VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Sure, the young, surprising U.S. hockey team had a supreme challenge facing powerful Canada inside its roaring home arena in the gold-medal match of the Winter Games.
They better not have whined to Chad Fleming.
He didn't fly from Virginia to Seattle, then drive three hours to Vancouver, to see his Americans lose.
He didn't "give" his leg - he refuses to say "lose" - in an ambush on patrol as an Army special forces officer in Iraq in 2005, then go on three more deployments wearing a prosthetic, to see the team he adopted be overwhelmed by long odds.
He didn't earn three Purple Hearts in combat, run the New York City marathon and bike 460 miles through California in November to get behind futile efforts.
American fans know how great Ryan Miller, Zach Parise and Patrick Kane have been in these Olympics. They don't know how great Chad Fleming has been for the U.S. team.
"I'm not exactly a mascot," Fleming says. "More a motivator."
Before the most anticipated hockey game in recent history, Fleming spoke to a U.S. team dinner Saturday night, inspiring the Americans just as he did to begin the tournament.
Then on Sunday, the barrel-chested Fleming was in Section 109, row 24, standing tall and proud amid a sea of red-clad Canadians waving maple-leaf flags and ringing cowbells.
"This is awesome!" he yelled over the roars before the opening faceoff.
The 37-year-old from Tuscaloosa, Ala., relayed to The Associated Press what he told the underdog U.S. team upon his arrival Saturday following an 11-hour trip.
"My story is one of tenacity and perseverance," Fleming, who has a slight Southern drawl, says he told the players. "I'm missing a leg, but that didn't stop me from going overseas three more times. So hey, when you think you've got it bad ... know that there are always people who have it worse.
"You are representing something way larger than the NHL or professional hockey. You are representing the greatest country in the world. I fought to defend what you are playing for."
He paused and told a reporter, "That tends to resonate with them."
The team wearing "Land of the free and home of the brave" on the sleeves of its jerseys hadn't lost entering Sunday since Fleming addressed the team before its Olympic opener against Switzerland on Feb. 16.
"We're not just playing for our dressing room," said Brian Burke, the general manager of the U.S. team. "We're playing for our wounded warriors and we're playing for the Americans. We've heard from lots of them."
Burke's BlackBerry is full of e-mails from wounded soldiers who have "adopted" each U.S. player. Staff Sgt. Javier Villanueva of San Antonio is paired with Parise. Cpl. William Hunker of Fayetteville, N.C., adopted Kane. Fleming, an 11-year Army veteran and the only officer in the group, is paired with U.S. captain Jamie Langenbrunner.
Fleming is the only wounded veteran here from the nonprofit Operation Homefront organization, which helps U.S. soldiers, the families they leave behind on deployments and veterans who come home wounded.
The organization's CEO, Rob Wolford, invited Fleming to Chicago last year for the U.S. team's orientation camp. Fleming instantly bonded with "Burkie," "J.J." and the rest of the U.S. roster.
The reception was enough to make Fleming, who grew up minutes from the football powerhouse at the University of Alabama, a hockey fan.
The team invited him to Vancouver for another motivational pep talk two weeks ago. Fleming brought care packages for each player from the wounded soldiers.
These weren't boxes of cookies.
Inside Miller's package from his sponsor, Staff Sgt. John Stanz of Hamburg, N.Y., was a bullet shot in one of Stanz's firefights in Iraq. The goalie has kept it in Vancouver as a good-luck charm.
Another player got a headdress from a soldier who had been given it by an Iraqi tribal leader grateful the Americans had successfully defended his people from insurgents.
"They told me, 'Hey, we get to the gold-medal game, you're coming back,'" said Fleming, who will return to Iraq soon as a government contractor advising Army special operations.
The latest call from the U.S. team came after its semifinal rout of Finland on Friday. With help from Operation Homefront, Fleming arrived Saturday in time to join the private team dinner at the downtown Italian restaurant where the undefeated and superstitious Americans have dined each night since before they stunned Canada last weekend.
And yes, the players knew he was in the arena Sunday for the most important game of their lives. Win or lose, he was headed down to the locker room to see his boys again after the game.
He was supposed to fly home on a red-eye late Sunday night, but ...
"Oh, yeah," Fleming said up in Section 109. "After we win the gold medal, I'm staying tonight for the party."WaPo