Despite Armageddon-like predictions, the Sochi games overcame the pre-Olympic fears of terrorism, mayhem, global warming and non-functional lavatory facilities to provide more than the usual share of terrific moments. The Olympic hockey tournament was no exception. Let's examine the good, the bad and the ugly of Sochi -- on and off the ice -- as we gear up for what promises to be a fantastic stretch run in the NHL.
I would be remiss if I did not lead with the fact that Canada earned gold - and North American bragging rights for four more years -- in both men's and women's hockey tournaments. A job well done, and some terrific games along the way. Both Canadian squads displayed terrific teamwork and mental toughness -- the latter quality being notably absent from both U.S. teams. More on this in a bit . . .
No, Blame Russia . . .
For those of you who were silly enough to believe that the Cold War was over, hopefully watching the television broadcasts, reading the print coverage and listening to fan reactions disabused you of that notion. I've had relatives separated by the Berlin Wall . . . and had those same relatives help tear it down. However, I'm not sure I've ever seen an Olympics where so many people seemed to be rooting for the Games to fail. Early reports had the athletes living in slum-like conditions, and chastised the Russians unmercifully for incomplete competition venues. However, as things progressed, and actual reports from the athletes themselves began to emerge, it turns out that most felt the organization was outstanding, the facilities on par or better than prior Olympic venues, and the security adequate buy unobtrusive.
To be sure, Vladimir Putin is not going to win Mr. Congeniality anytime soon. However, the suspicion and outright malice directed toward the host nation by the press and fans was a bit much to swallow. When the US beat Russia in a preliminary round shootout, people were comparing it to the Miracle on Ice in Lake Placid. Really? Let's ignore the fact that Russia should have won the game in regulation, but for a wrongly disallowed goal. This was a round robin game in a tournament format that had all twelve teams advancing to the next round. So, in reality, Russia and the US were playing for the right to be humiliated by Finland earlier. Not exactly a cause for ticker tape parades, folks.
Ditto the reaction to Adelina Sotnikova winning the gold medal in the ladies' figure skating competition, upsetting the defending gold medalist and billionaire media idol Kim Yu-na of South Korea. The furor -- focused on the judging -- ignored some basic facts, and some time-honored sources of debate in skating. Sotnikova trailed by less than a point heading into the free skate, and had a significantly more challenging program than Yu-na -- five points more difficult. Sotnikova nailed it -- save one small flaw in a landing -- while Yu-na skated a beautiful, but not technically perfect, program. (Kudos to NBC for pointing this out in some detail prior to televising the actual routines.) The two skaters have contrasting styles, and those preferring one over the other will tend to favor that skater. At the end of the day, Sotnikova came through in front of her home crowd, nailing the most technically challenging program in the competition. Sounds like gold to me. It's a shame she has to defend her achievement when she did nothing but skate the best program of her life. One wonders if the same outrage would have applied if the gold had gone to Carolina Kostner of Italy . . .
Back to the hockey rink for the terrific debate over "the big ice", which comes every time the Olympics are hosted in a country featuring the larger ice surfaces used in IIHF competitions. There are seldom any equivocal opinions on "the big ice" -- you either love it or hate it. Phil Esposito, for example, detests the IIHF surface, as he will tell anyone who cares to listen on his Sirus/XM NHL Network broadcasts. He believes -- as many do -- that the big ice inhibits scoring and excitement. Others -- myself included -- like the fact that the larger surface puts a premium on skill and passing, and less on freakish bounces. I'd submit that the relatively low scores in the medal round came more from not being experienced in leveraging the bigger surface, and the natural reluctance to make mistakes in a "one-and-done" format.
For those unfamiliar with the size issue, the IIHF ice is 15' wider than the NHL, while the blue line-to goal line distance is 6 feet less (58' vs. 64'). However, the area behind the goal line is 2 feet deeper in the IIHF (13' vs. 11'), and the crease is a semicircle with an 11' diameter, as opposed to the "basketball lane" crease in the NHL, which is only 8' wide. In my view, the larger ice puts a premium on skating and passing, and minimizes the open ice hits and the scrums along the boards, as players cannot afford to take themselves out of the play with more ice to cover. The larger crease (and the strict IIHF enforcement of skates in the crease) gives the goalies a fighting chance. With the current NHL crease, and the lack of enforcement of the crease rule, you might as well blindfold the goalie during power plays. With more space, there are fewer injuries, and guys are not as quick to drop and block shots -- again fearing that they will not have time to recover.
I'm all for anything that puts a premium on skill and minimizes the role of the bad bounce. The big ice steers the game back toward checking, and away from "hitting", which is a good thing. If I had to tweak anything, I'd move the blue line back two feet from the IIHF distance, making it a bit more difficult to defend the point shot, but still a bit closer than the NHL, making those shots more lethal.
I understand the monetary impact of a wider rink, but over the long haul, I think you would have a better product on the ice, as teams learned how to use the extra space, and the reduction in injuries and gratuitous hits would return the focus to skill.
Three Points, Please . . .
The Olympics, as with other international and junior leagues, uses the 3 point system for allocating points among wins, losses and OT or Shootout losses. Regulation wins are worth three points, OT or shootout wins are two points, and an OT or shootout loss is one point. The result is that every game has the same value -- three points.
