The Sochi Olympic games were potentially the last time National Hockey League (NHL) players will participate in the Olympics. Concerns with injuries and scheduling have led to some rumblings that the league will not permit players to compete in 2018. If Sochi is indeed the swan song of the NHL’s participation in Olympic hockey, it certainly ended on a good note. The 2014 games encompassed all the brilliance of Olympic hockey.
With only one current NHL player on their roster and their biggest international win before the tournament coming in the form of an exhibition win to Russia’s ‘B’ team, Latvia came into the tournament with experts saying they had no chance to succeed. Led by interim head coach of the Buffalo Sabres, Ted Nolan, Latvia put on an impressive performance, eliminating a solid Swiss team in the tournament before losing to Canada in a 2-1 game. In their loss to Canada, Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Kristers Gudlevskis had 55 saves against an all-star offensive powerhouse. Latvia’s Olympic performance was a major success for the country’s program.
The tournament left many nations dissapointed, Russia, considered by many to be the favorite, did not even place. They were eliminated early on by Finland. The tournament was supposed to be an exhibition of the quality of Russia’s own professional hockey league, and they were expected to win the gold medal. The Russian team itself was split into half National Hockey League members and half Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) players, a daunting political statement for a country that could easily field a powerhouse team entirely from the NHL.
The wheels fell off early for the Russian team. They could not seem to score. In terms of coaching, the misuse of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin was a major factor in Russia’s loss. Both played less minutes than players like Alexander Radulov (who is the all-time leader in points for the KHL, but nowhere near as talented as Ovechkin or Malkin). It was reported that the two confronted their coach after the loss to Finland because they were angry about his choices. Russia’s head coach, Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, also chose to play Semyon Varlamov over Sergei Bobrovsky, a move that had experts confused, as Bobrovsky is considered to be a significantly better goaltender. These gaffes paired along with weak performances from the KHL players doomed Russia to lose.
The U.S. started the tournament off strong with impressive scoring by Toronto Maple Leafs forward, Phil Kessel. A win against Russia thanks to a series of shoot-out goals by TJ Oshie quickly made the U.S. the favorite for the gold medal. However, the U.S. had the misfortune of facing Canada after their Latvia game. After a heartbreaking 1-0 loss to Canada, the U.S. team seemed to have given up, losing the bronze medal game 5-0.
Finland, unlike the U.S., showed grace after their loss to the Swedes. The team, determined to win a medal for 43-year-old Teemu Selanne, for whom this was his last Olympic games, trounced the U.S. to win bronze.
The games also featured a healthy dose of scandal. Nicklas Backstrom, the top center for Sweden, was pulled aside two hours before the Gold Medal game against Canada and was told he was ineligible to compete as he had tested positive for the banned substance psuedoephedrine. Backstrom claims that the result is due to medicine he takes for allergies, a fact that Sweden’s team doctor corroborated. Speaking on the last minute announcement of his ineligibility, an outraged Par Marts, the head coach of Sweden ripped into the International Olympic Committee’s decision stating, “I think it sucks… It’s like kindergarten.”
Psuedoephedrine is not tested for by the NHL or the sport’s international governing body, the International Ice Hockey Federation. The NHL released a statement stating that there will be no disciplinary actions taken against Backstrom.
It might be unsurprising that Canada won gold, but things started off shaky for the Canadian team. As always, the pressure for a gold medal winning team Canada was unbelievable. After some unimpressive wins and a near loss to Latvia, social media blew up with nearly all spectators questioning coach Mike Babcock, GM Steve Yzerman, and goalie Carey Price. However the Canadian team responded by first shutting out the U.S., followed by beating Sweden 3-0. Carey Price had an impressive 164-minute shut-out streak that helped lead Canada to the gold.
All in all, the condensed Olympic schedule proved as always to be full off surprises, drama, and displays of pure athleticism. Regardless of who won and who lost, some fantastic hockey was played out. That’s all you can really ask for in sports, especially the Olympics.