Friday, March 05, 2010

Analyzing the Olympics: Looking (truthfully) at “The Goal”, amending the tourney for Sochi and my final thoughts

Hi there. I know you’re clicking on this blog looking for some analysis of the 2010 Trade Deadline that just passed in the National Hockey League; and I thought about doing just that. However, that would involve having to analyze the big blockbuster Steve Staois trade that went down between the Calgary Flames and Edmonton Oilers and I thought “nobody wants to read that”. Plus I think we’re due for an Olympic analysis, especially now that we’ve had some distance from the gold medal game so we can look at it minus the emotions it brought up.

So that’s what you’ll get.

Crosby vs. Henderson

Almost immediately after Sidney Crosby scored to give Canada the gold medal, there was talk about comparing the dramatic goal to one Paul Henderson scored to defeat the Soviet Union in the 1972 Summit Series. In fact, the Olympic hockey panel did just that after the game, with some of the panellists- obviously caught up in the emotion of the event- suggesting that Crosby’s goal was bigger than Henderson’s. Perhaps at that moment it was bigger than Henderson’s goal because it addressed an immediate need- the gold medal winning goal- but the winds of time will show that it’s not bigger than the 1972 tally, and none might ever be.

The only area where Crosby’s goal would be better than Henderson’s is in technique, because Henderson was simply “Johnny on the spot” in potting a rebound past a down-and-out Vladislav Tretiak while Crosby fired a well-placed shot to Ryan Miller’s left side from a terrible angle (though, granted, it’s a save Miller should have made). Everywhere else, Henderson’s goal wins. In terms of dramatics, Henderson’s goal capped a three-goal third period rally that erased a 5-3 Soviet lead after two periods, whereas Crosby only got his shot in overtime because his team played scared and let themselves get outworked in the final minute of play, erasing the Canadians’ own 2-1 advantage (and an earlier 2-0 advantage). Yes, an overtime goal in itself is dramatic, but Crosby merely rescued Canada from an embarrassing collapse, while Henderson rescued Canada from the gallows of defeat. Furthermore, the Soviet team played far better than the Canadians did, so much so that it could be argued that as the Series progressed Canada could be seen as underdogs (the Soviet Union did hold a 3-1-1 series advantage after five games, an advantage that was thoroughly deserved). In 2010, the Canadians were much better than the U.S. was on paper and even though the Americans played much better as a team, no one would have thought the Canadians “triumphed against the odds” like the 1972 Canadians did. Crosby also didn’t end a super long gold medal drought- this was Canada’s first gold medal since 2002, which is hardly a worrisome drought (had Crosby’s goal occurred in 2002 then maybe you’d move the goal up a few notches, but that’s it). It is true that Crosby’s goal set an Olympic record (most gold medals at a Winter Olympics) but at the end of the day it’s still just “another gold medal”, even if it is the most prestigious one at the Games.

The main reason why Henderson’s goal overshadows Crosby- and, perhaps, every other iconic goal scored and likely ever to be scored- was the gravity of the goal. Let’s not forget the history of the situation. 1972 was in the heart of the Cold War, with the series being played four years after the Prague Spring and a year after the Americans started pulling troops out of Vietnam. The Soviets at this time were more than just hated rivals on the ice- the Soviets were hated rivals in everything, embodying everything that people in the West loathed. You heard about how the Toronto Maple Leafs hate the Ottawa Senators? Well, the Canadians really hated the Soviets, and it wasn’t the kind of petty hate that we see in the Leafs-Sens rivalry. This was absolute pure hatred, the kind where both sides didn’t see the other side as human beings and that the will to win meant more than just defeating a loathed rival- it was all about good triumphing over evil, morality besting depravity with our “upright humans” defeating those “gutless robots”. This was the rivalry that would end all rivalries.

Thankfully, that kind of hatred should be foreign to most of us, because nationalism isn’t the force that it was in the 1970s, but it was that environment that Henderson and the 1972 team had to live in. Crosby’s goal may have touched off the largest street party the world has ever known, but Henderson’s goal “set things right” for not just the hockey world but “the whole world”. Henderson was Superman to the USSR’s Lex Luthor, David vs. Goliath, Mario vs. Bowser...any superhero you could name was Henderson and any supervillian you could name were the Soviets.

