Family part of U.S. men's team's run
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The moments they recall are unique.
Tina Johnson remembers 4 a.m. skating practices for son Jack.
Karen Backes recalls the family turning down a promotion that would have meant moving from Minnesota to Texas, in part because it would have disrupted son David's hockey life.
Greg Malone recalls schlepping from Pittsburgh to Columbus for another tryout on another team that didn't have room for Ryan.
The memories are unique and intensely personal, and the sentiment that sparks them is universal.
To be a parent of a U.S. hockey player here in Vancouver is to part of a special kind of journey, a journey that brings into sharp focus the powerful elements of family and pride and accomplishment.
You look at events in a person's life, "and this is something good. This is huge," Greg Malone told ESPN.com after the U.S. qualified for Sunday's gold-medal game with a 6-1 win over Finland.
"I think since the end of the game, it's starting to sink in more and more," he said. "The accomplishment they may be able to achieve is kind of mind-boggling. I was so impressed and proud of him to just be on the team and then it just kind of snowballed."
Malone is a former NHLer himself, born in New Brunswick, Canada, but who made his home in the United States. Ryan was born in Pittsburgh and drafted by the Penguins. A late-bloomer, Malone has emerged as a top power forward in the NHL over the past few seasons and has had a terrific tournament here.
At one point during the tournament, Malone's supporting cast reached 14 people.
"He wanted everyone to share in this," Greg said. "I'd be like a basket case, but he's just the opposite. That's the kind of person he is."
The fact he was never a "can't miss" kid like some of his teammates makes being able to share these moments more poignant for Malone.
"Especially your mom and dad the most. They get a little emotional seeing you first out there, even for warm-ups. It's kind of like your first NHL game, I guess," Ryan said. "My journey, it just keeps getting better. We never really expected any of this, so to be here and be part of this is special, so it's awesome to share with everybody."
Defenseman Jack Johnson paused as he was preparing for the first game of the tournament and thought of his parents and little brother Kenny up in the stands, waiting for him to come out.
"They said there were a lot of emotions involved," Johnson said. "They thought about all the 5 a.m. mornings, going to the rink, and actually I did too getting dressed. You kind of run through that -- everything that you went through to get here all the way back to when you're 5 years old to when you're 23 sitting in the Olympics. You can't help but think about things like that.
"To be able to share this with my family is real special. They're the reason I'm here, really. Without them, I wouldn't be here."
Before every game, Erik Johnson's father, Bruce, sends his son an inspirational text message. It is something he started doing at the start of this season as Erik was preparing to return from an entire 2008-09 season lost to a freak knee injury. When the Blues beat Detroit twice in Sweden to open the campaign, it became a kind of good luck charm.
"I'm not an X's and O's parent," Bruce said. "I always figured my job was to keep his head centered."
He appears to have succeeded in that challenge. Erik has seen his role with this U.S. team grow as the tournament has gone along. The fact his parents are here sharing this with him is not lost on the 21-year-old.
"Well, it's special because they've sacrificed so much growing up for you. All the money they put into it, the sacrifices they make. You're sharing what you're accomplishing with them and the support factor is huge as far as being a blanket for you to fall back on," Johnson said. "Before every game, my dad will send some inspirational text and say that my mom and sister are behind me and that you've worked so hard your whole life for a moment like this and it's your opportunity to do something with it. It's a calming influence that they've had."
The Johnsons have always tried to stay in the moment, but this week has tested that resolve.
"We've never looked too far down the road," he said. "But all of a sudden, you're pinching yourself because we're going to play for the gold."
Karen Backes is driving back to Vancouver from Seattle in time for the gold-medal game after having been here for the first week of the tournament. The moment she first saw David step onto the ice in his USA jersey, she remembered how her husband, Steve, had been offered a job in Texas. But since they were so involved in the local minor hockey association in Minnesota and David's friendships were so linked to hockey, the family decided to stay.
In that first game, they were about 13 rows behind the Swiss net when David scored to give the Americans a 2-0 lead.
"We were right there. That was pretty special," Karen said. "He has worked so hard to get to where he's gotten today."
These are the third Olympics for Chris Drury. Each one has been different, but his ability to share this tournament with his parents and children has made it more memorable.
"It's night and day," Drury said. "I look back to when I started in Salt Lake, not married, Italy was married, but left the kids at home, and now married with a 6-year-old and 4-year-old here and a 6-weeks-old at home, it's been a blast.
"I don't think they really knew what they were getting. My 4-year-old is like, 'Where are the Rangers?' He kept calling us 'Rangers USA.' But now he gets it and he's got the jersey and he's collected pins. It's just been fun to share everything with them. At night in the hotel watching, anything, Olympics on TV. It's been pretty cool."
Even in the short period of time this team has been together, there appears to be a bond forged, not just among the players, but the families, too.
Tina Johnson recalled how son Kenny, 11, has been playing mini-stick hockey with Brian Rafalski's kids and Jamie Langenbrunner's kids.
"Amazing is just a word that falls off your lips pretty often around here," she said. "It's just such a joyful experience to be here together and nerve-wracking at the same time."
On Sunday afternoon, this Olympic journey will come to an end. In the stands, the parents and wives and brothers and sisters of those American players will stand together. As the team steps onto the ice with a gold medal hanging in the balance, perhaps the families will think again of those moments that have defined the journey. On the ice or in the dressing room, perhaps there will be a similar moment of reflection for the players, as well.
Whatever the outcome, it's hard to imagine a better gift for a family to share.
"For my parents who have sacrificed so much for me to get to this level, it's huge that I can bring them on a journey like this and share what great opportunities that I've been given because of their sacrifices," David Backes said. "I think that's a pretty good feeling to have, and enough motivation, along with playing for your country, to do a little more and do a little extra and give that extra effort that gets you along the way."
Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.
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