COVID, U.S.-Russia Tensions Set the Stage for 'Miracle on Ice' Rematch

COVID-19 restrictions and intensifying diplomatic tensions could set the stage for a potentially dramatic matchup during the 2022 Olympic men's hockey tournament should Team USA meet the squad from the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC).

The two teams are not scheduled to meet during regular competition, but they could square off during the playoffs should they both advance. Given the recent tension over the situation at the Ukrainian border, a game between the American and Russian teams could bring back memories of the legendary "Miracle on Ice" from 1980's Winter Games.

Like that historic game from more than four decades ago, the Russian team would again be the heavy favorite in this scenario. Due to COVID-19-related reasons, the National Hockey League (NHL) pulled its players from the event on December 22, leaving Team USA to put together a crew of mostly college athletes with some players from the European pro leagues and North American minors.

Team USA has pulled off the big upset before, though. In 1980, the Soviet Union, which had won the gold medal in five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games, was heavily favored to beat their American rivals. Like this year, the 1980 Russian team was comprised of mostly professional players, while the American team was mostly amateurs.

Head coach Herb Brooks led Team USA to a 4–3 win on February 22, 1980, against the Soviet team. Two days later, the Americans took the gold medal with a win over Finland.

Men's hockey
A potential matchup in men's hockey between Team USA and the ROC's team could bring back memories of 1980's "Miracle on Ice." In this photo, members of the Men's Czech hockey team practice at the National Indoor Stadium leading up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympic Games on January 29, 2022, in Beijing, China. Getty

There are dramatic differences this year from 1980, though. For one, the Soviet Union is no more, and the Russian athletes are forced to compete under the ROC flag due to an ongoing ban over Russia's doping violations.

The setting is much different, too. Russia enjoys a strong relationship with host country China, while the United States' relationship with Beijing is so strained that the U.S. is diplomatically boycotting the Olympics due to China's alleged human rights abuses.

Compare that to 1980, when Team USA enjoyed the home-field advantage of the Winter Games taking place in Lake Placid, New York.

Yet, the political situation between the U.S. and Russia is at one of its most hostile points since the Cold War, mostly due to Russia escalating tensions on the Ukraine border with its placement of troops there and demands that Ukraine never be permitted to join NATO. Should athletes from the countries meet on the ice during the hockey tournament, these tensions will be difficult to ignore.

The 2022 Olympic men's hockey tournament kicks off on Wednesday, February 9, with the ROC taking on Switzerland. Team USA competes for the first time the following day against China.

The ROC and U.S. teams likely won't meet at all, if the oddsmakers are to be believed. DraftKings named the Russian team the betting favorite with +150 odds. The sports betting company gave Team USA +1600 odds, meaning it would be a long shot for the group to even qualify.