By Mike Colligan
Despite the morning-after frenzy following Team USA’s 5-3 victory over Team Canada, Sunday’s game was not quite “the biggest Olympic hockey upset since the Miracle on Ice”.
Former Team Sweden goaltender Tommy Salo might be the first to remind casual hockey fans that last night’s game pales in comparison to the shocking Belarus upset of Sweden in the 2002 Games. Mats Sundin, captain of the Swedish team at the time, said “I don’t understand how we could lose against this team.” Is Canada captain Scott Niedermayer having those same thoughts about the USA right now?
USA General Manager Brian Burke built this team with his sights set on beating the more talented Canadian and Russian squads. On Saturday, Burke was asked by Craig Custance of The Sporting News how the US would handle Canada’s size:
“We’ve got some size, too. We’ve just got to try and get some line matchups the way we want them. We purposely brought some beef for that reason.”
Dating back to October 2008, Burke has been carefully looking for the right pieces to represent the US in the 2010 Games, regardless of the buzz factor of the name on the back of the jersey:
“I think we may have some names that people won’t recognize because we need some sand in the lineup. To play on the NHL sheet, to play Canada on Canadian soil, we’ll need them in the lineup. The way I build my teams, you’ve seen my teams play. We go for high, high skill in the top six forwards and we go for hardhats on the bottom.”
For that reason, Scott Gomez was left at home while the likes of Chris Drury, David Backes, Ryan Kesler, Jamie Langenbrunner, and Ryan Callahan were given the hardhats and told to go to work. Would Gomez have been diving with reckless abandon in front of shots like Kesler, or relentlessly hitting anything that moved like Drury?
Sunday’s marquee matchup was the sport of hockey at its finest, just as it should be in the Olympics. Pure speed, premiere skill, dazzling playmaking, huge hits, outstanding saves, and nonstop action that had you holding your breath between whistles.
There were no sideshows of Georges Laraque and Derek Boogaard undressing and bear-wrestling after a meaningless neutral zone faceoff. Rostering either player would have taken away from the ultimate goal of winning an Olympic Gold Medal. Why can’t this be the case in the NHL?
The Mike Milbury’s of the world likely fire back that fighting is necessary for self-policing of the game. Isn’t that the role of referees – to police the game? I would agree that the officiating in the NHL is very flawed, but if that’s the case, fix the officiating; don’t let the inmates run the asylum. In the NFL, coaches don’t send out enforcers to “self-police” the game after liberties are taken on a star. A penalty is called and strictly enforced. If necessary, suspensions or fines result.
It’s human nature to enjoy violence. It’s why boxing, the WWF, and now ultimate fighting are insanely popular, especially amongst males. Millions of viewers shell out $50 a pop expecting to see incomprehensible violence amongst gladiators. To me, that’s not why I watch hockey.
I watch hockey for days like yesterday. I want to see some of the world’s greatest athletes work towards a common goal of winning a Stanley Cup. One-dimensional goons rarely crack a playoff roster anymore, but many are still free to practice their craft throughout the regular season. Perhaps Commissioner Bettman realizes that a game between mediocre defensive teams in the midst 82-game schedule needs a few staged fights to fill the seats. If that’s the case, contract the league to 24 teams and eliminate 20 games from the schedule.
Maybe we’ll see some of the best hockey in recent memory this week, or maybe nothing in the playoff round will top the excitement of the three games on ‘Super Sunday’. Either way, I’m looking forward to another week of hockey being played the way it should be. You can keep your Boogaards.
Mike Colligan is the Pittsburgh Penguins correspondent and an editor at the SportsJudge Blog.