The 2014 Winter Games in Sochi got under way a few days ago, but the men’s hockey competition began today. And if you’re not excited about it, you might as well turn in your hockey fan card.
Put simply, there is nothing quite like countries competing against countries on the world stage. It doesn’t matter whether it’s the Olympics, the Canada Cup or the World Cup, you just can’t beat it.
Some of the reasons are obvious. First off, you have the best players representing their respective countries, creating essentially All-Star teams facing each other with national pride on the line. The talent level is so good during the Olympics that guys who are big-time scorers in the NHL often wind up being asked to play checking roles for their country. Check this: It looks like Islanders superstar center John Tavares might wind up skating on the fourth line for Team Canada. That’s what you call depth.
The Olympic hockey competition is also fabulous because it doesn’t happen every year. You know, something about absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Lastly, another reason the Olympic tournament is so great is that it’s not only high-level hockey, it’s also a wide-open competition. Yes, Canada is viewed in many circles as the favorite heading into the Sochi Games, but the reality is that the United States could just as easily win, and the same goes for Sweden, Finland, host country Russia and maybe even Slovakia or the Czech Republic.
Just look back at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver when the gold-medal game went to overtime before Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby gave Canada the gold in a heart-stopping final against the U.S.
Hockey fans can only hope this year’s Olympic tournament can match that excitement level.
There’s some question as to whether the NHL will continue to allow its players to participate in the Winter Games beyond this year, and from a purely selfish standpoint here, let’s hope the answer is a yes.
I was lucky enough — and old enough — to witness the first major international hockey event on a global scale, the 1972 Summit Series. For those not familiar, it was an eight-game series between Canadian NHL stars and an all-star team from the Soviet Union.
Canada ended up winning the series with four victories, three losses and one tie, and former Toronto Maple Leafs wing Paul Henderson became a national hero with the game-winning goal in each of the last three games, including a goal with 34 seconds left in Game 8 that set off massive celebrations throughout Canada.
One of the members of the Canadian team in 1972 is current Panthers pro scout Peter Mahovlich, and he scored one of the sickest goals you’ll ever see (think Bill Lindsay vs. Boston in the 1996 playoffs). Here’s the YouTube link to it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FsYL8skc2rQ.
Four years after the Summit Series, there was the Canada Cup, which not only included the Soviets but also exposed North American fans to the best from Czechoslovakia, Sweden and Finland.
Everyone remembers the U.S. gold medal in 1980 after the monumental upset of the Soviet Union, and what made it such an upset was that professionals weren’t allowed in the Olympics at the time.
That changed in 1998 when the International Olympic Committee allowed all athletes to compete, and we’ve been treated to some stellar hockey events at the Olympics ever since. There’s no reason to expect anything different this time around.
From a Panthers standpoint, the tournament has the added bonus of rookie center Aleksander Barkov’s participation with Finland and forward Tomas Kopecky’s with Slovakia. Things should be even more interesting as it’s reported that Barkov will play on Finland’s top line with the legendary Teemu Selanne.
The 2014 Olympic tournament runs until Feb. 23, and it promises to be a fascinating 12 days.