Friday, January 10, 2014

What Were They Thinking: The NHL and Winter Olympic Edition

January 1 was marked on most if not all hockey fans calendars for two reasons this year, one it’s the Winter Classic played outdoors and second it was the day the Team USA named both the men’s and women’s hockey teams. The game was a massive success with over 100,000 fans packing the stadium, and even in the frigid temp the names for the men’s team were announced after the game. No big surprises there. Everyone named was well expected.

The games are about a month away and the hockey world was waiting for the other teams to be announced. They were announced one by one and not with any or much fanfare, and then the roaring, screaming, and outrage began.

But where shall I begin? Maybe with a little back history of sorts, well my version with the facts entwined in. Fact the Olympics were always meant for the amateur players, it wasn't until 1998 that the NHL allowed its players to compete for their countries. Fact no one expected the Czech Team to place let alone walk out with the Gold medal. Fact 2002 when the games were held in the US, Salt Lake City the Czech’s played sloppy and didn't even come close to a medal, but the Canadians did led by the amazing, talented and unstoppable Mario Lemieux. Fact hockey was and is a Canadian sport. Fact the Americans won the silver medal and have been able to compete with the talented Canadians in 2002, 2006, and 2010; which just about brings us up to date with the 2014 Olympics.

With hockey being always having been a primarily Canadian sport it has been exported and some can say perfected around the globe, starting with Russia, Sweden and the previously mentioned Czechs. Throughout the 90s teams were dominated by Czechs and Russians with a smattering of Swede’s through the NHL. The Detroit Red Wings had the most Russians of any NHL team the Czechs were on the Pittsburgh Penguins, The New York Rangers, Buffalo Sabres and many other east coast teams. When the teams were named for the Nagano Olympics they were jammed packed with the superstars of the NHL. The Russians had all the big names from the NHL they couldn't lose, they had the Bure brothers Valeri and Pavel, Sergei Fedorov, Darius Kasparaitis, Alexei Zhitnik, and Alexei Yashin to name a few. There was no way they could lose. The Czechs however became a force, with the likes of Jaromir Jagr, Dominick Haskek in net, Roman Hamrlik on defense, Martin Straka, Petr Svoboda and Milan Hejduk they also had some very proud countrymen playing that were not in the NHL. It becomes a matter of pride when you are playing for your country. When the Russians and Czechs faced each other it was brilliant. The Czechs had to prove they couldn’t be pushed around as they countrymen had years before when the Russians invaded their country back in 1968 they fought back hard but with sticks and pucks and took home the coveted gold medal.

I was very good friends with many of the Czechs that played on that team. Hearing them talk about what winning meant to them was chilling and also exhilarating. The pride in their voices will be something that will stay with me forever. I was also close with many of the Russians; they felt defeated in ways I couldn't quite understand. But in all honesty they played as individuals; they never quite jelled as a team. They were all these superstars that wanted the glory without wanting to play as a team. What I learned from watching all these teams play, was that it was a national pride that made them a team and that was what lead to success, teammates at the Olympics had to remember that, once the games were done they would go back to being enemies on the NHL stage, but in that moment they were a team and they needed to act as such.

Now back to present day. Many of the famous names and faces from the past Olympics and NHL have vanished due to age and retiring, but the list of NHL contenders coming in and kicking ass is amazing. New NHL rules allow more scoring not as much physicality of years past opening the doors for scorers’ not just enforcers or fighters; it’s a new era and a new game.

The American Team was announced and as I said it was all to be expected; lots of fanfare and not a lot of surprises. We waited to hear the names for the Canadians, Russians, and the Czechs. So many talented people to go with, the whispers on who Steve Yzerman would be announcing for Team Canada seemed logical, would he be favoring those that are on his Tampa Bay Lightning or would he go with the best of the best? The two go hand in hand, Martin St. Louis is talented and amazing a natural goal scorer he had to be on the team right? WRONG. He was over looked, along with Dan Boyle and Brent Seabrook who were both on the 2010 winning team, shock-waves were sent through the NHL with Claude Giroux and Joe Thornton being left out. But Logan Couture made the team and is going to or has undergone surgery with no timetable on when he can play and return. Canada's roster boasts six of the top 10 scorers in the NHL this season, led by Crosby. They should be heavily favored for gold in Sochi, but the big ice can be a great equalizer for teams internationally.

With the commotion of Team Canada being announced and so much being said and talked about, I think the Czechs felt that if they quickly announced their roster no one would notice and they could just move along, wrong again! This is definitely a case of what were they thinking! Jiri Hudler (11 goals, 33 points) and Radim Vrbata (11 goals, 29 points) on it. Both are third and fourth in scoring among Czech players in the NHL, but on Monday, they were left off the Olympic roster. Interesting decision to bring 42-year old Petr Nedved, who last played in the Olympics at the 1994 Games in Lillehammer as a member of Team Canada. The face of the Czech’s is of course Jaromir Jagr who is the face of the Czech club will be turning 42 but still a scoring machine. For anyone keeping score (me) the Czech team features 17 current NHL players and eight overseas pucksters. Many of the latter have built a global familiarity with their own previous stints in North America. That isn't the problem, the problem is placing in Nedved who has not competed on this kind of stage in 2 years and leaving out known goal scorers! This is truly mind boggling. Let’s hope they knew what they are doing for the sake of their country.

The rest of the rosters went as planned and no hassles or commotions to report. It is going to be a long few weeks till the Olympic break and all these talented players can get on the ice and lines and chemistries can form. What can be longer is the possibilities of injuries before the games even begin and then a player that wasn't previously selected is now called upon to fill someone else’s shoes as a back-up.

There is a lot at stake, pride of your country as well as those shiny medals, let’s hope the GMs picked right for the Sochi Olympics.

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