Huerbin: Snow in Pittsburgh, hockey in Vancouver

By Jay Huerbin

To be honest, I have mixed feelings about snow.

I like it because, more often than not,… To be honest, I have mixed feelings about snow.

I like it because, more often than not, it makes for some beautiful scenery. Snow falling at a reasonable rate is fun. You can play in it, you know? Sometimes if there is enough snow, your school will close (thanks, Pitt) and you won’t have to work.

Of course snow can suck, too. Pretty bad. Like having to trek a couple miles from your apartment deep into Shadyside to Oakland. Your shoes get wet and soggy, your feet smell and you’re only halfway there.

But snow means one thing for all of us in whatever quadrant of the world we’re technically in. It’s winter.

All right, now for the reason I’m telling you this in a sports column. The amount of snow we’ve seen — and have yet to see — here in Pittsburgh and the two or three commercials during the Pittsburgh Penguins and Washington Capitals game on Sunday afternoon reminded me that the Winter Olympics are only a couple days away. And it’s not often that I opine about my favorite sport, hockey, but I’m making an exception this time because outside there are ice and fights — albeit in the snowball form.

On Friday, the Olympic torch will arrive at its final destination, Vancouver. The event marks the end of the torch’s 27,961-mile roundtrip travel around Canada, which started in the host city on Oct. 30 last year.

But from there, us hockey fans will need to wait a couple days before we get to see our country’s team compete for the gold medal. The puck won’t drop in the first game until Feb. 16 when the United States national team will take on the Swiss team. You don’t want to miss this.

While hockey isn’t necessarily the most popular sport in the United States, the 1980 Winter Olympic round-robin tournament, when the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the semifinals and later Finland for first place, popularized the game. Sure, Disney might have helped, but nonetheless the Miracle on Ice often ranks among the world’s most important sports events.

It also marks the last time the Americans won the gold medal. Since their 1980 showing, they placed higher than fourth only once in seven appearances. In 2002, they managed to win the silver medal.

Some argue that the United States struggles during the Olympics partially because it’s using so-called “Dream Teams” — ironic, yes, considering they have yet to see the “dream” — with professional players instead of amateur athletes that made up the 1980 team. But even that might be in doubt because of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has hinted towards disallowing the league’s player to perform at the Olympics. After all, the NHL essentially shuts down for two-and-a-half weeks while the international games take place.

Still others will say it doesn’t matter who the United States puts on its team, because the problem lies in player development rather than team composition. Basically, the Americans just aren’t that good at hockey on an international level because the nation doesn’t produce great players.

But this year’s different. (Note the period and not the question mark).

The 2010 roster is captained by Jamie Langenbrunner, the 35-year-old New Jersey Devils winger, with alternate captaincies going to Dustin Brown (Los Angeles Kings), Ryan Suter (Nashville Predators) and Brian Rafalski (Detroit Red Wings).

That’s some solid leadership for the Americans. Langebrunner is a two-time Stanley Cup champion, Brown was named an NHL All-Star last season, Suter won a few World Junior Championships for the United States in the early 2000s and Rafalski also has a couple Stanley Cup rings.

And this year’s team boasts a youthful group, as only three members of the 23-man roster are older than 30. The team includes up-and-comers like Phil Kessel (Toronto Maple Leafs), Patrick Kane (Chicago Blackhawks) and Paul Stastny (Colorado Avalanche). Not to mention Pittsburgh native Ryan Malone, who now plays for the Tampa Bay Lightning after a few years with his hometown Penguins.

There isn’t a lot of hype for the Americans this year, but maybe that’s what they need. In the past, the expectations as the best team of professionals headlined stories and amped up predictions as to how far the United States could go — only for the team to fall.

But this year’s team has the veteran leadership and the young fire to make a serious run for the gold medal. The Americans, who will play three teams from Group A before reseeding for the medal round, should beat Switzerland and Norway in their first two games.

But so should the fourth team in the group, Canada, which is why the final preliminary round matchup between the two teams (Feb. 21) will be one of the many highlights of the Winter Olympics. An upset for the Americans could make a gold medal that much easier to obtain.

And that, no doubt, is better than snow.