I don’t consider myself to be among the most patriotic Americans in the world. I love my country, of course; I support my troops and vote in elections and would rather live here than just about anywhere else - but I’m not one to, for example, step out into the world wearing a shirt made of the American flag.
Not sober, at least.
But something about the Olympics brings it out in me, the flag-waving patriotism that makes me throw my support behind athletes I’ve never heard of in sports I’ve never watched just because they compete under the stars and stripes. It’s the magical thing about the Olympic Games; it unites us as a country, if only for two weeks, behind a common cause.
And yet as the hockey roster was revealed on New Year’s Day, I found myself incredibly annoyed at the team I would "have" to root for – my love of Team USA suddenly preempted by my NHL-fueled hatred with each name unveiled.
This wasn't the World Juniors, where a certain level of excitement existed from the outset. After all, it's much easier to be onboard when watching a bunch of unknowns with looser links to NHL teams, especially when you know you're watching the next generation of USA Hockey - and a little dose of a true American Hero never hurts, either. With the Juniors, I was fully onboard; with the big boys, not so much. I wondered how on earth I could cheer on these people in good conscience when, for 82 games a year, I’m calling them names like...well, names not fit for print.
Never underestimate the power of the Olympics, my friends.
I turned on the USA-Canada game Sunday evening, settling in to watch what would be my first Team USA outing in its entirety – and almost immediately got swept up in the excitement, my support fully behind the boys in the gorgeous throwback white jerseys before the puck had even dropped. So what if Phil Kessel, Ryan Malone, Brooks Orpik and Ryan Whitney were among those skating around in white? From that moment on they were MY boys – at least for the next week. No longer were these players from the Penguins, the Maple Leafs, the Lightning. Now they were just Team USA and I was behind them 100%.
Of course it didn’t hurt that they were playing a Canadian team filled with players for whom the word "evil" was coined...at least in the Caps fan dictionary. In a battle of two enemies, I’ll take the lesser one every time. But until I saw them take the ice I still wasn’t convinced I could do it; I didn’t think I could root for this particular incarnation of Team USA. I even considered not watching the game, so turned off by the idea that, in the end, one of these teams had to win.
Thankfully I came to my senses. Had I missed out on what was one of the great games of the tournament thus far for little more than a petty reason, I would have had to turn in my hockey fan membership card. And I needn’t have worried, because the pride I felt in that team from the moment they took the ice didn’t fade; in fact it grew, as with each goal they stunned the hometown crowd and the hometown team en route to a nerve-wracking victory.
As cliché as it sounds I realized I was rooting for the logo on the front and ignoring the name on the back. It was a necessity but not as hard an adjustment as I'd thought it would be. Players I would never clap for in a million years in the NHL got hearty applause on this night. I even let out a cheer of excitement when Brooks Orpik leveled someone in red behind the net. Nothing short of the magic of the Olympic Games in all their glory would elicit such a response, and I was fully under its spell.
Whatever happens over the next few days, this team has become my team and the team of hockey fans around the country, regardless of their rooting interest the rest of the year. I support our Capital Olympians and will be thrilled if Alex Ovechkin or Nicklas Backstrom should lead their respective countries to the gold medal; for many Caps fans I'm sure that's still the only palatable option. But at the end of the day I'm pulling for Team USA and every one of the players wearing the red, white and blue, even over the boys who wear those colors the rest of the year. No one is more surprised than I am.
After the Games are over and the players are scattered back to their NHL teams, of course, the hatred and the name-calling will return - but maybe with a bit of a soft spot for these particular American players going forward.
Therein lies the magic of the Olympics.