There’s something irksome about this American gambit of setting oneself up as an underdog, when in fact one is a contender. For anyone trying to make sense of it, I suggest the following rule of thumb: the more loudly and frequently they lament being little guys, the more likely they are to win.
Consider the following quote from David Backes, a forward for the U.S. men’s hockey team, who had just polished off Norway 6-1. Backes, bear in mind, is a multi-dimensional player and top-six forward with the St. Louis Blues. He was asked about the prospect of playing Canada on Sunday:
“To play a Canadian team that’s favored, that’s got all the talent they do, who knows how many Hall of Famers, guys that print their all-star tickets every year? That’s a great test for a bunch of blue-collar Americans on Sunday.”
I’m the first to acknowledge the hype surrounding this Canadian team. Steve Yzerman, Canada’s manager, is genuinely worried by it, and has even tried deflecting pressure onto Russia, the other putative frontrunner.
But “blue-collar?” Huh?
We’re talking about a team that boasts Patrick Kane, Phil Kessel, Zach Parise, Paul Stastny and Jack Johnson—some of the most dynamic, talented young players in the game. They have Brian Rafalski, a two-time all-star, and Ryan Suter, an emerging gem, on the back end.
They have Tim Thomas, last year’s Vezina Trophy winner as the NHL’s best goalie. And Ryan Miller, a good bet to win the Vezina this year.
Oh, I almost forgot Backes, who is not only talented but big. He hasn’t had the greatest season this year. But he scored 31 goals last year and is a physical presence on every shift. No one’s kicking him out of the dressing room for eating crackers.
Even the oddsmakers like the U.S. team. Yes, Canada and Russia are odds-on favourites (1-2 and 2-1, respectively, depending on the rating service), but the Americans are right behind them at 6-1, same as Sweden. When your odds are the same as the defending Olympic champion, sorry, you’re not an underdog.
Backes, of course, is merely echoing a line of rhetoric set down by Brian Burke, the U.S. team manager, and used throughout the American Olympic team (did anyone really think that shin injury was going to keep Lindsey Vonn off the ski hill?). This despite their position atop the medal standings.
It makes for a nice story if they win. But it’s really intended to put pressure on their opponents.
I find myself pining for the chest-thumping Americans of old. At least they were honest.