BEIJING (Reuters) -There was no ‘Miracle On Ice’ for the China men’s ice hockey team, but neither was there the humiliation some had feared as the United States rolled to an 8-0 win over the Olympic hosts on Thursday in their Beijing Games opener.
With the National Hockey League pulling out of the Games due to a COVID-19 surge that created havoc with its schedule, the Olympic tournament has no clear favourite.
China had hoped the absence of NHL players would provide an opening to pull off the upset in their Olympic debut. But they were no match for a determined group of speedy young Americans also with something to prove.
“I give China lot of credit. The score may not seem it but it was a hard game for us today,” said U.S. coach David Quinn.
“They were physical, they made it hard for us to get on the inside,” Quinn said. “We didn’t back down, we kept coming, and … I’m really proud of the fact that I thought our third period was our best period.”
The outcome was not the embarrassment that had alarm bells ringing at International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), which had considered asking China to withdraw from the competition over concern the team would be grossly uncompetitive.
With the NHL absent and a core of 15-foreign born players, China was able to produce an effort that allowed them to soak up their Olympic moment and skate away with their heads high.
“It’s an honour to wear the sweater that says China on the front,” said China netminder Jeremy Smith after he was bombarded by 55 U.S. shots. “We all feel really proud of what we’ve done here today, and who knows what happens in the future?”
“If we can just keep growing, keep learning, we’ll see if a miracle can happen.”
Of the 22 players who took the ice for China on Thursday, only six were Chinese born.
That seemed to matter little to the chanting, flag-waving crowd at the National Indoor Stadium that seemed not all that sure what to make of a sport that is still establishing a toe-hold in China.
No team entered the Games a bigger question mark than the United States, which went with youth over experience in building their Olympic challenge around 15 college players.
As expected, the Americans played an up-tempo, high-energy game that wore down China.
Brendan Brisson had the only goal of a close opening period. In the second, China’s resolve and energy faded with Noah Cates, Brian O’Neill and Sean Farrell all finding the back of net to put the U.S. ahead 4-0.
Farrell would add two more in the third period to complete the hat-trick with Ben Meyers and Matty Beniers closing out the scoring.
In other games, Sweden survived a Latvia fight back to claim a 3-2 victory, while Finland and Canada signalled their gold medal ambitions with convincing wins.
Sakari Manninen had the hat-trick to lead Finland past Slovakia 6-2, while Canada disposed of 2018 Pyeongchang Games silver medallists Germany 5-1.
“I feel honoured to fight for China,” said Canadian Zack Yuen, who play under his Chinese name Yuan Junjie. “The team put up great efforts.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Beijing, additional reporting Tony Munroe and Xu Muyu; Editing by Muralikumar Anantharaman, Ken Ferris and Bill Berkrot)