SOCHI, Russia — The only thing that would have made it better would have been making the Russian bear dance to ‘O Canada’ inside his own wintry den. Otherwise Canada’s men’s hockey team ran the table at Olympus and reaffirmed its primacy around the planet.
By snuffing out the Swedes, 3-0, on goals by Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, and Chris Kunitz in Sunday’s final inside the Bolshoy Ice Dome for their third gold medal at the last four Games and their country’s ninth in the sport, Captain Crosby and his maple-leafed teammates checked several significant boxes. They were the first champions to repeat since the Soviet Union did it in 1988 and the first to win every game (six in all) since the Big Red Machine managed it in 1984. And they were the first Canadian team to win a gold medal outside of North America since the 1952 squad did it in Oslo.
“To come in and do what we did, to play the way we played today, it is a tremendous feeling,” declared forward Corey Perry, whose mates allowed only three goals in the tournament and none in the medal round.
If this indeed is the NHL’s Last Hurrah at the Games, and it may well be, it was important that the nation that taught the world how to play with a frozen rubber disc establish beyond doubt that its best players are also the best in the world.
Until the Soviets first entered a team in 1956 in Cortina d’Ampezzo there was no question about that. From 1920 through 1952 the Canucks won all but one gold medal and that one, in 1936, went to a British team which had nine players of 13 who’d grown up in the Dominion. Anyone they sent — the Winnipeg Falcons, Toronto Granites, RCAF Flyers, Edmonton Mercurys — was the class of the field.
Once the Big Red Machine got rolling, though, the Canadians went off the gold standard for half a century. They didn’t even show up in 1972 and 1976, arguing that they should be able to use pros against the Soviets, who were amateurs in name only. But once they began sending the Yzermans and Lemieuxs and Kariyas and Brodeurs, the Canucks were back atop the scrum.
“It’s the skill they have, all the players they have to choose from,” observed Swedish forward Jonathan Ericsson, who was deftly dispossessed by Crosby on the second goal. “They could probably have three gold-contender teams if they wanted to.”
The question is whether the Canadians will be able to piece together even one if the NHL concludes that its Olympic adventure has run its course after five quadrennia and opts not to go to South Korea in 2018.
The Lords of the Rings and the International Ice Hockey Federation, of course, want the best players available for Pyeongchang and beyond. “Our door is wide open,” declared IIHF president Rene Fasel. “Shocking,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman replied wryly. “I never would have guessed.”
Having the league stock the medal round with its stars is a five-ringed bonus for the Olympic family and for NBC, which gets a global showcase for the same people the network is paying $2 billion to televise in the States. What it does for the clubs themselves, who have to shut down in the middle of the season and who get their players back jet-lagged at best and injured at worst (e.g. Islanders captain John Tavares, down for the season with a torn MCL).
“As a practical business matter for the clubs individually the Olympics have no positive effect,” NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly acknowledged during the Games. “Certainly for the visibility of ice hockey, which is good for big-picture National Hockey League, it can be good. The reason we’re here is because, given all the pros and cons, we made a determination that on balance it was more positive to be here than negative. That’s why we’re in Sochi.”
With three of the last four Games in the three most important hockey countries on earth — Russia, Canada and the US — the value of putting the NHL brand on display was undeniable. There’ll be no such value in Korea, whose own pro league collapsed years ago. So the way that a number of NHL people see it, it makes more sense to bypass Olympus and revive the World Cup which last was held in 2004.
The World Cup is all upside for the NHL. The league can hold it in North America before the season under its own format and keep all the revenues and marketing rights. Everything that’s a problem at the Games goes away. Except that the World Cup isn’t the Olympics. “World Cups could be a step below,” said US forward David Backes. “You’re never going to replace the Olympics. It’s every four years and it’s something special.”
That’s the point that the IIHF keeps making to the NHL. “There is nothing like an Olympic gold medal in the life of an athlete,” Fasel declared during the Games. “Nothing.” “Except, perhaps, winning the Stanley Cup,” Bettman retorted.
The difference, of course, is that the Games come once every four years and the whole hockey-playing world is watching. Everyone knows who won at Lake Placid in 1980 and who they upset along the way. Who won the Cup that year?
“The Olympic gold medal you cannot replace,” said Fasel. “Stanley Cup? World champion? Yeah, yeah. Every year there is a Stanley Cup, every year a world champion, but an Olympic gold medal? Look at the faces of the players when they get their gold medal. So different.”
The difference between playing for club and country is enormous. Had the Canadians lost the final to the Americans in Vancouver, the entire Great White North would have gone into mourning. And imagine if they’d lost to the Russians?
That’s why it was so important for the Canadians to win here. “Vancouver was relief,” said forward Rick Nash. “Playing on home soil was such a big deal to win gold and we did it. This time we came into one of the most hostile environments for a Canadian — into Russia — and to win a gold medal in Russia is pretty special for Canadians.”
They don’t play your anthem and raise your flag when you win the Cup and you have to give it back the next year. A gold medal is yours to keep. The Canadians likely will cherish this one like no other.