(Okay, I’ll stop beating a dead get the point).

Now, it’s true that the United States isn’t always perceived well north of the 49th Parallel for a whole gamut of reasons (differing political leanings, a Canadian inferiority complex, our free healthcare, etc.), but no one would say that we, in Canada, hate the United States. Our nations are as close as we could possibly be, mixing not just politically but economically, socially and culturally. I’m sure most of us have American friends (I know I do) and we’ve all interacted positively with our friends from the south without batting an eye like the Israelis and Palestinians might toward each other. Our rivalry with the United States is more of the friendly rivalry that two local high schools would partake in, where we’d loath them on the ice during the game and stop at nothing to defeat them, but once the game finishes we’d just as easily have a beer with them. Picture that happening in 1972.

The only event in today’s world that could be comparable to Henderson’s goal was if Osama bin Laden assembled a hockey team, challenged the Canadians and dominated them, only for Canada to mount a spirited comeback and win the game in overtime. Yeah, that’s just not going to happen. It’s still possible for a Henderson-like circumstance to occur in the distant future, but right now there’s no team even close to being as loathed (and feared) as the Soviets were in 1972 and that just might be a good thing- I mean, truthfully, did anyone like the Cold War era?

Don’t get me wrong- Crosby’s goal is going to be iconic for Canadians. This is “The Goal” for my generation, one that was too young to experience the Wayne Gretzky-Mario Lemieux goal of 1987 and one that wasn’t alive for Henderson, but let’s not blow this out of proportion. This isn’t the greatest hockey goal of all time, let alone the greatest hockey goal in Canadian history because there’s no fierce nationalism involved here, and, truthfully, we should be happy we don’t have to live in that climate. I don’t mean any of this to diminish the accomplishments of the Canadian national team, because they deserved their gold medal; and Canada should be proud and celebrate their victory- but please, let’s not make the goal more than it should be.

Amending the Tournament for Sochi

The question that will be on everyone’s mind now that the Vancouver Games are finished are if the National Hockey League players will be permitted to go to Sochi for the 2014 Olympic Games. The players themselves want to do it (some, like Alexander Ovechkin, say they will whether or not they’ll be permitted to go), but the owners are iffy because of all the strains it puts on their teams, with increased injury risks and a compressed schedule; and, let’s admit, the benefits of the Olympics to the game of hockey aren’t really seen when the tournament isn’t in North America. At Salt Lake City and Vancouver the buzz was deafening, but at Turin and Nagano the tournament didn’t cause the same kind of stir. I still believe it’s in the best interests of the NHL to go to the Olympics because no matter where they are hockey gets coverage the NHL could only dream of (because then the public at large will actually care about the results, the same way they do with sports like bobsleigh and rowing, as it is part of the greater “Olympic result”), but this is Gary Bettman we’re dealing with here- logic isn’t exactly in his vocabulary.

Having said that, there is some truth to the “compressed schedule” argument, as Olympic years do ask Olympians to expend an inordinate amount of energy with the increased workload. This year’s tournament wasn’t as taxing as earlier tournaments since the Americans and Finns only played six additional games and the Canadians and Slovaks played seven additional games, but given the intensity of those games, the players must feel like they’ve played 14 games. To ask those players to play those games on top of the regular season and then the Stanley Cup Playoffs is asking a lot, compounded more by the fact that players are returning from the tiring tournament to playing the last quarter of the season, where the pressures and intensity will be greater than before the Olympic tournament. The players can talk all they want about how that schedule won’t affect them, but I’m sure a good many of them are secretly wishing they didn’t have to endure the extra toll on their bodies. The effects might be mitigated by the fact the Olympics were in Vancouver and not halfway across the world, but I’m sure a lot of the Olympians are still very tired.

So the solution here is that the NHL makes a commitment for Olympic years to cut its season by ten games, reducing the slate to 72 games. The reasoning is quite simple- the average amount of games for a team in a month is in the vicinity of 15 games. 75% (which is the percentage of a month that three weeks are) of 15 is 11.5, which isn’t a round number, and since the Olympic tournament is not greater than ten games, ten games seems to be a fair amount to take off the season slate. Any more cut games and we’d have integrity issues with regards to the other seasons, as then it would dip noticeably into both player and team statistics. Under this system, the NHL can still maintain the integrity of the season without needless compression, while allowing for Olympic participation.

