February 9-24, 2002 — Salt Lake City, Utah
February 15, 2002, might well be considered one of the most important dates in hockey’s history. On the surface, it was day one of the Olympics for the top teams competing in Salt Lake City with full NHL participation. However, the four games that were played that day, specifically Canada vs. Sweden, came to redefine the game and anticipate significant rule changes for years to come.
Russia beat Belarus 6-4 that day, which was no surprise except perhaps the closeness of the score. The Czechs beat Germany, 8-2, again no surprise, and the Americans’ 6-0 win over Finland was a surprise more for the score than the result. Everyone was looking forward to Canada and Sweden, though. This was a great rivalry, and Canada was the favourite this year, to be sure. The story line also focused on Canadian goalie Curtis Joseph having to face his teammate with the Toronto Maple Leafs, captain Mats Sundin.
What no one expected, however, was the pace and style of the game. The Swedes adapted instantly to the then new rule of no centre ice line for passing, and they scored two goals using a “torpedo” offence which caught Canada completely off guard (including a beautiful breakaway goal by Sundin). In addition, the game went quickly because of no touch icing and another new IIHF rule, the so-called hurry-up faceoff.
This eliminated the common NHL strategy of stalling for time while ripping a piece of loose tape off a stick, or going to the bench for another stick, or otherwise delaying the game. Players had 20 seconds to get set for the faceoff, and whether they were ready or not the puck was going to be dropped. Officials called obstruction violations closely, and the result was a stunning 5-2 Sweden victory in a game so entertaining and quick it was shocking to see the difference between the last NHL game and this first Olympics game.
In the coming two weeks, players, fans, and managers noticed how truly “better” these Olympics games were to most regular league games played in North America, and the NHL promptly made changes to its rules (immediately adopting the hurry-up faceoff) to bring the game in line to the faster international one. (Although it would take the NHL another three years to realise that going without the red-line was the right decision.)
Never before did international hockey rules receive such resounding support from virtually all North American media. The New York Times wrote after the final game: “The past ten days may have produced the best hockey tournament ever held, at least until the next Olympics.”
USA Today’s eye-opener was phrased: “The Olympic hockey tournament has been liberating, enlightening, refreshing, every other ‘ing’ you could think of. Except of boring, troubling, frightening…”
In the end, Canada did win gold, but it did so by adjusting to a new style of play, one in which the entertainment was not just visible on the scoreboard but on every second the puck moved up ice with lightning speed. The 2002 Olympics were, in many ways, the start of 21st century hockey.
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