Kovacevic: Chemistry from a common cause
SOCHI, Russia — The tale's often told of how Herb Brooks' Miracle team had one faction of players from Minnesota who wanted nothing to do with those from Massachusetts and vice versa. Exasperated by this, Brooks one day went around the locker room to each stall with the same question: “Who do you play for?” And when each began answering with his respective college, the coach ordered them all out to the ice, skated them until their tongues dangled, then erupted.
“When you pull on that jersey, you represent yourself and your teammates!” Brooks shouted. “And the name on the front is a hell of a lot more important than the one on the back!”
He then made each player, one after the other, enunciate every syllable of that name on the front: “The United States of America.”
Zach Parise is captain of the undefeated Team USA that will face Canada in the Olympic semifinals Friday, the rematch the hockey world has coveted since Sidney Crosby's golden goal in Vancouver.
Parise will get the bulk of the credit for the Americans' cohesion. They've bonded from the orientation camp last August to the first practice here to T.J. Oshie standing up to the Russian tank to Jonathan Quick cutting down the Czechs in the quarters.
I asked Parise Thursday if any other players have stepped up, on or off the ice.
“Being totally honest here, it's leadership by committee,” he answered. “It's David Backes. It's Kevin Shattenkirk. I swear, I even heard Kessel pipe up once.”
Phil Kessel's generally as silent as he is swift.
“I'll tell you this,” Parise kept going. “What makes this team is that every guy who's here is here for a reason.”
In the third period of the Penguins' Nov. 25 game in Boston, Paul Martin felt something amiss in his leg. Almost as quickly, he came to grips with all that might entail.
“Not again,” Martin recalled thinking.
The tibia was fractured, he'd learn the next day. He'd miss 4 to 6 weeks, maybe more, maybe Sochi.
Martin was on the taxi squad for the 2006 Games, then missed '10 because of a broken arm. If the leg didn't heal in time for him to get in a few NHL games, Team USA would have to look elsewhere. Again.
“Growing up in Minnesota, with Herb being from there and all the passion for hockey and Team USA, what I wanted more than anything was to be here,” Martin was saying the other day. And he was, indeed, “here.” The leg healed just fine. “I look at this uniform, and I couldn't be prouder.”
Backes is a big man — 6-foot-3, 221 pounds — who's becoming a pretty big deal here, even beyond his three goals. Just ask Dan Bylsma, who describes Backes' two-way play as a father would a prodigal son.
“We love what David brings,” Bylsma said Thursday, adding that he expects Backes to play “about 30 minutes” against Canada.
Not sure if he was joking.
They'll love him even more if he can shut down Crosby again Friday. Bet on that matchup, based on Bylsma having the last change and a knowing smile the coach flashed when I brought that up. Moreover, bet on Backes getting the better of it: Crosby has gone head to head with Backes in the NHL six times and, in addition to getting seriously agitated, he's never scored. Just four assists.
And Backes doesn't shadow Crosby as much as he pounds him.
“If it works out that I'm going against Sidney Crosby, I can't give him an inch,” Backes said Thursday. “I'm looking forward to it.”
Backes smiles a lot. Not when he said that.
Brooks Orpik has described the plane ride from Vancouver back to Pittsburgh, when he carried silver to Crosby's gold in the same cabin, “the worst flight of my life.”
Orpik had been on the ice for the golden goal. He was the first to console Ryan Miller after the puck slipped through Miller's pads. He's visible in many of the Canadian celebration pictures that are now iconic north of the border.
He doesn't seem terribly interested in a sequel.
“You come here for gold,” Orpik said. “That's it.”
Remember Peter Laviolette climbing the railing in front of the Philadephia bench a couple playoffs ago to challenge Bylsma, Tony Granato and anyone else on the Penguins' side who'd listen?
All three are co-workers now. And it turns out, the Flyers firing Laviolette in October worked out wonderfully for Team USA. After a Nov. 15 face-to-face in Pittsburgh with Bylsma, Granato, Ray Shero and U.S./Nashville GM David Poile, Laviolette was dispatched to reach out to as many prospective Olympians as possible and impress upon them, as only a coach can, what their roles would be in Sochi. This way, there would be no surprises upon arrival, no complaints or other risks to chemistry.
Might explain this remark from Ryan Suter the day the U.S. players landed here: “Each one of us already knows what we're supposed to do.”
Bylsma recited this gem Thursday: “I watched the overtime from Vancouver in a folding chair in a bar back in Pittsburgh. I was sitting in the corner because it was a packed house. When Sid got the puck on the other side of the dot, I stood up and walked back to my table.”
Why not wait?
“Because it's Sid.”
His next thought?
“Well, I don't want to say I started thinking about being a part of this in 2014. But I started thinking about being a part of this in 2014.”
And now that he's here, on this stage, against this opponent?
“This is the team and the game our players all wanted. This is what we wanted”
All of them. And nothing unites like a common cause.
Faceoff is noon, Pittsburgh time. Canada vs. the name on the front.