This plan would still have its roadblocks, since it would cut into the revenue that NHL teams would be able to collect, but it wouldn’t be one that couldn’t be overcome. The NHL would probably ask the players to take a paycut to make this plan work and, with ten less games, NHL teams would lose somewhere around $4-6 million each (assuming sellouts in each stadium for the five home games that would be tossed), which wouldn’t be too much to ask for the players to give up. Additionally, it could ask the Olympics to make up these lost revenues (the International Olympic Committee certainly makes enough) since they are the beneficiaries of the players’ participation (bringing the total compensation to anywhere between $120-170 million), but that would be a topic for the distant future- in the immediate future, it can only deal with the collective bargaining agreement and its own players, so a paycut would be likely.

Could there be other solutions? Perhaps there could be- we could start the season even earlier, maybe two or three weeks sooner, but I don’t know how many people would want to see NHL hockey in September or training camps in August for that matter (though when the World Cups are staged at the same time no one bats an eye...). Then there’s the “solution” of just using the World Cup and forgetting about the Olympics, but people suggesting that seem to forget that the “World Cup of Hockey” isn’t even in the same stratosphere as soccer’s World Cup and hasn’t even come close to generating the buzz that the Olympic tournament generates. Besides, the World Cup isn’t inclusive- nations such as France, Mexico, or Latvia don’t have a chance to play in the tournament (since it’s just the brainchild of the NHL and the NHL Players’ Association) as the World Cup has no qualifiers, whereas the Olympics do. It might also be time to think about a proper NHL break for the IIHF World Championships and creating a proper international club tournament but we’re getting ahead of ourselves. The priority is to make the Olympics that more palatable, and we can accomplish that by lightening the NHL load in Olympic years because that’s the easiest solution.

Final Thoughts

Once all was said and done after Sunday’s euphoria, we’ll come to realize that the 2010 Vancouver tournament was a wonderful tournament, ended in a way- an overtime winner- most of us would like to see a final match decided. The hockey was beautiful and the talent plentiful, which makes it tough knowing we have to go back to the turgid 2-1 contests the NHL makes us sit through.

The greatest highlight for me didn’t come from the play of the “big nations” such as Canada or Russia, but how well the “small nations” such as Switzerland and Latvia played. It’s true that there were no upsets quite like Belarus’ shocker in 2002, but it was revealing to see how close they played their superiors despite their pedigree, suggesting the talent gap isn’t as wide as we may have thought it was. The Swiss, in particular, played so well that it just may be time to consider them at the top of the “next tier” of hockey powers (e.g. Germany and Kazakhstan), nations that aren’t stocked with NHLers but are capable of producing them; with the nation moving closer to the “powers”. None of you probably heard of Ivo Rutheman, Martin Pluss, Roman Wick or Mathias Seger before the tournament but you couldn’t help but notice them afterward. Those names may or may not be in the NHL in the near future, but I guarantee you one Swiss player *will* be there and *will* make an impact: Luca Sbisa. Remember that name- you’ll be hearing a lot from the Anaheim Duck in the coming years.

Other highlights were the two surprise semi-finalists in the United States and Slovakia. The Slovaks were unfortunate not to receive a medal after shocking tournament favourites Russia and Sweden in their run to the bronze medal game, receiving steady goaltending from Jaroslav Halak (a first for Slovakia), a stout defensive game and contributions from the players they needed most- Marian Hossa, Zdeno Chara and Pavol Demitra- which allowed them to overcome their higher-skilled opponents. The Americans followed a different blueprint to their surprising run. Not expected to contend with a largely young lineup, the U.S. wound up acing the chemistry test and playing an uptempo, puck-possession style that was surgical in its precision. They also showed their resiliency in coming back from 2-0 down in the gold medal game to force overtime with just 25 seconds to go, with just inches deciding their fate. Everyone knows that Sidney Crosby’s shot snuck just underneath Ryan Miller’s pad because Miller’s pad was a fraction late, but how many remember that Joe Pavelski had a point-blank chance in the slot mere moments before after a brutal defensive zone giveaway? Had Roberto Luongo not timed his prance across the crease correctly, we just may be talking about Scott Niedermayer’s blunder instead of Crosby’s heroics. Certainly this was a silver medal “won” by the United States, because the Americans greatly overachieved in this tournament, pointing to a promising future for U.S.A. Hockey (which can hopefully be realized in 2014 in Sochi).

