Battle for hockey supremacy
SOCHI, Russia -- There are no short cuts to experience.
You don't know what it's like to win a Stanley Cup or capture an Olympic gold medal until you've done it.
The knowledge gained from having accomplished those feats is the most valuable currency in hockey.
It's why NHL teams trade for former Cup champions. It's also why Team Canada goes into Sunday's gold-medal game with a crucial intangible in its back pocket.
The Canadians are the defending Olympic champs, having accrued the knowledge of what it takes on this stage in this exact game four years ago in Vancouver.From Sidney Crosby to Jonathan Toews to 11 returnees overall from Vancouver, these guys understand what it's going to be like Sunday.
"The reality for me is we have 11 guys play at the Olympics last time and have success," coach Mike Babcock said earlier in the tournament. "This is a new opportunity, and we've got to come up with a new identity and a new way to play for a new group. Does experience and experience in winning help? Absolutely. Do the Olympics weigh in more than the guy who played and won the Stanley Cup? I don't know that. I like guys who have won because you've been through it; you've done it right. You don't win unless you do it right."
There wasn't a lot of knowledge four years ago when Canada went into a home gold-medal game with an entire nation waiting to explode and with just four players on its entire roster with an Olympic gold-medal game on their résumé. (Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla and Martin Brodeur were the only Salt Lake City holdovers.)
Which is why the quiet captain before that gold-medal game in Vancouver made himself heard.
"Niedermayer never said anything until it was right on the line -- then he said a lot," Team Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock, who was also on the staff in 2010, said earlier in this tournament. "He held back. He let other people take the verbal [lead] during the competition, but when it was on the line, in the final game, he was very vocal. He spoke up at the right time."
One suspects captain Crosby or alternate captains Toews or Shea Weber to have a word or two before the game Sunday.
Regardless, just having half the roster with that gold-medal knowledge is already valuable enough."I think it helps," Crosby agreed Saturday after practice. "We definitely want to make sure we don't change too much. You want to keep everything as normal as you can. Having gone through that, knowing that the stakes are high, you want to be at your best. I think everybody understands that, but the experience of having gone through that in Vancouver, in Canada where there's obviously a lot of pressure, you can feel it pretty quickly there, but hopefully that's something that helps us here tomorrow."
It's a relevant point to be made because, although Sweden has the edge over Canada when it comes to its comfort level playing on big ice (the Swedes won the last Olympics played on big ice) the team has only four holdovers from that 2006 Torino team: Niklas Kronwall, Daniel Alfredsson, Daniel Sedin and the King, Henrik Lundqvist.
On the other hand, there's also some Stanley Cup knowledge the Swedes can dip into.
"Experience is a big thing in hockey," Sweden's Johnny Oduya of the defending Cup champs in Chicago said Saturday. "We talked about a couple of things. Obviously, last year, too, in Chicago, when there were games like this going down, the more experienced guys talked a little bit about their feelings and what they're thinking and stuff like that, and we kind of do the same thing here.
"I think maybe the Canadians are doing the same thing, too. They have a lot of guys that have been around. Just the anticipation and some of the nervousness, too, I think that's part of it, and something that you want. It would be weird otherwise."
Sunday's game pits a lot of winners on the same ice, and it also features the two teams that were picked most to win the gold medal here.
No offense to Team USA or Russia, or Finland for that matter, but the vast majority of media on both sides of the ocean were leaning toward Canada or Sweden, and with good reason.
The Swedes are the masters of big-ice championships, also winning the gold over Canada at the 1994 Olympics. Swedish head coach Par Marts was an assistant coach on that '94 gold-medal team.
"Of course I remember it, but I'm a dreamer; I'm looking more ahead and looking for dreams than talking old memories," Marts said Saturday. "I don't like that. I don't even know who we played in that Olympics. I'm not interested in this. I want [to look] forward. That's my style."
Team Canada, meanwhile, from top to bottom, has the deepest and most talented lineup in this tournament.
This is the game that was supposed to happen. The cream rose to the top.
Another interesting thing is that Sweden and Canada got criticized by their own fans and media for not doing enough offensively in the lead-up to the semifinals."For people to realize it, the media's going to have to realize it first. International hockey, it's always tough games. I don't think you've seen a blowout game this tournament," Swedish star Daniel Sedin said Saturday. "I mean, Canada beats Austria 6-0. That's kind of it. Otherwise, it's been 4-2, 3-2, 2-1. Once the media starts to understand that, then I think the public starts to understand it, and then we're good."
The reality of big-ice hockey on this side of the ocean is that there are fewer goals scored, not more, contrary to popular belief among so many fans who would like the NHL ice surface to get bigger. It's more defensive because the offensive zone is four feet shorter and because the big ice scares players into taking fewer chances and not wanting to get caught up ice. So they stay in position and don't run around.
Both Sweden and Canada put the majority of their game-plan emphasis on defending. It's why they're both in the gold-medal game.
This isn't the NHL over here.
"It's a different sport," Sedin said. "You can't even compare them. Everyone thinks because it's a bigger ice, it should be more open. I think teams are playing more defensive than ever."
As such, expect a low-scoring game Sunday. Which should not be confused with boring.
I think we're in for the best hockey game of the year, on either side of the ocean.
And for Team Canada, a chance to make it three gold medals in five NHL Olympics.
"It's about hockey supremacy," Babcock said Saturday. "We like to brag that it's our game? If you think it's your game, you better show it's your game."