February 04, 2010

Olympic Hockey International Round Table

To kick off the Olympics I wanted to conduct an Olympic Hockey Round Table. But not just any round table. I wanted representation from each of hockey's power nations.

Let's introduce you to the panel:

Patrick Houda (Sweden) - My old pal and co-author is Europe's leading hockey historian.

Risto Pakarinen (Finland) - Risto is Europe's leading hockey journalist, with pieces featured in The Hockey News and NHL.com amongst many other places.

Sergei Averiyanov (Russia) - Sergei is a credential Olympic journalist from Russia, and will be covering the Olympic hockey tournament (and other sports) for RIA Novosti.

Brett Henning (USA) - Former Team USA player turned author.

Valerian Lukacko (Slovakia) - Valerian is a leading Slovakian blogger, blogging in English at Sportovy Blog.

Boris Vanya (Slovakia) - Okay, he's Slovakian, too, but he runs the excellent website NHLPro.cz, which overs Czech hockey.

Joe Pelletier (Canada) - Hey, that's me!

I asked the panelists 4 simple questions:

Who will win the gold medal?

Which team will be the surprise of the tournament?

What are the public's hockey expectations in your country?

In your opinion, what is hockey's greatest moment at the Olympics?

Here we go:

Who will win the gold medal?

Risto Pakarinen - Since about 2005, I have been predicting that Russia will rise within the next five years, and with their back-to-back World Championship gold medals, I may have to stop now, and just tell everybody that I told them so. I'm going to go with Russia, simply because there is so much scoring talent on that team, and because they also have goaltending that's good enough to go all the way.

Sergey Averiyanov - I believe there are at least three teams who are capable of winning Olympic gold in Vancouver. In my humble opinion they are (in decreasing order) Team Russia, Team Canada and Team USA.

Patrick Houda - The million dollar question. Once again there are several teams in the mix that can win it all. Of course, the team with the hottest goalie, the luckiest bounces and fittest squad will most probably prevail in the end. Canada and Russia are favourites with Sweden and USA as the darkhorses. I hate to make predictions, because I'm always wrong As a Swede I have to say Sweden vs either Canada or Russia in the final. That way I have the three favourites covered :)

Valerian Lukacko - I think Russia is going to win the gold medal.

Boris Vanya - Russia.

Brett Henning - As much as I'd like to say the USA, I really think it will be Canada. Early on they might stumble with the enormous amount of pressure on their shoulders, but with that roster they should be able to sleep walk through games and still come out on top. If they can contain Russia, which I have my doubts that they can, then you could very well see a riot on the streets of Vancouver. The combination of Nash and Crosby could be reminiscent of the Gretzky-Lemieux tandem.

Joe Pelletier - I can never go against Canada, it is just not in me. But that being said, I admit Russia is the favorite to win gold in Vancouver. They have the best offense, excellent goaltending, great desire and motivation, and the world's best player. Canada matches in most categories, and on paper has the better blue line. Which team gels together the quickest and whether or not home ice is an advantage or disadvantage will probably decide the gold medal.

Who Will Be The Surprise Of The Olympics?

Risto Pakarinen - There can only be one answer to this one, and, paradoxically, it's the same one from one tournament to the next: Finland. Nobody ever talks about Finland before the tournament, but consider their Olympic record since Calgary 1988: Silver in '88, Bronze in '94, Bronze on '98, Silver in '06. Finland being in the medals would not be a shock, but it will be a surprise to many.

Sergey Averiyanov - Team USA. That is extremely dangerous and hungry bunch of players who will not feel any pressure Canada and Russia will definitely feel.

Patrick Houda
- I believe Switzerland might surprise some of the top teams. They are well organized and pretty difficult to play against.

Valerian Lukacko - Slovakia. I'm not saying that because I´m Slovak but it´s because we have Gaborik and especially Halak.

Boris Vanya - Switzerland

Brett Henning - The USA. Strong goaltending and a team that you can use the proverbial saying "to young to know the difference," might be able to cause some havoc in a short tournament. A lot of people may say Sweden but I don't think they will make it past the Semi's. Forsberg is a shadow of what he once was and it will be a harder hitting game in Vancouver then in Turin.

Joe Pelletier - Slovakia has the hottest goalie right now, and a couple of game breakers.

What Are The Expectations In Your Country?

Risto Pakarinen
- Losing an Olympic final against Sweden left a bitter taste in the mouths of Finnish hockey fans, so they hope (not expect, maybe) that Team Finland could at least let the Swedes taste their own medicine this time around. The public knows that Russia and Canada will be hard to beat .. unless you have a hot goalie (called Kiprusoff), and you score when you get a chance (like Selanne does).

