Great hockey nations earn their reputation for greatness by playing at the top of their game when it matters most. Plain and simple. That what the Olympics are about, and that’s what the most recent World Championship in Switzerland was about.
That World Championship might not have produced the same thrills and drama we will expect form the 2010 Olympics, but the tournament nonetheless was a portentous one on several fronts. Given that this was the last major competition before teams meet at the five-ringed quadrennial event next February, there was still plenty to be learned from the 2009 tournament.
For starters, of course, Russia is back. Having beaten Canada for gold for the second consecutive year, and having won last year for the first time since 1993, the great team of the 1960s and ‘70s has resurrected its performance and reputation, thanks largely to two factors: coach Vyacheslav Bykov, and a new generation of superstars.
Bykov is the best coach to come out of Russia since Viktor Tikhonov during the authoritarian era of the Soviet Union, a coach who has his players playing a team, not individualistic, game.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt when you have players such as Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, and Pavel Datsyuk to start with, as he will no doubt have for Vancouver. The only real question mark is whether he can get Tretiak-like goaltending from Nikolai Khabibulin, Evgeni Nabokov or Ilya Bryzgalov, the netminders most likely to be selected for Vancouver.
Of course, Canada is Canada, and as host nation it will have the bi-polar dilemma of being both the tournament favourite as well as the team with colossal amounts of pressure on it. General manager Steve Yzerman will have many difficult choices for 2010, including at least one that cropped up as a result of the World Championship.
Steve Stamkos may be only 19 by the time 2010 rolls around, but his play in Switzerland was nothing short of spectacular. In retrospect, it is a given that 2006 GM Wayne Gretzky would have chosen Sidney Crosby for Turin, even though the teen was only early in his rookie season by the time the choices were made.
But Stamkos proved he is a world-class player, and Yzerman must give him serious consideration now, something no one could have sanely suggested in November 2008 when the rookie was struggling for ice time under terrible circumstances in Tampa Bay.
Still, Canada always seems to get the job done, and it would surprise no one if it played Russia for gold next February.
Tellingly, the Russians have played many of their greatest international games in Canada, starting in 1972 in game one of the Summit Series and carrying on with victory in the 1981 Canada Cup, the three sensational games of the ’87 Canada Cup, and last year’s overtime win over the home side during the 100th anniversary of the IIHF at the World Championship in Quebec City.
Apart from Canada and Russia, only four other teams have won gold at the Olympics since hockey was first contested in 1920, and this list can quickly be pared further when considering favourites for 2010. After all, Great Britain’s win in 1936 was an anomaly, and that country will be nowhere near the hockey arenas of Vancouver.
The Czechs won in 1998, and although they are a powerful nation and not worthy of the term anomaly, they haven’t shown in recent years that they are prepared to follow up on ’98 any time soon.
Gone is their great goalie Dominik Hasek, who, one could argue, almost single-handedly won that gold. No adequate replacement can be called his successor just yet. Jaromir Jagr is past his prime, and many of the other players from ’98 have retired, gotten old, or have yet to be replaced by talent of equal measure.
In Switzerland, the pattern continued as the Czechs played good hockey but were simply outclassed, by Sweden, in the quarter-finals, when it mattered most. It seems like 2004 (almost defeated Canada in the World Cup semifinal in Toronto) and 2005 (Worlds Gold in Austria) was the Czechs' last hurrah for a while.
The Americans won in 1960 and ’80, both wins on home ice. Vancouver is close to home, and the Americans have a core of great young players, notably the emerging Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, and Dustin Brown. The question is whether they are still too green to handle Olympic pressure at the highest level. The Americans might not win a medal in Vancouver, but they will certainly be among the favourites in 2014 when all of their top players will be in mid-career.
The team’s result in Switzerland doesn’t tell the whole story. On paper, they lost to Russia 3-2 in the semi-finals and 4-2 in the Bronze medal game, finished a solid fourth before flying home. The truth is that Russia won on a power-play goal by Konstantin Gorovikov with just 1:47 left in the third period.
The Americans are fast, skilled, and just may be young and innocent enough not to be affected by the pressures of Vancouver. That being said, being affected by the pressures is probably better — as long as you can handle it and play accordingly.
The only other previous Olympic gold team is Sweden, and coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson must be considered something of a miracle worker taking home a bronze from Switzerland with a lineup not even remotely Olympian in makeup.
True, his leader Mats Sundin has stated he won’t be in Vancouver, but Gustafsson will have a much improved lineup starting with goalie Henrik Lundqvist and continuing with many of the 2006 heroes — defencemen Nicklas Lidström, Kenny Jönsson and Niklas Kronwall (maybe the best hitter in the NHL), the Sedin twins, and Henrik Zetterberg.
Tre Kronor doesn’t always win the big games, but it wins often enough that this team is always one of the favourites to, at the least, get to the gold-medal game.
And what about the bedeviling Finns? Never Olympic champions, they have a collection of players who can beat the best on any given day — but that day is never in the finals (excepting the historic 1995 World Championships).
They have several great goalies and a roster that can score goals, but their most recent trips to the finals — in the World Cup in 2004, the Olympics in 2006, and the World Championship in 2007 — all ended in losses. Dark horse? Possibly. Gold medalists in 2010? Not likely.
History will no doubt show that Switzerland 2009 won’t look exactly like Vancouver 2010, but there is enough to judge from to suggest 2010 will feature spectacular speed and skill — and the usual suspects will be in the gold-medal hunt when the money is on the line.