February 14, 2002

Catching Olympic Hockey Fever

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If you have any interest in the great sport of hockey at all, you should focus a generous portion of your attention on Salt Lake City ASAP because the best hockey on the planet will be played over the next week and a half. And this kind of show won’t be back for another four years.

I speak, of course, about the Olympic men’s hockey tournament, which has actually been going on for a week. The preliminary round doesn’t feature the NHL stars that most fans recognize, but it has been important, as Germany and Belarus will tell you. Tomorrow they will join the six countries that received exemptions from the prelims: Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia, Sweden, and the United States.

What you saw in the All-Star Game will pale in comparison to the action this week. World vs. North America with no motivation except to avoid injury? Please. USA vs. Russia with national pride on the line? Oh, yeah.

The international rules (two line passes are permitted, the rink is wider, etc.) will open up the game, and you will see some of the purest hockey ability unleashed upon Utah.

So without any further ado, allow me to present to you my rankings of the big six in the Olympic hockey tournament.

6. Sweden

Positives: Keeping the puck out shouldn’t be a problem. Goalie Tommy Salo is one of the best international goaltenders. Plus, this country produces players like Doug Murray.

Negatives: No Peter Forsberg. The man is a Swedish hockey hero, and he’s got serious skills, but he’ll be missing the Olympics while he recovers from a splenectomy.

Who to watch: Salo’s play will be important but watch how Michael Nylander plays. He’s replacing Forsberg on the roster and isn’t bad himself.

5. Russia

Positives: Russia produces the best hockey talent in the Eastern Hemisphere. The players skate quickly and have cannons for shots.

Negatives: Players are dropping off the Russian roster like flies: Viktor Kozlov (abdominal strain), Dmitry Yushkevich (blood clot) and goalie Evgeni Nabokov (ineligible) all won’t be playing.

Who to watch: Slava Fetisov, who played for the infamous 1980 Red Army team, will be behind the bench for Team Russia. It will be interesting to see how the former Red Wing matches up with the Americans’ coach — Herb Brooks, who happened to coach the 1980 Miracle on Ice American team. Watch the game on Saturday. Also, goalie Nikolai Khabibulin will be extra motivated to win gold since his coach took Khabibulin’s 1992 gold medal for himself. This happened because Khabibulin was the third-sting goalie on that team and coaches don’t receive medals, only players do.

4. Canada

Positives: The NHL, which boasts the world’s best hockey players, is made up of mostly Canadians, not to mention that our neighbor to the north is the birthplace of the sport.

Negatives: Canada hasn’t tasted gold since 1952, and the larger international ice surface isn’t suited to the Canadians’ tight-checking style of play.

Who to watch: Joe Nieuwendyk ’88 will be a sentimental favorite of those here at Cornell. Team captain Mario Lemieux, already a Hall of Famer, is playing in his first Olympics. As a matter of fact, the only Canadian with experience in two previous Olympics is the concussionable one, Eric Lindros.

3. Finland

Positives: The Finns are the only team to have medaled in each of the last two Olympics (bronze, both times).

Negatives: These guys are overlooked every year. Maybe there’s a reason for that.

Who to watch: Teemu Selanne’s stats in ’98: Five games, four goals, six assists. He’ll be tough to stop, along with Sami Kapanen, who is perhaps the fastest man on skates. Raimo Helminen will be playing in his sixth Olympic Games. The man is 37 and he’s played in every Olympics since the ’84 Sarajevo Games. Damn.

2. Czech Republic

Positives: The defending champs feature Jaromir Jagr up front and Dominik Hasek holding down the fort in net. These two are arguably the best players in the world at their respective positions.

Negatives: The pressure is on the Czechs to repeat, but even in 1998 they barely squeezed out the gold. They won the championship 1-0 and slipped past Canada earlier in the tourney in a shootout.

Who to watch: Whenever Jagr touches the puck, the Czechs have a serious chance to score in the next 15 seconds. Similarly, whenever Hasek is in goal, his team only needs to score two goals to have a secure lead. Also, keep an eye on rising star Milan Hejduk, who has NHL experience under his belt since he played in the Nagano Games.

1. United States

Positives: Home-ice advantage is always nice to have, and Team USA has proven this by taking gold the last two times the Winter Games were on U.S. soil. Plus, there’s always the intangible of the patriotic fervor sweeping the nation.

Negatives: Not only has the USA not won gold since the 1980 Lake Placid Games, it hasn’t even medaled since. Similar to the Canadians, the Americans play a game suited to the NHL’s rinks, not the IIHF’s wide ice surface.

Who to watch: The line of Bill Guerin, Tony Amonte, and Doug Weight scored six goals together in the 2001 All-Star game, and they will likely get time on the ice together this week. The U.S. will also have to rely heavily on players like Mike Modano, whose speed will be crucial on the big ice.

If the Americans can win, as I predict they will, it will give the sport a much needed publicity boost in this country. The general public still hasn’t embraced hockey the way it has basketball or football. The problem is that the NHL hasn’t been marketed very well, not to mention that ticket prices are out of most potential fans’ range. In addition, the sport has trouble translating to TV, mostly because it is so fast-paced. Despite these obstacles to popularity, an American Olympic gold will get plenty of people talking about hockey.

Archived article by Alex Fineman