Sergey Averiyanov - The expectations can’t be low when you have in your team guys like Ovechkin, Malkin, Datsyuk, Kovalchuk, Semin, Markov, Gonchar and three NHL-caliber goalies. Most of them are at their prime and know how to win big tournaments and how to beat Canada in Canada.

I think these guys can’t lose to anyone but themselves. And they will feel pressure second only to Canada because coming Olympics seems to be disastrous for Russia in terms of medals and everybody understands that the most prestigious gold of the Games may sweeten the bitter pill for the whole nation.

Patrick Houda - A medal is expected for sure, anything else will be deemed as a failure. Sweden is after all the defending champion and always a medal contender. Going into the tournament, as I said previously, Canada and Russia are the favourites. This suits Sweden perfectly as all the pressure will be on those two teams.

Valerian Lukacko - Expectations aren't high as we failed at few past world hockey championships but the roster wasn't far that good that it's now.

Boris Vanya
- Expectations are not so great becauese of Slovakia national team poore results in the past two World Championship (13th in Canada 2008 and 10th in Switzerland 2009). We have some NHL rising stars (Hossa, Gaborik, Chara) and also another great names (Demitra, Palffy, Satan) and for some of them thats the last chance for big succes. So in Slovakia there is a motto: Farewell for one generation (very strong and famous generation - gold generation from 2002 WCH). One part of the fans hope, Slovaks could be the black horse of the tournament, another part are more skeptic and think, some Slovak stars are too old for this kind of tournament.

Brett Henning - I live in California and my local TV provider doesn't have VS. so I barely know hockey exists without going to a game or getting the SLAM hockey newsletter every morning. I don't know if it's the amateur aspect that NBC is promoting but I haven't seen one hockey player in the Olympic lead up commercials.

Joe Pelletier - Expectations are always of gold, but I sense a real nervousness in these Olympics. And it is all about the Russians.

What Is The Greatest Hockey Moment In Olympic History?

Risto Pakarinen
- I was trying to come up with an alternative to the Miracle, but there just isn't one. An event that inspires a myriad books, movies, TV documentaries, and that gets referenced any time an underdog is about to beat a favorite in hockey surely is the sport's greatest moment.

Sergey Averyianov - From Russian point of view it is by all means the USSR hockey Olympic debut in Cortina d’Ampezzo in 1954. That is pure Russian (or Soviet if you like it best) Miracle: the ultimate rookies beat the renowned favorites. It changed the scenery of the game forever and even made Canada to introduce country’s first national hockey team institution.

Patrick Houda - There are so many great moments over the years that it is difficult to only pick one. But the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" upset is hard to overlook. I remember watching the USA-CCCP game as an 11-year old, and I just couldn't believe it. Given the fact how dominant the Soviet team was in international games during this period, combined with the political tensions of the time, this was a monumental game. It had a long lasting effect on the entire US hockey program. It affected Soviet hockey too, as they changed a few things in their future preparations.

Some other memorable moments in recent Olympic hockey includes the Swedish shootout win in 1994, Haseks dominance in 1998 and Canada's "dream team" of 2002.

Long forgotten individual heroics should also get their due, like for example:

Harry Watson's utter brilliance in the 1924 Olympics, his 19 point outburst against Switzerland (13 goals) is of course still an Olympic record. He also had a 12 goal game against Czechoslovakia. 36 goals and 50 points in 5 games are also Olympic records.

Another performance to remember is the Scottish born netminder Jimmy Foster's
incredible play in the 1936 Olympics which helped Great Britain secure the gold medal. Fosters 98,7 save % was even way better than Haseks 96,1 save % in 1998, that alone gives us an indication of how well Foster played.

Valerian Lukacko
- Miracle on Ice

Boris Vanya - Its not easy for me, however for me thats the Czech republic triumph in Nagano 1998 Olympic tournament.

Brett Henning - Hockey's greatest moment at the Olympics has to be the 1980 Olympic gold medal for the USA. If you look at my answer to the question above you will see that the American public as a whole really doesn't care too deeply about hockey in any respect. Yet you ask any American of a certain age and they can recite where they were for that famous call by Al Michaels, "Do you believe in Mircales?" It could be a case of the winner dictates the historical account but I think the 80 Soviet team was filled with many world class players. To beat them with a team of US college players in a highly charged political atmosphere is pretty unbelievable.

Joe Pelletier - The Miracle On Ice is undoubtedly the greatest moment. Peter Forsberg's shootout, Dominik Hasek's shootout leap, Canada in 2002 are all great moments, but the Miracle transcended hockey.

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