SOCHI, Russia — By the end they were bored. They had come to see the gold medal game, the pinnacle of men’s hockey and the final event of the Olympics, but there was nothing to see here. No home team. No excitement. So with about two minutes to go, the fans chanted one more time in the arena by the Black Sea: “RUSS-EE-YA! RUSS-EE-YA! RUSS-EE-YA!”
In a way, it was appropriate.
They were watching the closest thing to the Big Red Machine.
Not since the fall of the Soviet Union have we seen anything like Team Canada: a bloodless, relentless, dominant power. When the Canadians smothered Sweden on Sunday, 3-0, they became the first back-to-back gold medalists since the Soviets in 1988 (or the Unified Team of the former Soviet republics in 1992).
The Canadians played six games in Sochi. They never lost. They never trailed. They allowed three goals – one in three elimination games, zero in the semifinal and final. The letters on their red sweaters were C-A-N-A-D-A, but they could have been C-C-C-P.
Asked if this was the most dominant team of all-time, Team Canada executive director Steve Yzerman, without prompting, looked back to the Soviet teams of the Summit Series, Canada Cups and Olympics.
“The Russian national team through the ’70s and ’80s were pretty spectacular,” said Yzerman, who once played with former Soviet players like Slava Fetisov and Igor Larionov in Detroit. “I don’t know that I can say that. But I just sat here and watched these six games, and although we didn’t score as many goals as we’d like, every other facet of the game was fantastic.”
It isn’t a fair comparison. The Soviets manufactured elite players but forced them to live controlled, military lives. When they let them out from behind the Iron Curtain for the Olympics, they beat up on amateurs. The one time they didn’t win gold, losing to the American college kids in the 1980 semifinals at Lake Placid, it was immortalized as the “Miracle on Ice.”
[Photo gallery: Canada beats Sweden, repeats as Olympic gold champions]
But that makes this all the more impressive. The Canadians are celebrities making millions of dollars, free to say and do what they want, yet they swallowed their egos and won with a team game. They faced fellow NHL players and other professionals in a true best-on-best competition, yet they made as strong a claim of superiority as you can make in this era.
Canada has won three of the five gold medals since the NHL started participating in the Olympics – in 2002 in Salt Lake, in 2010 in Vancouver and now here. Canada has won on home ice and overseas. Though Canada won on the larger international ice sheet in ’02, assistant coach Ken Hitchcock will tell you that tournament did not really feature a big-ice style. So now Canada can say it has won on NHL ice and big ice, too.
“It is amazing to see the guys that have that raw talent and ability commit themselves to doing all the little things right, and we knew that’s what it was going to take in this tournament to win a championship,” said center Jonathan Toews. “Guys were willing to do that. I would say it’s a great team to be a part of.”
It’s amazing there was so much angst for so long. For months, Canadian fans and media were concerned the goaltending wouldn’t be good enough. Through the first four games of the tournament, they were concerned the team wasn’t scoring enough, and coach Mike Babcock shuffled his forward lines every night. Canada beat Norway, 3-1; Austria, 6-0; Finland, 2-1 in overtime; and Latvia, 2-1, with a goal late in regulation.
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But the management group and coaching staff had a plan. Starting with an orientation camp in August in Calgary, Babcock stressed speed and structure – playing fast and hard and smart with and without the puck. He told the players (and the media, if they were listening) that the early games could be ugly and the most important thing would be improving through the tournament. Hockey Canada couldn’t pay to insure the players’ NHL contracts, so Babcock had them play ball hockey to walk through the systems.
“To have a group come together this quick isn’t easy,” said captain Sidney Crosby. “Everyone’s kind of laughing at the ball hockey in August, but you know what? All those little things go a long way sometimes.”
When the players arrived in Sochi, they were prepared. When they ran into tight games, they weren’t surprised. When the puck didn’t go in, they didn’t panic, didn’t cheat, didn’t take risks, didn’t open up. They stuck with it. They improved through the tournament. By the end they were well-oiled.
Carey Price was the man in goal. All three defensive pairs were excellent. The forward lines were finally set. The Canadians had more talent and depth than anyone else, and they used it to their advantage by rolling four lines, taking quick shifts and pushing the pace. They had the puck most of the time, and when they didn’t have it, they came back hard to get it again.
“It was a feeling of absolute trust that as soon as you jump over the boards you’re going out there to do the exact same thing that the line before you did, to keep that momentum going,” Toews said. “We never stopped. We just kept coming at them. We were backchecking. We were forechecking. We didn’t give them any space. I think it was fun to watch and fun to be a part of a team like that.”
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In the semifinals, the Canadians faced a U.S. team that was hell-bent on avenging silver in Vancouver and that had scored a tournament-high 20 goals – and Canada shut out the Americans, 1-0, in a game that was more lopsided than the score.
In the final, they faced a Swedish team that was missing Henrik Sedin, Henrik Zetterberg, Nicklas Backstrom and Johan Franzen – and could not afford to lose them the way the Canadians could afford to lose Steven Stamkos and John Tavares.
Toews scored in the first period, Crosby in the second. Before going out for the third, center Ryan Getzlaf teased Babcock and reinforced his lessons by shouting: “It’s all about the ball hockey, guys! It’s all about the ball hockey!” Then Chris Kunitz – the player critics said didn’t belong on the roster, let alone in the lineup – added a third goal as an exclamation point.
Four years ago, there was noise and tension in the building for the gold medal game because the Canadians were at home and the action was dramatic – a late tying goal by the Americans, an overtime goal by Crosby. Here, the Bolshoy Ice Dome might as well have been hosting the Bolshoi Ballet. It already lacked energy as a neutral site, and as the game went on, the Canadians’ clinical performance made it even quieter.
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Like the Americans, the Swedes had chances early and kept pace for a while, then faded, worn down by the Big Red Machine. Asked if this was the best defensive Canadian team of all-time, Yzerman said: “Since I’ve been around, it’s the most impressive, the greatest display of defensive hockey.”
After all the questions he took during the tournament, Babcock took delight in his final press conference in pointing out how the Canadians were a great defensive team because they were a “great offensive team” – keeping the puck in the Swedes’ end, controlling the game whether the puck went in or not, playing the right way without concern for the scoreboard.
“Does anybody know who won the scoring race?” Babcock said.
Pause. (For the record, it was the United States’ Phil Kessel, who won nothing, and Sweden’s Erik Karlsson, who won silver, tied with eight points apiece.)
“Does anybody care?”
“Does anybody know who won the gold medal?”
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