching Moment – I have kids, so this one’s big for me on two levels. Thanks to the magic of DVR and round-the-clock coverage, the Olympics provided a bonding experience and some excellent opportunities to teach them and remind myself of some of life’s certainties.

We watched Team USA together. Saw them when they were invincible. And, ultimately, we saw them when they seemed helpless. Nobody is immune from “off days.”

Strong finishes are every bit as important as strong starts, if not more so.

Gamesmanship is easy and can be fun. Humility in victory, not so much, which makes it much more valuable.

Participation medals and ribbons don’t exist in the real world. If you want anything in life, earn it.

There’s always someone better than you. Your goal is to change that. Even if it takes four years.

And, of course, without the agony of defeat, what would the thrill of victory be?

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