Olympic hockey climbs to new levels of hype

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      I’ve covered the past two Winter Olympics and 10 world hockey championships for the International Ice Hockey Federation’s Web site. Therefore, everyone I know assumes I have extra tickets for the men’s gold-medal game on February 28 at GM Place (ahem, Canada Hockey Place). This, unfortunately, is incorrect. Otherwise, I could have retired by now.

      Everyone also assumes that Canada will play for gold. Another dangerous thought. The Canadians, of course, are deep and talented at every position and have historically fared well in international competitions on home ice. Realistically, though, Canada’s hopes of triumphing against the world’s 11 other top nations are far from certain. Remember how the motherland of hockey fared at the past three Olympics: fourth in Nagano, gold in Salt Lake City, seventh in Turin. Much can go wrong quickly in a single-game elimination format.

      One thing is certain: never before 2010 has Olympic hockey received this much advance hype, and it won’t happen again (unless Toronto hosts, of course). With the first puck set to drop on Tuesday (February 16), let’s look at 10 ways this men’s tournament will be different from its predecessors.

      1. The pressure on Team Canada
      The pressure is bigger than ever. Before the eight-game 1972 Summit Series, Canadians expected their team to defeat the Russians, and with ease. (Thank God for Paul Henderson!) In the ’88 Calgary Olympics, everyone knew beating the Soviets wasn’t likely. (Sorry, Steve Tambellini!) Nagano ’98, the first Games with all NHLers available, came with big expectations for Canada. (Argh, Dominik Hasek!) Ditto for the last two Olympics. But playing on home ice with a Sidney Crosby–headlined bevy of talent in maybe the last “NHL Olympics”, in front of the biggest TV hockey audience ever? There’s just no comparison. Canadian fans are ravenous for gold.

      2. First Olympics played on small ice
      Will using the 200-feet-by-85-feet NHL-sized ice surface benefit the two North American teams? (It saved Vanoc $10 million in renovation costs at GM Place.) The answer is yes, but not as much as people think. The “big seven” nations (including the Czech Republic, Finland, Slovakia, Sweden, and Russia) are loaded with veteran NHLers who aren’t fazed by increased physicality. At the last two IIHF world championships, Russia has beaten Canada for gold on both small ice (2008, Quebec City) and big ice (2009, Bern). And Canada has won one Olympics and three worlds on big ice in the past decade. Team cohesion and talent mean more than rink dimensions.

      3. The KHL has something to prove
      When TSN.ca runs a story mentioning Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League, the comments section invariably festers with North American scorn for the new 24-team circuit powered by the petrodollars of oligarchs like Gazprom’s Alexander Medvedev. (Some vitriol, undoubtedly, is a defensive reaction to Russia’s consecutive world titles.) So is the KHL really just a refuge for washed-up, money-grubbing, heartless Euros who can’t hack it in the Stanley Cup playoffs? The league is represented on eight out of 12 Olympic rosters, and if Russia wins gold in Vancouver with nine KHL players, that would be the starkest rebuttal possible to KHL critics.

      4. New playoff system
      Under the system introduced for 2010, the ranking of the top four teams overall at the end of the preliminary round will be huge. Those four will get a bye to the quarterfinals; all other teams must play a “qualification playoff” elimination game (five against 12, six against 11, et cetera). The four qualification winners then take on an elite opponent in the quarterfinals the very next day. The upshot? Winning four straight games to capture gold is a daunting task. And big-seven nations that go that route risk an upset, like Belarus’s unforgettable ousting of Sweden in Salt Lake City.

      5. 2010 could be the last hurrah for NHLers
      If the NHL spurns Sochi, Russia, and the 2014 Winter Games, blame the flimsy arguments of team owners who balk at showcasing their stars on the world’s biggest stage once every four years. Some fear that Atlanta and Nashville might forget that the NHL exists during a two-week break. Others cite the risk of injury—far greater in the NHL than at the Olympics, where fighting and hits to the head are banned. And as for the (debatable) impact on the NHL’s competitive balance due to the fatigue factor after the Games, guess what? No other elite hockey league objects to shutting down briefly for something this big. Bottom line: although NHL commissioner Gary Bettman may use the Olympics as a bargaining chip during CBA talks in 2011 (offering to stay in the Games if the NHLPA gives up something in return), ultimately it’s probable that league participation will continue, because players and fans alike overwhelmingly favour it.

      6. Time for youth to shine
      Not since the mid-’80s heyday of the Edmonton Oilers and CSKA Moscow have so many of the world’s best been so young. Under-25 superstars at these Games will include Sidney Crosby, Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Patrick Kane, and Nicklas Backstrom, to name a few. Youthful legs and enthusiasm should make 2010 the fastest, most frenetic Olympics ever.

      7. Last Olympics for old stalwarts
      Age will likely bar many veteran greats from playing at another Games post-2010. Think of Peter Forsberg (36), Scott Niedermayer (36), Martin Brodeur (37), Jaromir Jagr (37), Nicklas Lidstrom (39), Teemu Selanne (39), and Sergei Fedorov (40). This is also the Olympic swan song of two coaches. Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, who helmed Sweden’s 2006 Olympic and world championship gold-medal squads, will step down after the world championship in Germany this year. Switzerland’s Ralph Krueger, a Canadian-born former New Westminster Bruin, will end his tenure as international hockey’s longest-serving coach, dating back to the 1998 world championship.

      8. First repeat finalist since 1998
      The last three Olympics have featured completely different finalists: Czech Republic–Russia in 1998, Canada–U.S. in 2002, Sweden-Finland in 2006. Remember how American GM Brian Burke said not one cent will be bet on his team in Vegas? Well, go ahead and bet the farm on this: at least one of the six aforementioned teams will crack the 2010 final. It won’t be Slovakia-Switzerland on February 28.

      9. Olympic hockey meets Web 2.0
      On-line video, blogging, and social media are eons beyond what they were in Turin. That changes the way Olympic hockey fans consume information, but it also holds the potential for controversy. In 2010, Internet revelations may well deviate from prescribed Olympic scripts. What if TMZ.com releases cellphone video of players smashing folding chairs after a quarter-final loss? What if a star tweets “this was an even bigger waste of time than Nagano”? Or blogs that his federation should have done a better job of booking flights and hotels? (Any resemblance to USA Hockey’s past woes is purely coincidental.)

      10. The “Vancouver factor”
      We’re not talking about rain, scenery, or sushi. We’re talking about hockey history. Vancouver’s passion for hockey is undeniable: the Canucks have sold out almost 300 straight games. But this is also the city that booed Team Canada in 1972 and witnessed a downtown riot after the 1994 Stanley Cup finals. Vancouver fans have some nasty tendencies, like being quicker to chant “[Opposing team] sucks!” than “Go Canucks go!”, or supporting Todd Bertuzzi in astonishing numbers after his indefensible 2004 assault on Colorado’s Steve Moore. We have our individual wackos, too, such as the unidentified person who shone a laser pointer at Calgary goalie Miikka Kiprusoff last month at GM Place. This month? The world is watching. Play fair, Vancouver.

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      1 Comments

      Iain

      Feb 22, 2010 at 5:30pm

      Why can't NHL games be like the Canada/ USA game? It's the same players, the same officials, the same rules. Yet the domestic game seems to take twice as long (maybe the advertisers have something to do with it), many more penalties and stoppages (advertisers again?) and more goonery. Give me Olympic hockey ever time.