The following article was contributed by guest writer, Howard Roark.
First of all, congratulations go to the nation of Canada. Not only did they earn an inspiring win in what was perhaps the most important, and greatest, hockey game ever played, the country hosted an outstanding Olympic Games. I particularly applaud the opening ceremonies that celebrated the central importance of the individual and the beauty of the land, in sharp contrast to the Beijing which was visually spectacular but saw the individual subsumed within the collective. Two contrasting visions where our species is headed were presented and give me our neighbor to the north’s any time. Clearly, the centerpiece of these Olympics was the greatest hockey tournament ever played. Not only were all the individual stars present, we saw some of the best teamwork and desire to win in all of sports. While Canada deserved to win, we could also say that about the U.S. as well. In my opinion, a bridge has been crossed, and there are now two elite hockey powers in the world that will contest the gold medal for many years to come.
The contrast between the U.S. and Canadian teams could not have been sharper. Steve Yzerman of Team Canada went with a stars approach. By picking the best players his country had to offer, Yzerman assured that no team in the tournament had a greater talent level. The number of future NHL hall of fame members on this team will one day be looked back on by hockey historians who will wonder how 2010’s Team Canada ever lost a game. Yes, Russia had an impressive pair of top forward lines, but their lineup from top to bottom was not as strong as Canada’s, a fact that would be exposed in the quarterfinal game. The abject failure of Russia, however, to play a competitive game highlighted for me perhaps the biggest story of these Olympics, the relative collapse of European hockey, a theme to be discussed in a later article.
By comparison, a genius named Brian Burke went with a different approach when choosing the U.S. team. Rather than looking at purely statistics, Burke broke down the sport of hockey by key roles and functions that needed to be performed, and then selected the best possible Americans to fill those needs. The result was a well-oiled machine, a team that was far greater than the sum of its parts. Yes, the U.S. benefited from having the best goaltender in the world in Ryan Miller, but this team had more team speed than any other in the tournament and may have been the best group of fore-checkers ever assembled. The U.S. relied on non-stop, never-relenting pressure all over the ice to force its opponents into mistakes which the American capitalized on. While the U.S. lacked the star scoring punch of the Canadians, several American players established themselves as the best in the world at several other skills.
To some extent, the world of Hockey has remained fairly stagnant for the past 100 years. Canada has dominated at the professional level with the old Soviet Union at the fore of the amateur ranks. Teams such as Czechoslovakia (and its two pieces), Sweden and Finland all made a mark but lacked the consistency of the two main powers. This status quo was rudely interrupted in 1980 when the American college amateurs upset the heavily favored Russian team in Lake Placid. For the first time, hockey became a premier sport in the U.S., a country with 10 times the population of Canada. It has taken a generation for the best U.S. athletes to begin playing the sport, for the quality of the facilities and the coaching to catch up, but after this Olympic tournament, it is safe to say there are now two world hockey powers, and they both reside on the North American continent.
Consider the fact that the U.S. team was the youngest in the tournament and beat Team Canada in the early round. Moreover, the U.S. is the reigning world Junior Hockey champion as well as the under 18 title holder. Finally, the increase in the number of American skaters taken in the early rounds of the NHL entry draft highlights the consistent improvement of USA hockey and its player development programs. It is hard to escape the conclusion that while the U.S. still may be one Sidney Crosby overtime goal away from being the number one hockey power on the globe, they have earned the right to be part of the conversation. Future Olympic hockey tournaments, should the NHL players be allowed to participate, are, in my opinion, more often than not, going to come down to the same battle we witnessed yesterday afternoon. And, the world of Hockey will be the better for it.
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