SOCHI, Russia — Moments after the Swedes squeaked past the Swiss on Friday, 1-0, Niklas Kronwall bumped into Mike Babcock in the basement of the Bolshoy Ice Dome. Kronwall had taken over as captain of the Tre Kronor for Henrik Zetterberg, who had been sidelined by a herniated disc. Babcock had a question.
“He just shortly asked how Hank was feeling,” Kronwall said.
Here was one of those awkward intersections of the NHL and the Olympics.
In the NHL, Babcock coaches Kronwall and Zetterberg for the Detroit Red Wings. Zetterberg is his captain. The Wings are riding a 22-season playoff streak but entered the Olympic break clinging to the final wild card spot in the East. They can’t afford to lose Zetterberg, especially with Pavel Datsyuk bothered by a bad knee, too.
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In Sochi, Babcock coaches against Kronwall and Zetterberg for Canada. There was no inside info to sneak for the men’s hockey tournament – Sweden had already announced Zetterberg was out for duration – and the concern was personal as well as professional. But Sweden is one of Canada’s main competitors for gold, and in that context this was good news, especially with Johan Franzen – another Red Wing – and Henrik Sedin already out.
“It’s a big loss for them,” said Swiss forward Damien Brunner, who played with Zetterberg in Switzerland and Detroit in 2012-13 and traded texts with him about the injury. “I feel really bad for him. I heard it’s pretty bad, so I hope he’s going to be back as soon as possible. There is no chance for this tournament. The Red Wings, they need him.”
What does this do to Sweden when combined with the injuries to Franzen and Sedin?
“It’s a different team” Brunner said bluntly. “Maybe it’s the difference for them to win a medal or not, but it’s a long tournament. It just started.”
To be clear, the Olympics did not cause Zetterberg’s injury. The herniated disk is a chronic problem. He missed time in Detroit earlier this season, and he came back and played well. Then he scored a goal in Sweden’s 4-2 victory over the Czech Republic on Wednesday night. It wasn’t until later that it flared up, and Sweden’s doctors conferred with Detroit’s doctors before Zetterberg made the decision to pull out.
But this does show what the players will risk to participate in the Olympics – and what the owners don’t like about it. Zetterberg could have aggravated his back playing for the Wings, who are paying him $7.5 million this season, or he could have done it tying his shoes in Detroit. Still, he did it in Sochi, after playing for Sweden, after sitting in an airplane seat for hours to come halfway around the world. He’s in so much pain he can’t even fly back to North America right away. He might need surgery. There is no timetable for his return.
And this is just the latest break for Canada and the United States. The last two countries to win gold and silver on international ice were Sweden and Finland in 2006. Not only is Sweden now down two top centers and a top winger, but Finland is down three top centers – Mikko Koivu, Saku Koivu and Valtteri Filppula. The Russians are playing on home ice, and Datsyuk, their captain, is clearly hobbling.
Though the Canadians lost Steven Stamkos, one of the best goal-scorers in the game, they replaced him with Martin St. Louis, the NHL’s scoring champion last year. They are otherwise healthy and have so much depth they don’t know what to do with all their good players. The Americans are healthier than any of the top teams in this tournament.
“It’s a tough break for our team,” said Swedish goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. “He’s our leader, our captain and one of our best players. To replace him is going to be almost impossible. I could just feel my energy went down a little when I heard the news, but at the same time, we have to regroup.”
The Swedes are not done. They still have tons of talent. But now they aren’t nearly as strong down the middle as the Canadians and maybe even the Americans, which might mean they will struggle to generate offense up front. They will have to rely on their skilled defense, and they will need Lundqvist to do what he has done so well for the New York Rangers – make saves and win tight, low-scoring games.
Take Friday’s prelim against the Swiss: The Swedes were outshot in the first period, 13-5. They were outskated and outchanced. Lundqvist had to keep them in it. They improved afterward, outshooting the Swiss the rest of the game, 26-13. But they still needed Lundqvist to come up big, and they didn’t score until late in the third period. Swiss goaltender Reto Berra – playing instead of star Jonas Hiller – let a rebound fall into the crease, and Daniel Alfredsson slapped it in.
“I don’t think there’s too many people that’s not Swedish that feel too sorry about our situation,” said Alfredsson, who also plays with Zetterberg in Detroit. “So we’re going to have to deal with it.”
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The same could be said about non-Detroiters and the Wings.
“Obviously Hank’s not doing great right now,” Kronwall said. “We all know what he goes through on a daily basis to be able to play, and for him to sit out, you know, it’s pretty bad. In saying that, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves. We have to find a way through it. He won’t be with us anymore, but somehow we’ll still be around. Somehow.”
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