BERNE--International hockey is blessed with many exciting rivalries based on geographic, political, and sporting concerns. Canada-Russia speaks for itself, but Russia-Czech Republic is still somewhat politically charged. Finland and Sweden hold special places in each other’s hearts, as it were, and Canada-United States is always an anticipated game.
But Sweden and the United States, the two foes in today’s bronze-medal game, can’t be said to have any particular animus. Both are happily democratic societies thousands of kilometers apart, and although they are both among hockey’s elite, they have never played a finals against each other and their past doesn’t recall great games or fierce hatred.
They did, however, meet in the Preliminary Round on April 29, and Tre Kronor won a thrilling game that night, rallying from 5-2 down early in the third period to tie the game in regulation and then win 6-5 in overtime. It was a great rally--or a terrible collapse, depending on your perspective, but it wasn't the most meaningful game in that both teams had already ensured sports in the Qualifying Round.
So what can we make of today’s game in an historical context? Perhaps the closest thing to a cutting-edge storyline might be the fact that the last time the teams met, in the quarter-finals in 2006, the Swedes swamped the Americans, 6-0, en route to a gold medal.
Intriguingly, three U.S. players from that whitewash will be in today’s game—Ryan Suter, Patrick O’Sullivan, and captain Dustin Brown.
And now that Jonas Gustavsson has left Berne to be with his ailing mother, the Swedish goaltending tandem of Johan Holmqvist and Stefan Liv is the same today as three years ago. Holmqvist was the goalie of record in that shutout victory in ‘06.
Three Swedish skaters were also in the lineup for that game—Magnus Johansson, Tony Martensson, and captain Kenny Jonsson.
But even that lopsided victory was not indicative of any trend or long-term domination by Tre Kronor. True, the teams met earlier that year, in Turin during the Olympics, Sweden prevailing 2-1, but the Americans beat Sweden 5-1 in the Qualifying Round in 2005.
In the Qualifying Round in 2004 Sweden won, 3-1, and in the Preliminary Round in 2001 the game ended in a 2-2 tie. Later in the 2001 tournament, Sweden beat the U.S. 3-2 to win the bronze medal, in Germany. In 2000, the Americans won, 5-3, again in the Qualifying Round.
The teams never faced each other in the 2004 World Cup of Hockey or the 2002 Olympics, thus concluding their head-to-head results in the 21st century.
So what conclusions can be reached? What hypotheses formed? Not a lot. The teams don’t play very often. Each is capable of beating the other. Both are world-class hockey nations icing world-class lineups today. Of course, motivation is so often the determining factor in the bronze game. It’s a game that doesn’t feel very important at the time because both teams lost to the gold-medal game teams which will step on the ice immediately after. But any player will admit that, after the passing of a few years, winning a bronze medal is a more proud feeling than finishing fourth.