February & May, 2006 – Turin & Riga
The hockey world changed most dramatically and recently in the 1990s. First, the Soviet Union crumbled, after which Czechoslovakia split in two, and then NHLers started to compete at the Olympics. The result produced an astounding parity among the top teams. Consider that the “Canadian era” lasted from 1920 to 1961 and the “Soviet era” from 1962 to 1990. That is, these countries dominated those periods of time in a way that is unimaginable today.
The “modern Olympics”, as it were, have produced a series of winners. Russia, in literally the days immediately following the Soviet Union, won the 1992 Olympic gold. Two years later, Sweden won. In 1998, it was the Czech Republic, and four years later it was Canada. Thus, there was only one certainty during the build-up to the 2006 Olympics in Turin – nothing was certain.
In truth, Canada must have been considered the odds-on favourite. After all, it was the defending champion, and in Turin, the same executives and staff were in place as four years earlier. However, all of the other “Big Seven” teams could surely have been considered possible winners. Yet, it was Sweden, coached by Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, that rose to the challenge to defeat all comers, even though it was by no means the best team in the round robin.
In fact, Tre Kronor won three times and lost twice in the preliminary round. The first loss was a convincing 5-0 win by the Russians and the second a somewhat tainted 3-0 loss to Slovakia. This latter loss created controversy because Sweden’s team knew going into the game that if it lost it would play Switzerland in the quarter-finals; if it won, it would likely face Canada.
The result produced the quarter-final matchup the Swedes wanted, and they made no mistake with the advantage, beating the Swiss easily, 6-2. In the semi-finals, they hammered a top-notch Czech team, 7-3, and in the finals they defeated geographic rivals Finland, 3-2, on a goal by Nicklas Lidstrom after only ten seconds of the third period.
Just a few weeks later, though, the World Championships took place in Riga, Latvia. Eight players from Turin were on the Swedish team, but this was in every sense a different and new team, a fresh challenge for Gustafsson. The World Championship had never been played in Olympic years prior to 1972. In ’72 and ’76, there were two events, and in 1980-1988, only one event in an Olympic year. Starting in 1992, both events have been played in Olympic years, but no team had come particularly close to winning the double gold.
Riga 2006 changed all that. The Swedes lost only once in the first two rounds, a 6-3 loss to Russia in the Qualifying Round, and in the quarter-finals they faced the United States, a team, as usual, that was full of enthusiastic young talent but, at this level, undermanned and outmatched. The Swedes hammered USA 6-0 and then beat Canada 5-4 in the semi-finals, a game in which they built up a lead only to see Canada mount an impressive comeback which fell just short.
In the finals, Tre Kronor played stifling defence and beat the Czech Republic 4-0. For the first time in international hockey history, a team had won both the Olympic and World Championship gold in the same season. The eight men who can claim as much are Henrik Zetterberg, Jorgen Jonsson, Kenny Jonsson, Niklas Kronwall, Mika Hannula, Mikael Samuelsson, Ronnie Sundin, and backup goalie Stefan Liv. This might well be a record for success that goes unmatched for decades.
As part of the IIHF's 100th anniversary celebrations, www.IIHF.com is featuring the 100 top international hockey stories from the past century (1908-2008). Starting now and continuing through the 2008 IIHF World Championships in Canada, we will bring you approximately three stories a week counting down from Number 100 to Number 11.
The Final Top 10 Countdown will be one of the highlights of the IIHF's Centennial Gala Evening in Quebec City on May 17, the day prior to the Gold Medal Game of the 2008 World Championship.
These are the criteria for inclusion on this list: First, the story has to have had a considerable influence on international hockey. Second, it has to have had either a major immediate impact or a long-lasting significance on the game. Third, although it doesn't necessarily have to be about top players, the story does have to pertain to the highest level of play, notably Olympics, World Championships, and the like. The story can be about a single moment — a goal, a great save, a referee's call — or about an historic event of longer duration — a game, series, tournament, or rule change.
Click here for the 100 Top Stories