By John Zakour
The XXII Olympic Winter Games have come and gone, and conveniently, host Russia won the medal and gold count, so everyone is happy. But the Russians also had one of the most disappointing teams in the most attention grabbing sport of the games: ice hockey.
Ninety-nine percent of the time I watch sports, I watch the events I am familiar with and have watched my whole life. I know what is going on. I know who to hate and who to root for, and I crack jokes with my friends and heckle announcers. But when the Olympics and its variety pack of winter sports come around, it is like I have studied for the wrong test. All of a sudden I become the clueless viewer, completely lost. The nuances of the sports are totally lost on me. So I take shelter in watching Olympic hockey.
An aspect of hockey that only the Winter Olympics makes possible is waking up early to catch a game. So I set my alarm, and watched the U.S. take on Russia at 7:30 a.m. sharp. Getting up early was a reminder of how different Olympic hockey feels. Watching the USA prevail, and later disappoint massively, had a more communal feeling than any other sporting event.
The U.S. was the underdog, a role it plays so well in hockey, which felt more unifying than watching a team of All Stars such as USA basketball. Not only did it feel like the whole nation pulling for them, but also that they needed it, unlike their compatriots on the basketball court, who are only trying to avoid disappointment. And although it is not our national sport, it was still a blast to follow. It was a ride we do not normally get and one that comes around only every four years.
The 12-team hockey tournament was the highlight of the Olympics. The women’s gold medal game, featuring five Cornellians, was a classic. It had the closest finish of a championship game I have ever seen, with Canada surviving a near-empty-net goal, and ultimately winning in overtime.
The American men taking down Russia was an instant classic, highlighted by the drama of a lengthy shootout won by TJ Oshie, and TJ Oshie alone, which was made possible only by Olympic shootout rules. As a Sabres fan, it was refreshing to root for a team with a shot of going all the way. But like the Sabres, both American teams broke our hearts.
Which is why NHL players need to be allowed to play in the Winter Olympics. There has been talk of limiting the world’s best players, and I see the point. Owners do not want to see their costly investments get injured playing for their country and not for a paycheck. Notably, John Tavares was injured.
But because NHL stars are not allowed to play, we do not get the best hockey players in the world. And without the best hockey players in the world, we do not see the best teams in the world. Plus without NHLers, we would not have gotten Canada vs. Latvia, which is reason enough.
Canada vs. Latvia was one of the greatest hockey games I have ever seen. In truth, the outcome was never in too much doubt, but it was still a thrill to watch unfold. This was the miracle on ice that never happened, the upset that could not be. Unlike the hockey offered by the NHL, this had a different flavor of drama. A completely outgunned Latvian team, led by a recently employed NHL coach and two NHL prospects, went toe to toe with, to borrow phrasing, “the greatest hockey machine in the world,” Canada. Canada outshot Latvia, 57-14, and yet could never shake the Latvians, only winning by one goal.
But Canada vs. Latvia will always stand out to me because of one man with a reputation with North Americans, Latvian goalie Kristers Gudļevski. Ironically, despite hockey not needing the Olympics like its winter sports compatriots, it still provided the best example of the Olympic spirit with Latvia’s near miss. The image of the games was goalie Kristers Gudļevski collapsed on the ice, not for an injury, but just from sheer exhaustion after being bombarded with Canadian pucks. For a moment, he literally looked like he had to bear the weight of a country on his shoulders.
Of course, I have said nothing of the victors, gold medal winning Canada, who allowed one goal in the three elimination games, but could not manage any outpouring of goals against its opponents. Despite this, Canada in 2014 was one of the most amazing teams I have ever watched. Watching them was like watching a purposeful all-star team. They did not quite gel, and would probably need something closer to a season’s worth of games to gel. But they featured an incredible defense, overflowing with talent.
The Canadian defense controlled every game they played. Stifling would be an understatement. Just look at how they manhandled the Americans. The U.S. came rolling into its clash with Canada, only to be shut out. And it was not just a shutout, but rather, it was a dogged and relentless pestering of the American forwards. Without the Olympics, such a collection of talent would never have a purpose. It was fascinating to watch, if not extremely frustrating from my biased view.
So let us make sure four years from now the best players in the world are in South Korea to provided us with Olympic hockey worth writing home about.