The 8-0 loss suffered by Norway at the hands of Team Canada in the opening day of pool play in the 2010 men's Olympic hockey tournament has done little to dampen the excitement around Norwegian hockey.
The Norwegians understand that their hockey program ranks a notch below the world's top hockey powers. Simply holding Canada off the board in the scoreless first period and keeping the game relatively close through two periods was a step in the right direction.
For Norwegian hockey, progress is measured not by unrealistic hopes of winning an Olympic medal, but rather by the opportunity to play against -- and learn from -- the elites. Simply qualifying for the Olympics after a 16-year absence is a major plus for Norway. Keep in mind also that Norway's Olympic berth in 1994 was due strictly to the fact that, as the Olympic host nation, the national team received an automatic spot in the hockey tournament.
Team Norway coach Roy Johansen makes no secret about his team's strategy in Vancouver. "We want to stay close, play good defense and hopefully frustrate the other teams. The longer we hang around, the better it is for us," he said.
The Norwegians' Olympic roster is primarily a mixture of pros from European elite leagues -- most prominently, former NHL forward Patrick Thoresen, DEL player Tore Vikingstad and Swedish Elitserien standouts Per-Age Skroder and Mats Zuccarrello Aasen -- and semi-pros from the domestic Get-Ligaen. Norway's already slim hopes against the Canadians took a further hit when NHL/AHL defenseman Ole Kristian Tollefsen had to stay back due to an illness in his family and injured regular national team forward Morten Ask of the DEL's Nuremberg Tigers had to be replaced by Jonas Andersen of Sparta Sarpsborg.
Just a few short years ago, a spot in Vancouver seemed like a remote dream for the Norwegians. In 2007, the international season was a comedy of errors for Norway. After the World Championships -- where the Norwegians barely held onto its spot at the top level -- veteran national team members threatened to withdraw from the team if significant changes weren't made.
In response, the Norwegian Ice Hockey Federation reorganized its leadership. NIF unanimously elected a new president endorsed by the top Norwegian players, Ole-Jacob Libaek, to replace Bjorn Ruud after a14-year tenure as the federation president. Libaek previously served as NIF head from 1985-1993. The results have been gratifying. Today, morale has never been higher and the program is on the upswing.
The Norwegians were the surprise story of the 2008 World Championship. The same national team that was besieged in turmoil one year earlier reached the medal round and finished eighth. Along the way, Norway beat Germany, took Finland to overtime and threw a huge scare into Canada before a late goal by Rick Nash led the Canadians to a 2-1 victory.
Norway followed it up by winning a spot in the 2010 Olympics. In the rousing finale of the qualification tournament, the Norwegians downed Scandinavian archrival Denmark. A hat trick by Thoresen keyed the victory.
Norway's Olympic roster features eight players from Get-Ligaen. If Norway's hockey program had greater depth, the number of domestic league players on the national team would be lower. There are a few former NHL, AHL and European elite league players who make their way to Get-Ligaen. But the quality of play in the domestic league is roughly equivalent to the lower echelon clubs of Sweden's Allsvenskan (top minor league) or top end of Sweden's Division I (third tier league after Elitserien and Allsvenskan).
Under ideal circumstances, of course, the domestic league would gain in stature and keep more of its top young talents from leaving Norway to develop their games in Sweden or elsewhere. But that's unlikely to happen in the near future. For the foreseeable future, the top players on the Norwegian national team will be those who suit up for club teams in other countries.