The lowlights on this list focus squarely on the tournament’s two largest disappointments, that being Sweden and Russia. Canada too flirted with being on this list, for they were having immense chemistry issues and never seemed to get comfortable as the tournament wore on (as dramatic as the gold medal game was, it was far closer than it should have been). However, the Canadians found a way to sort out their issues, while Sweden and Russia- especially Russia- found themselves buried in them. Russia also found themselves with a chemistry issue, only with a larger scope- whereas Canada clearly lacked true role players, Russia lacked pieces in every unit. Their attackers were almost all pure snipers (Alexander Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Maxim Afinogenov, etc.) with the team’s only real playmakers being Pavel Datsyuk and Evgeni Malkin. There wasn’t really a checking unit either, and the defence lacked coordinaton and composure. Even the goaltending let them down as the tournament wore on, especially in the quarterfinal game against Canada. The Russians were a mess, pure and simple, brought upon by the fact their roster was politically motivated- almost half the roster was from the Kontinental Hockey League (including half of the defence) and it showed, because the NHLers were head and shoulders above their KHL counterparts. However, not all the omissions were NHLers. While Alexei Kovalev and Alexander Frolov would have helped immensely at this tournament, I humbly ask you why Sergei Zubov was not on this team. He just may be Russia’s best defenceman ever and he’s still producing well- playing in the KHL- at age 40. Apparently veteran poise means nothing to the Russian team. Perhaps Zubov alone wouldn’t have made the team gold medalists, but his composure and leadership would have given the defence the stability it lacked all tournament, a stability it’s going to have to discover in 2014 if the team is to have any chance at a title.

As for Sweden...well, it’s easy to get hard on them because a quarterfinal finish isn’t where we thought they’d be, but let’s face it- they played a bad game against Slovakia. This wasn’t the Russian team that looked like a train wreck waiting to happen- Sweden played like the best-oiled team in the tournament, playing the game with a precision that was scary to watch if you were the opponent and beautiful to watch if you were a neutral (or a Swedish hockey fan). Even against Slovakia the Swedes looked like they were going to restore parity after a poor start, meticulously clawing their way back into the game without ever showing- or playing with- fear. The CTV Olympic panellists took Sweden to task for not being remonstrative against Slovakia, but that analysis is just flat wrong. Players don’t need to be outwardly emotional to show that they care about the game- in fact, as professionals, they should be able to channel their emotions correctly and not get carried away. Besides, Sweden produced results, battling back from 2-0 down and almost finding a way back from 4-2 down. Perhaps the Swedes were struck by overconfidence which is why they lapsed at different points in the game, but their performance certainly wasn’t passionless. One player who *did* need to step up in the game against Slovakia was goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist was lights out for most of the tournament, but against the Slovaks he never did seem to come up with the crucial save and while he didn’t degenerate into “beach ball territory”, Lundqvist fought the puck all night. If he’s back in Sochi he’ll have to be better, plain and simple.

Lastly, I want to say how much of an honour it was to catch the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Zigmund Palffy and Peter Forsberg again at this tournament. Sorely missed at NHL level, the trio failed to disappoint, raising speculation that we’ll see the three of them back in the league next season. Forsberg is the youngest at 36 (turning 37 in July), but his history of foot injuries mean that “Foppa” may be hesitant about giving the NHL another go. Jagr, too, might not be back in the NHL next season since, at 38 years old you have to wonder if he’d be able to perform at his old level for an entire season, and a player with his prestige means he might not come back at an “affordable” rate. This leaves us Palffy, who is turning 38 this year but has been so far off the NHL radar that it’s likely he’d be the most willing of the trio to try his luck in the NHL again; and at a cheaper price. He might also not be the player of old, but he will come in with no expectations and since he wasn’t a “megastar”, even if Palffy has to play a secondary role he’d still be effective. Keep your eye out for Palffy- I expect him to be in the NHL next season

There you have it- the 2010 Winter Games in a nutshell. It was a fun tournament with a fitting ending, whetting the appetite for an even better tournament in 2014. The NHL better recommit for Sochi because, after a tournament like this, there’s no going back.



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