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When you get down to it, the depth of talent at the men’s level always makes it hard to predict the Olympic ice hockey tournament. But one interesting trend is the way in which the United States and Canada have dominated Olympiads in North America and then largely fallen flat in years where the Olympics are held on European or Asian soil.
Not since Lillehammer in 1994 has one of the North American giants managed to even reach the gold-medal game outside of their own continent. Not since 1952, when Oslo hosted the Winter Games, has one of the two hockey superpowers won it all when playing on foreign territory. For some reason or another, neither the Canucks nor the Yankees seem able to elevate their play when playing in unfamiliar surroundings.This was true before the NHL started releasing its players to participate for their national teams at the Olympics. It has been true since the top professionals in the world first competed on the Olympic stage 16 years ago in Nagano. For whatever reason, the Americans and Canadians have a hard time adjusting to another continent.
(Of course, one could say the inverse is also true, that European squads tend to stumble on North American ice. But that ignores the fact that the Soviet team won the 1988 Olympics in Calgary and that European squads reach the podium far more frequently than either Canada or the United States manage when in Europe. And, because the tournament is being played in Russia and not Canada or the United States, this corollary has no relevance to the present subject.)
Thus one must wonder what will happen this time in Sochi. On paper, the defending gold medalists from Canada ought to be the favorites coming into this tournament. No team is as deep from top to bottom as the Canadians, but that hardly guarantees a medal. The Americans, solid if less heralded for these Games, are certainly among the contenders that will be gunning for the Canucks. Either team would hardly be a surprise on the medal podium, but they will have to fight against historical trends if they are to earn a spot in the top three.
Also notable is the return to international ice dimensions. In Vancouver, the Olympics used an ice rink with NHL dimensions. With an extra five yards of width at the rink in Sochi, the style of play could once again benefit those players that have been competing in Europe. There are at least five European teams that could thwart Canada’s repeat bid and the Americans’ quest for revenge against their neighbor to the north.
The host nation boasts the defending Vezina Trophy winner as the best goalie in the NHL, Sergei Bobrovsky, and a slew of talented skaters from both the NHL and the KHL. The Russians boast speed, size, and shooting prowess, and they’re playing on home ice. The Swedes have a veteran roster and their own star netminder, Henrik Lundqvist. Finland, after taking bronze in Vancouver, will be motivated to take a step or two up the podium. And the Czech Republic and Slovakia, formerly united as one nation, once again will ice two tough squads at the Olympics.
So what will prove more important? The talent level between the top seven teams is not wide enough to pinpoint one overwhelming favorite. Ultimately it could come down to comfort level, and thus like every other Winter Games held outside the U.S. or Canada it could end up being an Olympiad where neither the Americans or Canadians are in the hunt for the grand prize.
On the women’s side, on the other hand, the Americans and Canadians will be once again locked in a battle for supremacy. While their men’s teams arrive in Sochi without a definite advantage, the women’s squads for both North American nations continue to be the class of their sport.Just as at the past three Olympics, it will probably be Sweden and Finland rounding out the semifinalists in the women’s bracket. Not since Nagano in 1998 has there been another women’s team to emerge to the medal rounds, when the Chinese team lost to Finland in the bronze-medal game. And other than Sweden’s 3-2 upset of the Americans in Torino, the Scandinavian teams have played the foil for their North American counterparts.
Canada and Finland have met three straight times in the semifinals, and it has never really been close for the Finns. After losing 7-3 to the Canadians in Salt Lake City, Finland has failed to score the past two times they have met with a shot at gold on the line and suffered shutout defeats of 6-0 and 5-0. It would be surprising if these two teams did not meet up again in the semifinals, and it would be even more surprising if the Finns managed to break through and finally get the upset.
For the Americans, the Swedish team has proven to be more of a hindrance. They too have met three straight times in the semifinals, but the results have varied much more. The U.S. won 4-0 on home ice in Salt Lake City before losing by a goal to the Swedes four years later in Italy. When they met up in Vancouver in 2010, the Americans exacted merciless revenge for Torino with a 9-1 drubbing of the Scandinavians.
So, barring a monumental collapse, we are almost certainly destined to see the Stars and Stripes against the Maple Leaf contingent once again for women’s gold. Unlike their male counterparts, the American and Canadian women’s teams have never had a problem dominating on any continent.
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