Russia might have finished top of the medal count after hosting the hugely controversial and expensive 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic games. However, President Putin could not hide his disappointment and disgust while witnessing Russia’s men ice hockey team limp towards a quarter-final exit against a well-drilled yet unfancied Finland side in the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Ice hockey is of primordial importance to Russia with some Russian journalist claiming that Russia’s defeat against Finland overshadowed an otherwise successful tournament for the hosts. “If we had just won the gold medal in hockey, we could have forgotten about all the other medals — everything else,” an Olympic volunteer told The New York Times.
Russia’s defeat was blamed on a number of factors that included their coach deciding to play fixed teams rather than alternating lines with forwards and defencemen each forming a separate unit, something we haven’t seen in the NHL for around twenty years. On the other hand, Hockey fans around Canada had to struggle through time differences and wake up early to watch their national team but it was all worth it as the men’s team lead by Sidney Crosby and the women’s team led by Montreal’s Caroline Ouelette both came out on top.
The women’s success, the fourth consecutive Olympic triumph, extended a run of twenty games without a defeat on the Olympic stage. The dramatic Gold medal game victory against the United States brought the whole nation on its feet in the same fashion the men’s overtime win over the Americans did four years ago in Vancouver.
The men’s success was far less dramatic but even more impressive with a relatively easy 3-0 win in the final against Sweden. The mastermind behind this success, proud McGill alumni Mike Babcock, guided this team to perform with the highest level of concentration, organization and execution that I have seen. As we predicted, Canada’s depth up front was too much for opponents to handle. Every game had its own hero with Jamie Benn producing a brilliant move to win the semifinal game against the USA. This game only ended 1-0 but the score line flattered the USA. Team Canada’s stars were able to completely stifle them with excellent pressure in the neutral zones, solid pock movement, patience and flawless puck control.
While stars such as Jonathan Toews, Sidney Crosby, Jeff Carter and Patrice Bergeron are famous for their qualities in the offensive zones, their contributions without the puck were particularly noteworthy. No one was playing for the scoring title, everyone was playing for Babcock. Even P.K. Subban who only appeared in one game despite being last season’s Norris Trophy winner, only had good things to say about Babcock as he touched back down in Montreal.
Behind the forwards, six reliable defencemen limited any potential breakaway opportunities with secure puck handling and great passing. Breakaways are the most common source of goals in Olympics. An Olympic rink is much larger than a regular NHL rink, giving forwards more skating distance to outpace defencemen in turnover situations. When anything filtered through, Team Canada could rely on Carey Price to produce timely saves. He was voted as the tournament’s top goalie and produced back-to-back shutouts in the most important games of his young career with his highlight being his superb reflex saves on Zach Parise to keep the score at 1-0 in the USA semifinal game.
If this ends up being the last Olympics for NHL players, with rumours that the NHL might not release its players from now on, then the players certainly put on a show and produced performances that will be remembered for a long time. The only Olympic team to go through a whole tournament unbeaten, Canada labored at first but prevailed in an impressive fashion. Although Mike Babcock will thank his lucky McGill tie for the win, a bunch of committed players and a clever coaching staff allowed Canada to cement its place as the world’s top hockey nation.