A curling Miracle on Ice? U.S. ends Canada's bid for gold

American skip Shuster shocks Koe in Olympic semis

A curling Miracle on Ice? U.S. ends Canada's bid for gold
Canadian skip Kevin Koe, left, looks on as members of the U.S. team celebrate their semifinal win. © Nathan Denette/Canadian Press

By Devin Heroux, CBC Sports

Exactly 38 years ago today, the U.S. men's hockey team defeated the powerful Soviet squad at Lake Placid, N.Y., in what became known as the Miracle on Ice. It's a moment etched into American sports folklore. 

On Thursday night in South Korea, the U.S. men's curling team channelled some of that magic, stunning Canada 5-3 in the semifinals to advance to the Olympic title game and end the Canadians' gold-medal hopes.

But was it a miracle?

"That Russian team had gone a number of years without being beaten," American skip John Shuster said. "We're 3-1 against those guys. It's not a miracle on ice. Maybe the whole story might be a bit of a miracle, but not this game."

In this game, Shuster was outstanding. He had the best shooting percentage of any player on the ice, curling 91 per cent, and has been playing the best curling of his life in this tournament. Could the American skip have seen this coming after struggling at the last two Olympics?

"Hell, yeah," he said, smiling. "At the end of the first year of us playing together, I thought, this just feels like the beginning of something."

That first year came after the 2014 Sochi Games, where Shuster went 2-7 for the second consecutive Olympics. Before that, he'd been the lead for Pete Fenson's bronze-winning team in 2006. 

After Sochi, Shuster changed everything — his team, his lifestyle, how he approached the game. He started eating better, training harder and, over the past eight months, he has committed himself to curling like never before.

"I was tired of not having fun at the Olympics," he said.

With a 2-4 record midway through this tournament, though, it looked like Shuster's Olympic misery would continue. That's when, he says, his team decided to relax and have fun. They've now rattled off four straight wins over top teams in the world. Next up, a date with Sweden in the gold-medal game.

What happened to Canada's curlers?

There were signs at the beginning of the week, at least in the women's tournament, that the world had caught up to Canada.

For years, Canada has been expected to sweep the podium in Olympic curling. Going into Pyeongchang, every Canadian rink in the Olympics had won a medal since the sport was reintroduced to the Games in 1998. 

But when Rachel Homan's team started 0-3, the alarm bells started to sound. The women looked for a while like they might reverse their fortunes before they, stunningly, failed to qualify for the medal round — a first for a Canadian Olympic curling team.

Kevin Koe's team started 4-0 in the men's event before three straight mid-week losses ratcheted up the pressure. The Calgary rink turned it around, though, winning its last two round-robin games to secure the No. 2 seed with a 6-3 record entering the semifinal game against the United States. Just days earlier, Shuster's team had become the first from the U.S. to defeat Canada in curling at the Olympics. Redemption was on the mind of the Canadians.

Shockingly, to many, the United States won again.

"There are always shots you wish you could have back," Koe said after the loss. "It was just a frustrating game."

And a frustrating week. The Canadians never really looked completely comfortable. They were in control at times, but not dominant like in the past.

"It's a shot here and there — that's about it," third Marc Kennedy said.

Now Canada prepares to take on Switzerland in the bronze game with a chance to salvage a medal.

"It matters. We don't want to go home empty-handed," Koe said. "It's obviously not the game we wanted to be in. We'll try and regroup."

Building buzz

While Canadians stew over what happened to their teams at the Olympics, the American men are hoping their curling success shines a light on the sport in their country.

"I'm happy for the team, I'm happy for myself, but more than anything, I'm happy for all the curlers in the United States," third Tyler George said. "This is the game we always talk about but people never watch."

The sport has generated social media buzz in the U.S. — Mr. T has tweeted during the Olympics about his fascination with curling, and Ellen DeGeneres showcased curlers on her show the other day. Pro football players have jumped on the bandwagon too.

George figured his team's performance at these Olympics could have far-reaching ramifications.

"Unless we're on the big stage and on the podium, people aren't watching in the United States," he said.

Matt Hamilton, the team's second, is a bombastic, baseball hat-wearing, moustachioed character who is garnering a lot of attention for his swagger on the ice. 

"It's amazing. We have a lot of positive social media popularity," he said. "We knew we were good enough to get here. We rallied the troops and rallied each other."

On Saturday, they'll try to win the United States's first-ever Olympic curling gold medal. It would be a miraculous finish.