It is high time the NHL adopts the three point rule, as it is indefensible to have a system where some regular season games have a greater intrinsic value than others. This is particularly true where, as with the current system, the participants themselves can control that outcome. Watch the final five minutes of a game tied in regulation -- the clubs almost invariably go into "shut down" mode, avoiding mistakes, ensuring a single point, while preserving the chance for two points. Under the three point system, the participants sacrifice a potential point by going to OT or a Shootout, providing incentive to gain that regulation win. It's also more consistent with the nature of the effort -- Team A beating Team B in regulation is an intrinsically better result than Team C beating Team B in a shootout.
Sure, the "gaps" may appear wider between clubs due to the three point wins, but that's an illusion. The gaps also get closed faster, due to earning three points for a win instead of two. It reinvigorates the value of regulation play, and restores fairness to the regular season. Get 'er done, Gary.
Herb Was Right . . .
Whether you believe the literal quote from the movie Miracle or not, most observers concede that the late Herb Brooks did say something to the effect of "I'm not looking for the best players -- I'm looking for the right players." His point was that "All-Star" teams often fail to perform in short term tournament play, simply because they play like an assembly of individuals, rather than a team.
On the men's side, Team USA proved Brooks' point. Early success over weaker teams masked the fact that the squad was largely playing a series of individual match-ups, rather than a cohesive effort. Sometimes that worked -- as with some of Phil Kessel's performances. More often it didn't -- with Patrick Kane serving as the poster child on this score. When confronted with superior talent, they wilted, both physically and mentally, with the bronze medal game against Finland a real travesty of petulance and surrender. While the US women played as a team, they also suffered from the mental frailty of the men -- abandoning team play when it was needed most and mentally collapsing in the gold medal contest.
Such was not the case for Teams Canada, who managed to play a tight, seamless team game throughout. On the men's side, they overcame the "All Star" curse. Whether that was coaching or just the overwhelming nature of the talent on that squad. Sidney Crosby with a single goal, and a total of three points? Rick Nash? Anybody see him? No, this was not a team of stars, it was a single team that played its came to perfection. Ditto for the women, who showed more mental toughness than any other team out there -- male or female.
Highs & Lows
The Olympics always provide some great stories, and Sochi had them in spades. The US now has the oldest alpine skier ever to win a medal (36-year old Bode Miller), and the youngest alpine skier to win gold (18-year old Mikaela Shiffrin). The Jamaican bobsled team went viral with a video, but failed on the track. But Latvia didn't, winning its first medal. An Italian was on the podium for figure skating, and a bunch of brave Canadian bobsledders climbed back in and completed the competition after a horrific spill. It was also great to see some magnificent Russian performances in the first Winter Olympics on Russian soil.
The Netherlands dominated speed skating like never before, and provided some great entertainment when coach Jillert Anema took the United States -- and particularly American football -- to task in a memorable interview. Two words for you, Jillert . . . Eric Heiden.
For the U.S., the down side included a pathetic performance by the speed skating contingent -- both short and long track (although short track did eke out a medal in the relay). Ditto for the curling squads -- particularly the women's team -- who couldn't make a shot to save their lives.
Most of all, it was fantastic to see the reactions of those who rejoiced at merely winning a medal, or achieving a career best time or score. We focus on gold, but at this level of competition the margin of error is thinner than a skate blade, with tenths of points and hundredths of seconds making the difference. Well done to all.
On to Pyeongchang . . .Maybe
The world gathers again on the snow and ice in Pyeongchang, South Korea for the 23rd Olympic Winter Games in 2018. Will the NHL stars be there? My guess is that they won't. With the John Tavares injury, the exacerbation of Henrik Zetterberg's back injury, and the less publicized ankle injury to the Blue Jackets' Fedor Tyutin, the appetite of the league executives for Olympic attention has probably waned considerably.
The salaries of the NHL stars have already presented an almost insurmountable obstacle in terms of insurance costs, and that will only get worse. The North American fans see these guys all the time, and success or failure is ultimately determined by Stanley Cups, not gold medals. Gary Bettman is being coy for the time being, but the talk of reviving the World Cup is not a good omen for future Olympic participation. I'd surmise that the concessions that the NHL would demand to participate four years hence will be more than the IOC can bear.
So, what is the impact of non-NHL participation? It depends which end of the telescope you look through. From the Olympic side, it likely means little. Olympic hockey was played for years and years without NHL players, and it was a ragtag bunch of amateurs that grabbed gold in Lake Placid. Making the Olympics a venue for AHL, USHL and CHL players would not necessarily be a bad thing. On the other hand, looking at it from a non-North American point of view, it could have a dramatic impact on the composition of NHL rosters. Players from Russia, Sweden, Slovakia, Finland, the Czech Republic and others take enormous pride in having the chance to play for their respective countries. With a viable -- and lucrative -- option in the KHL, how many players would deem the Olympic ban the final straw in deciding where to play? It's tough to tell, but I'm betting the fallout could be significant, with the World Cup revival likely being floated as a pacifying move to that contingent.
We have four more years to debate all of the issues, predict the winners and losers, and hear the complaints about Olympic venues that have not been completed. In the meantime, Sochi provided the types of moments the Olympics are known for, and Russia deserves credit for hosting a spectacle worthy of the Olympic rings. Now, lace 'em up, the NHL is back!