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Olympic Ice Hockey

Team USA tired of playing little brother to Team Canada

Photo: David E. Klutho/Sports Illustrated

Team USA center David Backes remembers the sting of losing the gold medal game to Canada in 2010 and expects another war in Sochi.

SOCHI – America, Big Brother is watching you.

This is the real Big Brother, not some Orwellian reference to an Olympic world where the Russian government is spying on you here ... and you wanna make something of it?

In the insular hockey universe, Canada is Big Brother. The country invented the game and, like a possessive sibling, definitely does not want to share its toy. Hockey is not merely a sport in Canada, but a window into the country, which is unabashedly vain about a sport in which it sees its best self.

This is all about Canadian exceptionalism, even if Canada has not been exceptional but merely creditable in its journey to the semifinal game on Friday against Team USA. Mike Babcock, the Canadian coach whose team beat the Americans in the Vancouver gold medal match in 2010, shrugs. “This is my second Olympics,” he said. “I think things are going just fine.” After allowing three goals (two deflections and a breakaway) in four straight wins, Babcock probably is right even if an entire country -- OK, at least defenseman Drew Doughty’s Twitter followers -- remains doubtful.

Now the little brothers see an opening, a grand opportunity. This is their American Dream, which has nothing to do with a job and a house and a car and two kids. The dream is beating Canada when it actually matters.

“I think Canada is always the favorite in these tournaments,” said Zach Parise, the U.S. captain. “We know it’s a team you have to get through. Until you beat them, on a stage like this, at the Olympics, [being the little brother] is the way it’s going to be. You have Salt Lake City [in 2002] and you have Vancouver [both gold-medal losses to Canada]. You have to get over that hump. For us, it would be nice not to have to answer, ‘What is it like to lose to Canada?’”

Since 1980, the Olympic Games have been Bridesmaid Revisited for Team USA. You do not get to accessorize with a gold medal. Yes, you were overtime close in 2010, and if you are David Backes you brood and hurt and don’t figure out until summer that winning an Olympic silver medal is an impressive achievement. But you hold on to the realization that you can, and did, trump Canada in the Vancouver round robin.

“We won the wrong game, you might say,” Backes said, ladling out the self-deprecation. But the final tableau -- Sidney Crosby being draped in a gold medal, IOC president Jacques Rogge egging on the crowd to cheer even louder -- wiped the slate clean.

“We took a great step in winning that prelim game to assert ourselves on a more level playing field,” Backes said. “But until we get that finish where we step above them in the final results, the underdog role is what we’ll take.”

Backes, who plays on Team USA's Meat Line, is a robust center who represents the beef. He grew up just north of Minneapolis. (“I take exception to that,” he said, smiling, when someone suggested that makes him an honorary Canadian.) He traveled across the border to play tournaments in Thunder Bay, Ont., and Brandon, Manitoba. He breathed in the hockey air, but he also knew that he had the same kind of winters in Minnesota, where he says, “You’re on the outdoor rink and having fun with your buddies and knowing that north of the border there were kids doing the same thing.”

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With Russia doing a slow fade as a hockey power -- it produces wondrous offensive talents but has not won a best-on-best tournament since the 1981 Canada Cup -- Little Brother is on the cusp of supplanting it as Canada’s most important rival. This is not set in stone because Canada’s 1972 Summit series victory over the Soviet Union resonates in the country as much as the Miracle on Ice does in the U.S. But an Olympic semifinal against Team USA on the heels of Crosby’s 2010 golden goal only reinforces the notion.

The brothers share the NHL’s DNA. The American identity is, as U.S. winger James van Riemsdyk says, “mostly hard hat, blue collar.”  Although Canada has the gaudier names, a capacity for hard hockey work is also a national trademark. Essentially these teams could have tossed sticks into a pile and chosen the sides for this semifinal if this passport thing were not such a big deal. There might be Penguins-on-Penguins crime if U.S. coach Dan Bylsma, who has the last change, uses the shutdown defense pair of Brooks Orpik and Paul Martin against Crosby’s line. There will be dueling Blues (Backes against Canadian defensemen Alex Pietrangelo and Jay Bouwmeester); Rangers who will be strangers for 60 minutes (Backes’ linemate Ryan Callahan and Canada's Rick Nash); battling Blackhawks (Jonathan Toews and Patrick Sharp vs. Team USA’s Patrick Kane) and others.

“You want those bragging rights for the rest of the year, the rest of your life probably,” said Canadian defenseman Drew Doughty, who will look across at the other-colored jerseys and see his Kings teammates Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick. “We want to beat them pretty badly.”

Unlike the European teams that collapse in front of the net and play with circumspection, this mostly will look like an NHL game -- except for the abundance of warp speed throughout the lineups and the lack of knuckle-draggers. The rink's additional 15 feet of width might make the game moderately less physical, but it should be the kind that makes you fall in love with hockey all over again.

“We play that gritty, North American style,” Backes said. “I said it in Vancouver: if we played a seven-game series, it’d pretty well be a wash. It’d be a war all seven games. The fact is we got one game, one shot and it’s on the bigger rink, which may lend itself to a little more tactical play.”

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 “Sure, they’ll be coming at us,” Crosby said. “The previous games the [European teams] have been playing it pretty safe. I expect it to be pretty aggressive from [the Team USA] side. We both try to be fast and physical. Everybody knows each other pretty well. It makes for good hockey.”

Crosby will certainly know where the Beef is because Backes’ line likely will be his escort for the evening. Crosby has had a rotating series of wingers -- five here, six four years ago in Vancouver -- and sometimes it seems like the only Canadians he hasn’t played with are Céline Dion and astronaut Chris Hadfield. (Now Babcock seems to have settled on Chris Kunitz and Patrice Bergeron as the bread for the Crosby sandwich.)

In Canada, Crosby is not so much under a microscope as he is in the Hubble telescope's sight. Sid is the favorite son, everybody’s kid. Crosby did not dominate four years ago in his first Olympics until he actually ended them with his goal, and he has not owned this tournament in Sochi. For the occasional stretch, he hasn’t even leased it. Crosby, with two assists, is one of 10 Canadian forwards who have yet to score a goal. (Canada’s 14 forwards lead Team USA right winger Phil Kessel 6-5 in the goal race.) At a press conference earlier in the tournament, Babcock noted that people judge Crosby “on scoring. I judge him on winning.”

Against the U.S., the only team that has shown itself capable of putting the puck in the net off the rush, Crosby scoring and Crosby winning might be related. First cousins, maybe.

The past is not prologue in the blur of an Olympic tournament. Team USA’s ease in crushing Slovakia in the round-robin and the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals, and Canada’s quarterfinal slog against Latvia does not matter now. Maybe the Americans are favored because Quick might have one more save in him than Carey Price does, but maybe Canada is favored because it is, well, Canada.

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“We don’t see ourselves as underdogs,” Doughty said. “I just think people see us not scoring as much. But it’s tougher on the big ice, the way teams pack it in, so you have to work for your chances, and we know that. We’ve done that. We’ve played great [defense] and we’re comfortable with our goaltending.”

And so they collide here, the brother that trusts in miracles and the brother that believes in birthrights.

“The one moment that sticks in my mind [from Vancouver] is the end, where we were right there and didn’t achieve what we needed to -- the gold medal,” Backes said. “But the experience of the whole Olympics and the atmosphere in that barn for the gold-medal game hasn’t been replicated in [the NHL] playoffs or anything I’ve been a part of. So for me, just thinking about the kind of atmosphere [for the semifinal game in the Bolshoy Ice Dome] is giving me chills right now. And I’m sure it won’t be much different tomorrow night.”