It’s the one podium in sport that nobody wants to stand on.
Believe it or not, it’s the Olympic ice hockey silver medal podium.
As the finals of the World Cup of Hockey are set to begin tonight, a best-of-three series between Canada and Team Europe, I am reminded of the horror (I am American, after all) of Sidney Crosby's overtime golden goal in the winner-take-all 2010 Vancouver Olympic final. As if the goal itself wasn’t devastating enough, what followed was one of the cruelest things I think I have ever seen in sport.
You see, the medals in hockey are awarded essentially on the spot, as soon as the game is over. The men’s hockey final all but closed the games in Vancouver and almost as soon as Crosby’s goal hit the back of the net, the podiums were set up on the ice, the flags mounted, and the Finnish team assembled in the tunnel to ascend the bronze medal stage.
Watching that ceremony on a big screen, high-definition television, complete with close-ups of each player’s face as a medal was hung around his neck, it occurred to me that each would have felt exactly the same way if the IOC official had hung a steaming pile of dog crap around his neck. In that moment, there is nothing any American skater wanted less than that silver medal. Not a single player touched his medal, looked at the back of it, held it up to his family in the stands, like you might see at nearly every other medal ceremony at the Olympic games. Nope. These hockey players wanted to be anywhere but on that podium, with anything at all around their necks but those silver medals.
The Canadian and American skaters were an absolute study in contrast. The Canadian players could not stop touching their medals. It was as if they needed to keep checking to make sure they were real, that this actually just happened, here, at home. They were waving to the crowds, looking for their families, hugging it out on the podium, waiting for the very best version of O Canada they would ever hear.
These two teams had battled through the entire tournament with a singular goal. The fight was so fierce it wasn’t even settled in regulation. Then, in an instant, one team, the home team, was on a high higher than they ever thought they could be. The other team, from just across the border, had the ground shift beneath them in a way they may still not be able to describe. But instead of being able to retreat and process this loss in their own way, they had to stand there and be gracious, and have the very last thing they wanted given to them in a very public way.
In the summer of 2014, after Canadians won another Olympic gold medal in Sochi, I found out that I nearly nailed it with this observation. It turns out being presented the silver medal in ice men's ice hockey is actually just a little bit worse. I had this exact conversation with a member of the Swedish Olympic team…who had the unfortunate experience of finishing second that winter to the Canadians. He added that while standing on that podium, a period which seemed to last longer that the game did, he replayed every shift, thought about every broken play, and channeled every bit of discipline in his being to stay there until it was over. Someday, a very long time from now, he may even take a look at the back of his medal, but right now I am not sure he even knows where his silver medal is.