Norway’s most famous NHL player won’t be participating in the 2014 Olympics. But at age 42, Espen Knutsen is still keeping a close eye on the underdog roster heading to Sochi.
“I think it’s a good, hard-working team that is loyal to the system,” the now-retired Knutsen told IIHF.com, on the line from his Oslo home. “It has players who have been with the national team for many years, so I think every player knows his role in the team and how the team is supposed to play if they want to have some success.”
Currently ninth in the IIHF World Ranking, Norway qualified directly for Sochi with an eighth-place finish at the 2012 IIHF Ice Hockey World Championship in Finland and Sweden. It’s just the second time the Norwegians have made the Olympics since Knutsen’s lone appearance on home ice in Lillehammer in 1994. Norway came tenth in Vancouver in 2010.
Knutsen, a flashy centre nicknamed “Shampoo” since his father was a barber, scored 111 points in 207 career NHL games. He also played in three World Juniors (1989-91) and four top-division World Championships (1994-97). He knows how tough it’s been for the men in the polar bear jerseys to succeed against the world’s best. But Knutsen believes things are heading in the right direction.
“We’ve been much better the last few years than we were in the end of the 1990s and the start of the 2000s,” said Knutsen. “We have more guys playing in different clubs in Europe now. Norway’s a small country. We don’t have many rinks in Norway or many players. But the success at the last few World Championships has been outstanding.”
Under longtime head coach Roy Johansen, the Norwegians have stayed in the top division of the World Championship. They’ll appear there for the ninth straight time in Belarus this spring.
In the early 1990s, Knutsen was a teammate of Johansen’s with the classic Norwegian club Valerenga Oslo. Knutsen now coaches Valerenga, and he speaks with knowledge when he praises Johansen: “I think he’s a great coach. All the players he has are in great shape. They work really hard before the championships and come into those tournaments in the best shape of their lives. He’s been a key factor in the Norwegian team’s success over the last few years.”
At forward, a key player is Norway’s lone current NHLer, Mats Zuccarello, who is vying for the New York Rangers’ team lead in scoring with Brad Richards and Derek Stepan. The nifty 26-year-old winger will be counted on to spark Johansen’s power play.
Patrick Thoresen, a five-year KHL stalwart, is having a slower-than-average season with SKA St. Petersburg, but has the potential to bust out: the veteran of 106 NHL games racked up 18 points in eight games at the 2012 Worlds. Centre Mathis Olimb, blessed with great technical skills, is leading the SHL’s Frolunda Gothenburg in scoring.
The defence will be anchored by ex-NHLers Ole-Kristian Tollefsen (Farjestad Karlstad) and Jonas Holos (Lokomotiv Yaroslavl). Tollefsen, 29, can supply much-needed physicality, but must also remain disciplined, as he was suspended for illegal hits both at the 2010 Olympics and 2013 Worlds. Holos can play in any situation and could log close to 30 minutes a night if need be.
Goaltenders Lars Haugen (Dynamo Minsk) and Lars Volden (Espoo Blues) can expect to be peppered with rubber. In 2010 the Norwegians allowed 42 shots on goal in their opening 8-0 loss to Canada and 39 in their subsequent 6-1 defeat against the Americans.
Almost certainly, the Norwegians will finish third or fourth in Group B, depending on whether they defeat Austria. They have little chance against Canada or the Finns. Norway might be eliminated from medal contention with a loss in the qualification game where the winner advances to the quarter-finals. Anything better than ninth place would be a tremendous surprise.
But as Knutsen pointed out, an upset is not totally inconceivable: “If they have the goaltending and have success on special teams, maybe one out of 15 games, you can have a chance to win. That’s the great thing about hockey: you never know.”
Mats Zuccarello: His puck wizardry is unequalled by anyone else on this team, but he will need to perform more magic than in previous international competitions. Zuccarello had a goal and two assists in Vancouver, and has been limited to seven goals and (curiously) one assist in his three World Championships.
Patrick Thoresen: At 30, he has become a dominant scorer in the KHL. Yet NHL fans will also recall how Thoresen fearlessly threw his body in front of shots with Philadelphia and Edmonton. That kind of example will be important for the younger players in Sochi.
Jonas Holos: Serving as an assistant captain with Lokomotiv Yaroslavl, Holos, 26, has an excellent first pass and great command of the big-ice game.
Sondre Olden: A third-round pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2010, this tall 21-year-old winger is one of five Valerenga players to crack the Sochi roster. He’s enjoying a breakout campaign this year, and could do some damage on the power play. “He has a great future,” Knutsen said.