VANCOUVER – As fans nervously await the start of the 2010 Olympic men's tournament, wondering if their country is going to shine or flop, here's some good news. No matter who wins, there'll be something to cheer about after the gold medal game on February 28 in Vancouver.
Don't believe it? Let's explore the bounds of possibility and talk about what's to like about a golden scenario for all 12 competing nations, no matter how long their odds of actually prevailing are.
Nobody believes Belarus is going to win this tournament. That said, in 2002 this former Soviet republic already authored what most consider the second-biggest upset in international hockey history (after the USA's 1980 win over the Soviet Union in the “Miracle on Ice), ousting favoured Sweden 4-3 in the quarterfinals. And Belarus has made big strides as a hockey nation since then, placing sixth at the IIHF World Championship in 2006 and eighth in 2009. Could there be a better excitement-builder for coach Glen Hanlon's team for hosting the 2014 IIHF World Championship than stunning the world with gold in the motherland of hockey in 2010?
Let's face it: it'll be the biggest hockey party the world has ever known if the puck-crazed host country manages to fulfill its fans' expectations and claim gold. (Particularly if the victory comes in dramatic fashion over, say, the Russians or Americans, but Canadians will take gold any way they can get it.) This would be a nice change of pace for senior men's IIHF tournaments: no Olympic host nation has won gold since the USA in 1980, and the IIHF World Championship “home ice curse” has endured since 1986 when the Soviets took top spot in Moscow. Since Canada's roster will be considerably more youth-laden compared to the seventh-place Turin squad, a Canadian victory would be another indicator that Hockey Canada is doing things the right way with its junior programs, producing top young talents like Sidney Crosby, Mike Richards, and Shea Weber in recent years. A good example to emulate.
It feels like forever since the glory days of Czech hockey (1998-2001), when the national team won gold every year. The feel-good story here is the opportunity for veterans of the history-making '98 Nagano team to top the podium one more time. Do stars like Jaromir Jagr, Milan Hejduk, and (maybe even) a 45-year-old Dominik Hasek still have what it takes? The Czechs, who have done little internationally since earning Olympic bronze and Worlds silver in 2006, desperately need something to inspire up-and-coming players before their talent pool runs dry.
To paraphrase an old slogan of the official 2010 restaurant, the Finns “deserve a break on February 28”. When you look up “bridesmaid” in the dictionary, you just might see a photo of the two-time Olympic silver medalists (1988, 2006). This decade alone, they've also lost two World Championship finals (2001, 2007) and the World Cup final (2004). Most countries (okay, maybe not Sweden) would applaud gold for the hard-working but seemingly jinxed Finns. In addition, this is probably the last chance for Jere Lehtinen to join the IIHF's Triple Gold Club. The three-time Selke Trophy winner previously helped capture Finland's lone Worlds gold (1995) and won a Stanley Cup with Dallas (1999).
Making the quarterfinals in Vancouver is about the most that German fans can hope for, even if their NHL stars like Marco Sturm and Christian Ehrhoff are playing at top capacity. But wouldn't it be sweet if the black-and-gold squad had Olympic gold medals to buoy them heading into Germany's hosting of the 2010 IIHF World Championship? In addition to the 76,000-odd spectators that will pack Veltins-Arena in Gelsenkirchen for the Germany-USA opener, setting a new world record for attendance at a hockey game, an Olympic title would surely increase the appetite for hockey in this soccer-crazed nation of 80 million. Germany has only two Olympics bronzes to its credit (1932, 1976).
Everybody expects the Latvians to put up a good fight, but nobody believes they can take the Olympic crown. Especially with goalie Arturs Irbe retired, star forward Sergejs Zoltoks tragically dead, and D-man Sandis Ozolins well past his prime despite making a comeback in the KHL this year. However, if the Latvians somehow pulled off a miracle in 2010, it would solve climate change, since their energetic fans would make enough noise to power the entire world and get rid of fossil fuels. Incidentally, the population of Latvia (2.2 million) is about the same as that of Greater Vancouver.
The odds of Norway winning three or four straight games and taking the Olympic crown are about as good as, well, the Toronto Maple Leafs winning the Stanley Cup this season. But if it unimaginably did so, that would provide a nice push for it to keep pace with its more-celebrated Nordic hockey neighbours, Sweden and Finland. Norway's best previous Olympic finish was eighth in 1972.
Superstars like Alexander Ovechkin, Evgeni Malkin, and Ilya Kovalchuk make Russia the world's most exciting offensive hockey nation, similar to the status it enjoyed during the USSR heyday of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. Watching the Russians take gold would be like watching the Brazilian national soccer team win the 1970 World Cup: a triumph of pure, high-speed creativity and firepower. It would also create even greater impetus for the NHL to commit to the 2014 Olympics in Sochi. The Russian gunners would want a chance to defend their title on home ice, while the disappointed Canadians would surely want to take revenge by spoiling their archrival's big party.
Slovakia might be the most uniformly hockey-mad country in Europe (in other countries, soccer often vies for first place in sports fans' hearts), and since it has never won Olympic gold before, the euphoria in Bratislava would be over the top. With a diminishing player pool due to mass departures to North American leagues, Slovakia hasn't won an international title since the 2002 World Championship in Sweden. This might be the last chance for Zdeno Chara, Marian Gaborik, and Lubomir Visnovsky to shine together. The Slovaks are longshots, but people forget they won five straight games in Turin 2006 before bowing to the Czechs in the quarterfinals.
With Olympic gold in Vancouver, Sweden would become the first nation since the former Soviet Union/CIS to capture back-to-back titles (1988, 1992). And like Canada, Sweden also has a chance to send a message to the world about how to spur development of young talent. Players like Nicklas Bäckström and Loui Eriksson will presumably fill important roles with the 2010 Olympic squad. A record seven Swedes were chosen in the first round of the 2009 NHL Entry Draft.
What a Canadian feel-good story it would be if Swiss head coach Ralph Krueger led his upstart team to gold in Vancouver. The Winnipeg native, who has held his job since 1998, is slated to hand over the reins to fellow Canadian Sean Simpson (ZSC Lions Zurich) after the 2010 Worlds. Of course, that decision might merit reexamination if Krueger masterminded the ultimate upset. Switzerland's best performance under him was 1998's fourth place, and it has never done better at the Olympics than bronze (1928, 1948).
The biggest boost to the popularity of hockey in the United States came when Mike Eruzione's goal on Vladislav Tretiak stood up as the winner in the 4-3 American “Miracle on Ice” win over the Soviets in Lake Placid. Thirty years later, with hockey's profile waning in various US markets, a gold-medal victory for GM Brian Burke's squad might be just the tonic to get more American kids away from idolizing the NBA and NFL and get them chasing those little black rubber discs again.