SOCHI, Russia – Johnny Oduya was a teenager when Sweden won its first Olympic hockey gold in the 1994 Lillehammer Games. They defeated Canada, 3-2, on that Peter Forsberg shootout goal against Corey Hirsch.
“I do not own that stamp,” he said. “But then, I don’t collect stamps.”
Forsberg was immortalized on that Swedish stamp and Hirsch was, to steal a term from the NBA, “posterized.” (Well, almost: Hirsch threatened to sue the Swedish postal service over the use of his image, so they altered the look of the Canadian jersey and took his nameplate off the back.)
Hirsch was an AHL goalie facing professional players. Meanwhile, Patrick Roy, Ed Belfour, Curtis Joseph and Felix Potvin were playing in the NHL.
Four years later, the power shifted dramatically when the League began shutting down every four years and allowing its star players to populate their nation’s rosters. Canada hadn’t won gold since Oslo in 1952 when they captured it in Salt Lake City in 2002 and again in Vancouver in 2010. Sandwiched in between them? Another gold for Sweden in Turin at the 2006 Olympics.
Four gold medals between the two since 1994. Two all-star teams of NHL talent, ready to vie for gold again on Sunday in the Sochi Games’ finale.
Yet where is Sweden in the hockey superpower conversation?
Teams don’t play Canada; they aspire to compete with Canada. They’re a measuring stick, an ideal, the prohibitive favorite every time their skates hit the ice.
Why isn’t Sweden any of these things?
“You always see Russia, U.S. and Canada might have a little bit more exposure and pressure for being on top, but I think we’re right behind them,” said Oduya.
“Before we left, there was a lot of people saying that we might have a chance, too. I don’t think we’re a long shot, I think we’re a team that was right there the whole time. Obviously with some of the other teams that have maybe more star players and bigger salary cap hits or whatever, maybe get some more attention. But that’s just a part of it."
Some of it is perception. Like how the two nations view the game.
“I think everybody realizes that in Sweden and Canada, hockey goes hand in hand. Hockey is a big part of Swedish sport, but not to the same extent as soccer. I don’t know if there is a second sport in Canada,” said Sweden’s Daniel Alfredsson.
Hence, the expectations are different. It’s gold or bust every Olympics for the Canadians. Oduya said for Sweden, it can be more like ‘just don’t embarrass yourselves.’
“Obviously, we play Slovenia in the quarterfinals, you know you want to win that game. It’s not going to look good and it’s not going to be nice back home if you lose games like that. I think every bigger nation or top seeded national team would have that same kind of thing,” said Oduya.
“For us, at this point, we’ve got everything to win and nothing to lose, and that’s pretty nice.”
So are the bragging rights for the Swedes in the NHL – and to be seen as Canada’s equal or superior – just as important as securing the gold medal?
“The motivation for winning a gold medal outweighs everything else,” said Alfredsson, “but of course there’s bragging rights on the table.”