Olympic hockey tournament should score big with fans
SALT LAKE CITY - Olympic hockey will turn friends into foes for the next few weeks.
And that will make for some terrifically awkward scenarios.
"I'm competing against my boss," said Team USA coach and Penguins scout Herb Brooks.
Brooks was referring to Team Canada's captain, Mario Lemieux, who happens to own the Penguins. Now, picture this: Penguins defenseman Darius Kasparaitis, playing for Team Russia, has Lemieux lined up for a monster hit.
Does he unload?
"Yeah, probably I'm going to hit him hard," Kasparaitis said. "I hit everybody, and I'll hit anybody from my team, too. You can't go and just say, 'I can't hit this guy.' You don't try to hurt anybody, but you have to go there and play hard."
Lemieux understands - and if the situation is reversed, he won't hesitate to drive Kasparaitis into the glass.
There will be no mercy in Mormon country. This is, after all, a gold rush, and you can't take it personally if the guy you've been rooming with for the past five months decides to jab a stick into your stomach.
"Hockey players can separate these things," said Team Canada forward Brendan Shanahan, who plays for the Detroit Red Wings. "You see brothers go out and whack each other, so friends and teammates certainly can."
The Penguins will have six players at Salt Lake City, representing four countries. Brooks and Penguins general manager Craig Patrick will run Team USA, just like they did in 1980, when the U.S. won its most recent gold medal.
Those players were amateurs. These players are pros. The NHL is competing in its second Olympic Games, Lemieux in his first. Canada hasn't won a gold medal in 50 years.
"I've been thinking about it for months now," Lemieux said.
Detroit Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman knows how badly Lemieux wants to win, and he knows how hard it is to stop Lemieux from getting something he wants.
"People don't know Mario," Bowman said. "He's very competitive, much more competitive than people give him credit for, because he doesn't always show it. But he's an ultra-competitor. That's really his strong suit."
Bowman and Brooks both like Canada's chances to win gold, largely because of Lemieux's luminous presence. But everyone acknowledges that five or six teams are on nearly equal footing in what amounts to a single-elimination tournament.
Any club with luck and a hot goalie could wind up highest on the medal stand.
"Whoever has the hottest goaltender is going to win," Patrick said.
That was case four years ago in Nagano, when the Czech Republic rode Dominik Hasek's mercurial play to a gold medal.
No matter what happens, it's going to be entertaining. Ask people in the business, and they'll tell you that Olympic hockey is the best hockey the world can offer.
Lemieux says it. Hasek says it. Mark Johnson, son of Badger Bob and a member of the 1980 U.S. Olympic team, agrees.
"If you like hockey," Johnson said, "it's going to be special."
It's going to be different, too. Besides pitting teammates against each other, the Olympics will put NHL players in many other unfamiliar and potentially unsettling situations.
The three big differences are playing on a wider ice surface, playing without a red line and playing the single-elimination format.
And doing it all with the benefit of one practice.
The international sheet of ice is 13½ feet wider than the standard NHL rink. That might not seem like a lot, but, as Penguins forward Robert Lang said, "It's a huge difference."
Suddenly, the passing angles are different. The shooting angles are different. The hitting angles are different. There is less room behind the nets but more room in the neutral zone. There is no red line, so longer passes are possible.
The wider rink, in combination with the rare talent level, is what makes the Olympic tournament so much fun to watch. The extra space puts a premium on skating and skill.
Unlike many of those dump-and-chase NHL affairs, these games have a real flow.
"It's what we want to showcase to the people," Lemieux said.
Brooks believes the Europeans, many of whom grew up playing on the wider rink, have a "distinct advantage" going into the tournament.
"The Europeans get on the big rink, and it's like old-home week," Brooks said. "Whereas North Americans, we're a little bit more of north-south players, and there's an adjustment there."
Lemieux doesn't think the adjustment will be a big deal. He believes that talent will utilize extra space. Lemieux calls Team Canada probably the most talented team he will have played on. His linemates likely will be Paul Kariya and Joe Sakic, two of the faster and more talented forwards in the world.
Most would concede that Canada is the deepest team in the tournament.
"I think the combination of talent and the skill level and the size and speed is going to be to our advantage," Lemieux said. "Especially on the bigger ice surface."
Kasparaitis said that while it's easier to break out of the defensive zone on the bigger ice surface, it's tougher to kill penalties and to line up big hits. It happens, though. Russian defensemen Bo Mironov and Alexei Zhitnik nearly broke Jaromir Jagr in-half in the 1998 gold-medal game.
Even the goalies must change their ways. Penguins goalie Johan Hedberg, who will represent Sweden, says he will be more inclined to stay back in his net in certain situations, if he gets a chance to play.
"Maybe the Canadians and Americans will play the same way - go straight to the net and shoot it, but the European teams will use more of a second and third wave," Hedberg said. "It forces you to back in a little bit."
Many people believe a good puck-handling goalie is most effective on the bigger sheet of ice. Hedberg disagrees. He says goalies have a longer route to the boards and thus a smaller role as puck-handlers.
The lack of a red line will keep defensemen on their toes, because attacking teams can make passes from deep inside their zone to the opposing blue line without fear of getting whistled for a two-line pass.
Team USA defenseman Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers says the situation can be "intimidating," especially against a speedy team like the Russians.
"I think it puts more emphasis on five-man units, instead of just forwards trying to get in on a forecheck and the defense trying to defend," Leetch said. "You really need the forwards to be part of your five-man unit."
One thing the big ice surface can't prevent is trapping. The Russians and Czechs got to the gold-medal game four years ago setting traps. The Swedes are famous for it. But with all that skill on the ice, even traps become fun to watch.
One turnover, and a bunch of game-breakers are going the other way.
ONE AND DONE
Six teams - the U.S., Sweden, the Czech Republic, Russia, Finland and Canada - already have qualified for final-round play by virtue of their top-six finish at Nagano.
Eight other countries will vie for the two available spots in the final round, which will see teams play three games apiece, all to determine seedings for the playoff round.
That's when the single-elimination phase kicks in.
On Feb. 20, the field of eight will be reduced to four. The losers then play in the bronze-medal game on Feb. 23. The winners play for gold on Feb. 24.
It'll be finished before you can say, "Shootout."
"In NHL hockey if you make a mistake or play a bad game, there's always tomorrow," Jagr said. "In the Olympics, you have to wait four years to get another chance."
Canada has lost heart-breaking shootouts in each of the past two Olympics. All the players realize that one bad bounce can ruin a tournament. This isn't a seven-game series.
"It's almost like football," Hasek said. "You play one game, and you win or lose. It's excitement not only for North America, but for the whole world."
So, Canada might be the favorite, but as Hasek says, "That doesn't mean they have to win."
Other observers like the U.S. because of the home-country advantage. Leetch rates the Czech Republic as a favorite because of Hasek.
It's hard to argue with that, except for the fact that Team Russia might have the hottest goalie in the tournament in Nikolai Khabibulin. His incredible play this season - including a perfect 20-for-20 performance at the All-Star Game - has many media types picking the Russians.
Finland and Sweden have little pressure, lots of hard workers and some recent medal history.
It's really anybody's game. The smallest advantage could make the biggest difference. Brooks knows about that from 1980 - and he thinks he might have found something that can neutralize Lemieux.
"I have a little doll - a Mario Lemieux doll - I carry around," Brooks said. "I'm going to stick pins in it, so maybe he can't play."
Fat chance. Lemieux will be there. So will the rest of the hockey world.
Don't miss it.