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Goalies Are Olympic Gold

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
A Super Bowl, a World Series, a Stanley Cup Final and an NBA Final can all enhance reputations of players and coaches. These events also can leave under performing players and coaches wondering if they'd been hit by a tractor-trailer.

The Olympics are in the same elite category. At the Winter Games in Torino, Italy, two goaltenders emerged as international stars: Antero Niittymaki of the Flyers and Henrik Lundqvist of the New York Rangers. They were opposing goalies in the gold medal game, with Lundqvist's Swedish squad edging Niittymaki and Finland, 3-2.

"Both those goalies were well known within their own cities and respected," said John Davidson, the superb analyst for NBC's Olympic hockey telecasts, after returning from Torino. "Now, they're respected on the world stage. Niittymaki played a game that was so calm and relaxed and pure. His teammates feed off it.

"Lundqvist had a little trouble with the bigger ice at first. But he doesn't really have a weakness. He carries an air of confidence. For some reason, he connects with the Rangers fans. He plays well on home ice. Some (Rangers) goalies panic at Madison Square Garden: they feel the pressure."

Davidson, a former Rangers and St. Louis Blues goalie, is as puzzled as others about the disappointing performance of Team Canada. The Canadians were eliminated in the quarterfinals.

"On paper, they should have been good," Davidson said. "They had great goaltending (Martin Brodeur and Roberto Luongo). They didn't need many goals, but they couldn't find them. They couldn't finish.

"Maybe there were too many players that weren't having a great season going into the Olympics. The loss of Scott Niedermayer and Ed Jovanovski made a big difference. They create so much from the back end that it makes your offense look better and easier."

Writing in the Toronto Star, columnist Damien Cox noted that Canadian hockey fans have to face the fact that other countries are now their equals in hockey. It's happened to the United States in basketball.

"We win. We lose," Cox wrote. "We never make nearly enough about what other countries do and that's part of the reason consistent Olympic success, with club teams, amateur national squads or NHLer, proved elusive."

On Cox's projected 2010 Canadian Olympic team, there's only one Flyers player, Simon Gagne. Mike Richards is listed on the "taxi squad." Cox, by the way, observes that by 2010 Richards will be the 24-year-old captain of the Flyers.

Talking about the lack of "togetherness" practice time for the Canadian and United States teams, Mike Emrick, Davidson's Olympic broadcasting partner, referred to the situation as "a fly-in business meeting" at Chicago's O'Hare Airport. "Everybody comes in (from across the country) and sits around a table, then they fly out. (The Canadians) flew in, had one day to practice, then they started playing games."

Philadelphia Daily News hockey writer Ed Moran agrees with this puck-ish correspondent that if the NHL is to remain committed to sending its players to the Olympics, the league must make its schedule more player friendly.

Having NHL teams play on the Sunday before the Olympics start is absurd. Successful Olympic teams need more than one practice together.

Wrote Moran in his Olympic wrapup: "It's time for the NHL to get out of the business of Olympic hockey, or fully embrace it. Shorten the season in an Olympic year, promote and market the games, drive a better deal with the networks... The Olympics market hockey. But not when the product looks like this, when players come (to Italy) tired, or hurt..."

If the NHL cannot do these things, Moran and others think Canada and the U.S. should not use NHL players. Let these countries select teams of juniors and college players, have them practice and play games for months prior to the Olympics. Then, there might be another "Miracle on Ice."

The U.S. hockey team was not considered medal worthy this year. But Davidson said Team USA was the most fun to watch in Torino. "You look at wins and losses, but they were all really tight games. They played an entertaining brand of hockey. Their best player was their oldest player
(Chris Chelios, 44)."

Emrick expects the U.S. to contend for a medal in Vancouver in 2010. "The U.S. has won the world junior championship the last two years and the world under-18s," he said. "By the time we get to 2010, they'll be pros.

"This U.S. team was a hybrid of old and young. The next Olympic team will be strictly young players."

Emrick marvels at the fierceness of Olympic hockey. "You sit there and sort of cringe when guys get hit," he said. "When (Atlanta's Ilya) Kovalchuk practically put (Tampa Bay's) Pavel Kubina in the hospital, I thought, 'How's this going to affect Tampa?' But also, how's it going to affect the first game (between) Tampa and Atlanta, because Kubina's a right defenseman and Kovalchuk plays that side? As that noted philosopher (former Flyers defenseman) Ed Van Impe said, 'You've got a whole career to pay a guy back.' I think (Kovalchuk) is going to get paid back big time.

"It seems to me with the European teams, when it's an Olympic gold medal, they'll sacrifice anything to get there. In the semifinals and finals, they just punished one another."

Typically, after an Olympics, players are drained emotionally and physically. But Emrick noted there was no Olympic letdown in first NHL games following the Olympics. Of the 41 goals scored the first night, Emrick said 12 were scored by Olympians. Florida's Olli Jokinen (Finland) had two.

Sports writers aren't supposed to root for teams or athletes, but I'll admit I was rooting for Finland to beat Sweden for the Olympic gold (please don't tell Peter Forsberg). This was nothing against the Swedish team. They have outstanding players. I was waving Finland's blue and white colors because, first, Niittymaki was stopping shots for the Finns. Secondly, Finland's history made me want to see a classic Finnish. The nation was under Swedish rule for centuries before finally gaining its independence. In 69 previous hockey meetings in either the Olympics or world championships, Sweden led the series, 39-15 with 15 ties.

"The Finns had always been the little brother," Emrick said. "They have a mentality (that says) 'We're not as good them, but let's show them,' and they almost did."

Ticked off in Torino

Don't get John Davidson wrong: he was happy to be working the Winter Olympics, but the off-ice hassles in Torino were frustrating. "A lot of the people who ran the venues had no idea about hockey," he said. "The access was awful. We had to work our tails off just to find updated information that the viewers would like to hear. We were not allowed to go to so many spots after certain times.

"Joe Micheletti, Pierre Maguire and I got threatened and thrown out of places. We were always in trouble. Here I am, 53-years-old, walking around getting in trouble. One lady who kept throwing us out is from Australia. She doesn't know that we know the players and the coaches. To go into a gold medal game and not be able to talk to anybody from Sweden or Finland was not right."

Thankfully, for Davidson and other media, access to players and coaches shouldn't be a problem in Vancouver in four years.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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