Olympics can still work their magic

I didn’t have to wait around for the Miracle on Ice.

Team USA’s fabled hockey upset of the Soviet Union in 1980 was an afternoon affair, taped for evening viewing and prime-time Olympic ratings. But my dad and two brothers were hockey nuts who had no patience for such nonsense.

Living in Detroit, just across the river from Windsor, we picked up a fuzzy live telecast from Canada and soaked in the splendor of one of America’s most enduring sports moments, shouting our lungs out most of the way.

Those were pre-Internet days, of course, so we felt like purveyors of privileged information, until a veteran Detroit news anchor spoiled the surprise (and angered thousands of viewers) by revealing the historic result during a tease of the evening news, with the game still in progress.

We’ve come a long way since then, with the major networks losing their hold on the national consciousness as our method of receiving and relaying real-time information evolves almost daily.

But have things really changed that much, or can the Olympics still work their magic?

It’s an interesting question in the aftermath of Saturday’s U.S. men’s hockey victory over Russia, in which former Stampede player T.J. Oshie became a household name almost instantly by scoring four goals during a dramatic shootout that defeated the Russians.

Forget for a moment that the game didn’t actually mean much, since both the Americans and Russians were destined to reach the quarterfinal round (where the host country fell to Finland, sending president Vladimir Putin into spasms of despair).

Also conveniently ignore the fact that Oshie has played in the NHL for six seasons with the St. Louis Blues and is well-known to most ardent followers of the sport.

In the feel-good fervor that followed that wild shootout, in which we learned the international rules as we went along, the kid from Warroad, Minnesota was a fresh hero for millions of Americans (and thousands here in Sioux Falls, who were finally interested in his brief tour of duty with the Stampede).

Everyone I ran into Saturday night wanted to talk about Oshie, including people who had never watched a full hockey game in their life. That, in a nutshell, is the wonder of the Olympics, and explains why NBC was willing to pay $775 million for the right to ship seemingly its entire network to Sochi to cover the action.

In an increasingly cynical world that views events through a prism of 140 characters on Twitter, the Olympics provide proof that we still have a wide-eyed notion of nationalism, even with sports we barely understand.

These Winter Games started as a snarkfest of Sochi problems, with jingoistic jokes about how Russians don’t know how to build proper housing with door handles or working showers.

In time, Americans turned their attention from Russian bashing to the action at hand, and much of the drama involved the agony of defeat, from snowboarder Shaun White to skier Bode Miller and the spectacular flameout of the Russian hockey team.

Long before “The Bachelor” or “Jersey Shore” or “Real Housewives” hit the scene, the Olympics were our reality television, and people are still watching.

The spectacle brings non-sports fans to the table, mostly women, turning prime-time NBC telecasts into a bonanza of advertising revenue when the chips fall right, such as Americans faring well in figure skating.

Several times over the last two weeks, I have watched the Olympics with my family, which marks a very rare occasion when my wife has deigned to absorb a sporting event other than the Super Bowl.

The prime time experience filters out the truly obscure winter sports (such as biathlon and skeleton) to give mainstream viewers a dramatized, mostly Americanized version of events. Again, NBC pays a lot of money for the right to produce that show.

Does it seem strange at times to be watching events that we would never otherwise care about, such as Ted Ligety’s recent skiing triumph in the giant slalom?

Sure. But the most defining moments make it all worth it, and they don’t need to come in prime time.

When Team USA faces Canada in the men’s hockey semifinals Friday at 11 a.m. Central time, it will be a live sports experience as NHL stars from both sides battle for national glory.

It won’t be a miracle if the United States knocks off the reigning gold medalists to reach the Olympic finals, but it will be a stirring sports moment full of authentic emotion and patriotic pride.

And if Oshie helps the Americans outduel Sidney Crosby and company with another one of his shootout marathons?

He’ll be a bigger deal than Mary Lou Retton.