Sunday, February 28, 2010

More than a game

Hockey. At times, it's just a game. Men's hockey is a somewhat odd inclusion in the Winter Olympics, given that its athletes are by and large (Tore Vikingstads excluded) internationally-renowned millionaires. That's in sharp contrast to the rest of the athletes, who generally aren't living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. At the same time, the sport is the marquee event of the Winter Olympics, and the most accessible event for many; most people have at least a passing familiarity with the game and the rules, unlike sports like curling or figure skating. It deserves to be here, and it deserves to be the final event.

The problem with that, though, is that the men's hockey final takes on so much significance that it can overshadow the rest of the Games. This is especially true in Canada, where our national identity is so bound up with hockey. As I wrote earlier, that's a somewhat superficial comparison, because we are much, much more than that. It still is an accurate one, though; despite our differences and our other interests, by and large, we still have such an incredible overriding concern for hockey.

That's why I was a bit concerned before this game about a potential excess of Canadian pride. Often, our passion for hockey enters unrealistic territory; we take a page from Don Cherry's playbook and start to think that Canadians are the only ones who can play and the natural superpower. That's not the case anymore. Before the tournament, I did predict that Canada would win, but I figured that any of four teams (Canada, Russia, the U.S. and Sweden) had a good shot at the top spot, and Slovakia and Finland provided surprisingly good as well.

Hockey may be a Canadian game in origin, but it's moved well beyond the bounds of Canada and there are great players from all over the world. Jingoistic types like Cherry still fail to realize that, and in doing so, they put such pressure on Canada to win every tournament that it becomes unrealistic. The Canadians may have the best and the deepest lineup, but there's a lot of parity out there, and upsets are to be expected (as happened against the U.S. in the round-robin).

Still, if Canada had come up short here, as they very nearly did, it would have spoiled the Olympics for many. All the success the country had acheived, even tying for the most golds ever won in a Winter Olympics, would have been overlooked because of a less-than-expected performance in men's hockey. The celebrations would have gone on, but they would have been muted rather than exuberant. There would have been a lengthy post-mortem, complete with endless dissections of the roster selection and the coaches' decisions. In short, it would have cast a pall [Barry Petchesky, Deadspin] over everything else that had been acheived. Instead, this victory just puts a cap on the celebration [Greg Wyshynski, Puck Daddy]. That it came in such dramatic fashion, in such an outstanding game [Andy Hutchins, The Sporting Blog], is just the icing on the cake, and made the hockey tournament the perfect conclusion to the games.

Are there still issues to be addressed with Olympic hockey? Of course there are. For one thing, I've argued all tournament that the smaller NHL-size ice gave physical teams like Canada, the U.S. and Finland (who earned the bronze last night) a big advantage as opposed to the more wide-open style of play on the Olympic-size ice used in Turin in 2006. Timo Seppa, a Finnish-born hockey writer at Puck Prospectus who also runs Ice Hockey Metrics, made the same point in a preview of the Olympic tournament over at the SportsJudge Blog. That doesn't mean these teams would necessarily have failed on bigger ice, but it does raise an intriguing question as to how they'll perform in Russia in 2014. After all, Canadians may have some scoring talent these days, but we all know that a farmboy from Canada has to hit somebody.

First off, though, the NHL has to let their players go to those Olympics. As Phil Catelinet wrote, the Olympics are a tremendous promotional venue for the NHL. It's basically like two weeks of all-star games where the players actually care, and throwing nationalism into the equation gets many non-hockey fans and casual fans into the sport. The Olympics are like a gateway drug in that respect; some will get excited about them and then return to ignoring hockey, but others will become hooked. Unlike drug addiction itself, getting sports fans hooked on hockey is a good thing, particularly for the growth of the game in the U.S. That's why Gary Bettman has to realize how important the Olympics are to his league before 2014. Sure, it's a two-week break and it comes with injury issues and the like, but in the end, those are minor concerns compared to the promotion the NHL receives in return.

Still, in the end, the future can be worried about at a later date. This was the perfect conclusion to an imperfect, but highly exciting Games. In the grand scheme of things, it may be just one little victory in a simple game, but right now, it feels like so much more.

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