BERNE--When you think of the greatest hockey powers both historically and today, you automatically think Canada and Russia. Their records and reputations speak for themselves, but today’s semi-final matchup between the Russians and Americans has a surprising twist to it: the Americans have the recent edge.
Indeed, in all major international competition since 1996 (Olympics, World Championships, and World Cup), the two political powers have played hockey only eleven times. However, the more amazing fact is that the United States has lost only three of those encounters, most recently in 2006 in Turin when the Russians won 5-4 in a round-robin game.
The previous meeting took place during the 2004 World Cup of Hockey when the teams played twice. In the preliminary round the Russians won, 3-1, but when everything was on the line in the elimination quarter-finals, the U.S. blazed to a 5-2 win in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Earlier that year, at the 2004 World Championship in Czech Republic, the Americans also won, this time 3-2 in the Qualifying Round. Going back a little further, to the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake, the teams played two of the most memorable games of that Olympics.
The first game ended in a 2-2 tie in the preliminary round and the second was a semi-finals thriller won 3-2 by the home side, the U.S. building a lead and the Russians desperately trying, and failing, to tie the game in the third period.
In the preliminary round of the 2000 World Championship, the U.S. won by a 3-0 score, and in 1997 they teams played to a 1-1 tie. They met three times in the calendar year of 1996, first at the ’96 Worlds when the Russians prevailed, 3-1. Then, that fall, they played twice in the inaugural World Cup of Hockey. The Americans won both games by identical 5-2 scores, the first in the round robin, the second in the quarter-finals.
In all, the Americans have won six, tied two, and lost just three games to the Russians in the last 13 years.
Of course, going back further is not quite as relevant, and produces a lopsided record the other way. The Americans have two major victories to their credit against the old Soviet Union, winning in 1960 and 1980 at the Olympics en route to two “miraculous” gold medals.
But those victories were isolated events. After 1960, for instance, the Soviets crushed the U.S. 13-2 at the 1961 World Championship and 9-0 at the ’63 Worlds (the Soviets didn’t play in 1962 when the U.S. hosted the tournament for the first and only time).
After the Miracle on Ice in 1980, the teams played next at the 1982 World Championships, the Soviets doubling their opponents 8-4, and in 1985 they won again, 11-1 (they did not meet in 1981, and in 1984 the U.S. was in B pool).
Here in Switzerland in 2009, it is irrefutable that the Russians and Canadians have been the most dominant teams again, yet the Russians cannot possibly take the U.S. for granted. Recent history suggests the U.S. plays its best not so much against natural rivals Canada as it does against political rivals, Russia.
There’s one further catch to the rivalry, though. Since the IIHF introduced the playoff format to the World Championship the Americans have never come close to contending for gold. Indeed, the last silver medal the United States won at the Worlds was back in 1956.
So, while the Americans have the edge in head-to-head play, the Russians surely have the ingrained confidence to win. The two factors will make for what will hopefully be a classic battle.