PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Tony Granato has been an excellent college coach so far. He took a Wisconsin team that had won 12 games in two seasons and rallied them to 20 wins in his first season. He was the 2017 Big Ten Coach of the Year.
It’s pretty easy to see why. He has a mix of seriousness and patience that good teachers have. He’s thoughtful and attentive in a way many big-ego college coaches are not. Over the weekend, a reporter reached a little too close to him with her recorder and he accidentally knocked it from her hand. It clattered onto the floor and Granato stopped the interview, scooped it up and handed it back to her with a smile and an apology.
Granato’s way has already helped the younger players on Team USA become comfortable in a daunting situation. Jordan Greenway, Troy Terry and Ryan Donato have become stalwarts in the early going here, in part because Granato believes in them.
But on Saturday, the Granato way ran into a big red wall.
The Russian team bum-rushed the young Americans, beating them 4-0 and hitting them with everything from a questionable elbow to an after-the-whistle crosscheck. These were pros, playing an NHL-level game with NHL-level shenanigans. It should be familiar to Granato, who spent many years as a player and coach at the top rung of the sport, but it didn’t seem very familiar to the younger guys on the team. The Americans were outmanned and outgunned, if not necessarily outclassed.
The last straw came when the Russians, technically Olympic Athletes from Russia, put their top scorers out for a power play at the end of the game. Granato grew indignant, and walked away from the ice without the customary postgame handshake. Asked moments later if he was bothered by what the Russians did, he flatly said, “Yes.”
Asked why, he said, “It’s 4-0.”
The rationale doesn’t fly. Running up the score is almost encouraged in a tournament where goal-differential may matter. Also, a four-goal lead is not a 10-goal lead. And most importantly, at the highest level of international competition, nobody should be cruising at any point. This isn’t mite hockey. The Russians face serious scrutiny at home for their past hockey failures, most notably on home ice in 2014 when they didn’t even make the podium. Every game is a statement game for them – especially against the Americans. Many of their fans traveled a long way and paid steep prices to watch Pavel Datsyuk and Ilya Kovalchuk. Doubtless everyone on the Russian bench is more concerned about putting on a show of domination than about sportsmanship. The Russians have been disgraced by the mandate to wear bland red-and-white uniforms while everyone else gets their fancy national jerseys. They’re sitting on the shelf next to all the cool, sugary cereals while they have to be happy as Crunchy Rice Squares.
So, yeah, don’t expect polite sportsmanship.
Did anyone in Brazil have a right to gripe when the Germans beat them 7-1 in World Cup soccer? No. Remember when Coach K’s Team USA beat Nigeria 156-73? The Duke icon was questioned about running it up and he took offense to the suggestion. It hardly angered any American fans, that’s for sure. The folks back home rarely want their national team to throttle down.
Maybe it was different back in the days when the Olympics were truly a display of amateur sport. But those days are long over, even if the NHL has forced Granato to rely on some student-athletes here. Datsyuk and Kovalchuk have been around way too long and made way too much money to care what the head coach of the Badgers thinks.
It was interesting to get the perspectives of the American players after the shutout. Chris Bourque, who has played in both the NHL and the KHL, wouldn’t even bite when he was asked, “How good are the Russians?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “We skated with them the whole game. That’s all I have to say about it.”
It was pretty clear Bourque wanted another go with the O.A.R. It was Bourque who flew into the scrum at the goalmouth when Greenway was belted after the whistle. He clearly knows what the KHL pros bring, and he wasn’t having it.
Granato knew his team would have to grow up fast in this tournament. In some ways they have. In other ways … not quite yet.
“I think we learned a lot of lessons by playing this team tonight,” Granato said. “I’d like to play them again sometime.”
If that happens, the Americans will not be content with zero goals. And the Russians will not be content with four.
More Olympic coverage from Yahoo Sports:
• Team USA hints at bad sportsmanship, bad play by O.A.R. in lopsided loss
• Mikaela Shiffrin pours heart out on social media
• The story behind the famous Olympic escalator stunt
• Ester Ledecka celebrates surprise gold medal with trip to KFC
• Swiss father bikes 10,000 miles to watch son ski in Olympics