When Slovakia goaltender Patrick Rybar stopped American captain Andy Miele on his shootout attempt in the men’s ice hockey quarterfinal matchup, it didn’t just seal an upset win for Slovakia and knock the United States out of the Winter Olympics.
It meant that most likely, the only chance for a majority of the United States men’s ice hockey team to win an Olympic medal had vanished, just as quick as Rybar’s pad save.
“Just sad it’s over,” Miele said while fighting through tears after the game. “This moment meant a lot to me. I just hope we made our country proud.”
A majority of the Olympians in Beijing have worked their entire lives to get to this point. And if an athlete falls short of an Olympic medal this year, there’s a good chance in four years that they’ll be back on this stage again.
That’s not the case with the men’s ice hockey group.
No one on this team was supposed to be in Beijing for this tournament. It took the NHL electing to not send its players for this unique group of teenagers and ex-NHL “has-beens” to be formed.
That’s why the veterans on the team took this loss a bit harder than most. While the young college hockey prospects have the hopes of playing in the NHL and possibly getting back to the Olympics, this was the one, unique chance the older players got to represent the red, white and blue.
“We got a lot of young talent. They’ve got a great future there,” Miele said. “Us older guys, this was a big moment for us.”
It wasn’t as though this U.S. team was just along for the ride. No one was quite sure what to expect with no NHL representation at the Olympics. It made for an open field across the board, and one that the U.S. took an advanatge of.
The team finished 3-0 in group play as the only team to win all three of their preliminary round games in regulation. They earned the top seed in the playoffs and a first-round bye.
It made for a favorable matchup against a Slovakian team that had gotten pushed around by Sweden and Finland in group play, making it seem as though it would be an easy pass to the semifinals.
It was far from that, as Slovakia fought until the final buzzer, scoring the tying goal with just 40 seconds left in regulation before eventually prevailing in the shootout.
“Just hard to put into words,” Kenny Agostino said after the game. “Just gut-wrenching. I don’t know, it’s really hard to put into words.”
Despite missing out on a chance at an Olympic medal, this was still a once in a lifetime experience for the American players. One that they will forever remember.
“This is a special thing to be part of,” Agostino said. “We didn’t reach our goal, but just really lucky to have the support of our friends and family at home.”