01/05/2010 2:25 PM - By Chad Huebner
According to the 1984 movie based on the book of the same name, 2010 is supposed to be “The Year we Make Contact.” Yeah, sure, we can barely send ships into orbit without exploding and NASA seems more concerned with using the moon as a BB gun target than with making contact with beings from another world. I’m sure no otherworldly being worth their pressed latinum would want anything to do with us these days.
2010 is also a Winter Olympics year, which a good news/bad news thing for NHL teams. Most players look forward to those two weeks off from hockey in the middle of the season, but then they also take it on the chin in the form of a compressed schedule. After playing nearly every other day for two months straight, those players need that well-deserved break. As for the ones who have to play the Olympics, it certainly is a respected honor to play for your selected country. But just like playing your starters in a meaningless end of regular-season game before the playoffs, you run the risk of losing them to injury. The Winter Olympics are a double-edged sword, and while I come on the side in favor of having the best of the NHL play in them (considering the Russians have been pulling this tactic for going on 50-plus years) I wish there was some way the regular season schedule wasn’t compromised. Since I can’t come up with anything at the moment, I’d rather make my picks on who’ll win the gold-silver-bronze based on how the rosters stack up.
BRONZE MEDAL: RUSSIA
As much as I wanted to give my beloved countrymen a boost before they head off for Vancouver, there were two reasons why I couldn’t award them the bronze: 1) They start play in the same group as Canada, and 2) Since Canada will most likely win the group, that means the U.S. will most likely play the Russians. And man, are the Russians coming back as the team to beat these days! And not everyone on the team is like those robots that played and won for the Soviets all those Cold War years; these guys have personality, like Alex the Great and even Geno on occasion. Evgeni “Nabby” Nabakov will be the main man in goal, but Ilya “Brizzy” Brzgalov and up-and-coming Semyon (Semmy?) Varlamov of the Washington Caps could lend a hand if things get rough, like in the middle of a game. After Ovechkin and Malkin, you still have a very deep compliment of forwards, such as Kovalchuk, Datsyuk and Fedorov, who’s still a contributor even at 40 years. The weakness seems to be at defense, though there are a whole slew of guys who don’t play in the NHL, so maybe they’re tremendous in the KHL? Regardless of that concern, it looks like the Russians are on their way to reestablishing themselves as a force to be reckoned with. . . at least in international hockey.
SILVER MEDAL: SWEDEN
Thirteen of the 23 players are from the 2006 gold-medal winning team, but a few key players are still injured with a few newer members ready to make their mark on the world’s stage. It all starts in net with Olympic MVP Henrik Lundqvist making this squad a force to still be reckoned with. Then you go to the blue line, and the ageless wonder Nicklas Lindstrom still doing what he’s been doing for what seems like 900 years and counting. If that all wasn’t enough, check out the forward’s names: Zetterberg, Alfredsson, Backstrom, the Sedin twins and yes, the man of the 1994 gold medal squad, Peter Forsberg, all make up a devastatingly high-scoring roster. Though there are a few key injuries (such as Zetterberg being out with a separated shoulder until early January), there are plenty of younger guys ready to control the team for future Olympics, like Nicklas Backstrom and Loui Eriksson. It’s hard to pick against these guys, but it’s rare these days for a country to repeat as gold-medal winners in back-to-back Olympics. And I think having to play on the next country’s soil has something to do with it.
GOLD MEDAL: CANADA
The only country that can possibly top the Swedes in god-fearing, awesome power also has home field advantage for the first time since the 1988 Games in Calgary. Like in “Men in Black”, Team Canada Executive Director Steve Yzerman and Team Canada head coach Mike Babcock have looked for the “best of the best”, and have managed to put nearly all of it on one team. It rivals the star power of the 2002 gold-medal squad, but there’s a lot of youthful depth here, something that should carry the team for another Olympiad or two. That’s something Yzerman was looking to instill: a lasting legacy that doesn’t have to be overhauled every four years. He also made sure Sidney Crosby “made” the team this time around, because the last time in 2006, Team Canada finished a disappointing seventh. No chance of that happening this time around. I mean, just look at the three goalies they have: Brodeur, Luongo and Andre-Fleury. It’s simply not fair to the rest of the world. Neither is having the best line in the NHL: Heatley-Thornton-Marleau. Granted, I would take my ‘Hawks line of Toews-Kane-Hossa any day, but they can’t compete as one in the Olympics, can they? Speaking of Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook, the ‘Hawks defensive dynamic duo, join the long list of superb young defenders. As if all this greatness wasn’t enough to scare Lundqvist out of his skridskos (that’s Swedish for skates), this is the first time the Winter Games will be held in a city that has rinks with NHL dimensions. This team winning the gold should be the crowning moment for Vancouver and the rest of Canada in these games.
Speaking of my beloved ‘Hawks (for probably the 3,356th time, but who’s counting), it’s just nice to see all their great play over the past two years pay off in the form of Olympic bids. Six players playing on three teams shows everyone how balanced the ‘Hawks really are, even though you still have stars in Johnny Toews and Patrick Kane.
Watching the ‘Hawks this season reminds me of when I was a Chicago Bulls fan back in the 90s, and not just because both teams had/have star power. Back then, even when the Bulls were winning a ton of games, there were times when even the mighty MJ couldn’t carry the club for periods of time. But while the team was down, they were never out. You just got the feeling the Bulls were going to go on a scoring outburst that would either get them back into the game, or just win it all. It felt like they could win every game if they gave a 100% effort every time.
That’s exactly what I feel like when I watch the ‘Hawks. Of course, lately the ‘Hawks have been up 2-0 or 3-0 before the opposing team even manages a shot on goal, so it’s been a pretty easy stretch for them. But there are times when even the mighty ‘Hawks (still hard to call them that) are down by one or two goals, even going into the third period. Still, I never feel like they’re totally out of the game. When they played in Dallas against the Stars a couple of nights before New Year’s Eve, they went from erasing a 2-1 deficit with two goals in less then a minute to being down 4-3 with two quickies given up by Cristobal Huet in just over a minute. Even so, as Huet was replaced in net by Antti Niemi, the ‘Hawks stayed their ground, managed to tie the game, and only lost the contest on a late goal in the third. Yes, this one doesn’t fully prove my point, but at least the ‘Hawks didn’t let the game get out of hand even after the goalie change.
This confidence is something relatively new to the ‘Hawks, and the ‘Hawks fans. It’s a great feeling, and I hope it lasts quite a long time. Or at least until the end of Kane’s and Toews’ contract extensions.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
There’s talk about doing the NHL Winter Classic every other year, but I hope that’s not the case. Maybe having two outdoor games every year would be a bit of an overkill, but having that game on New Year’s Day is becoming to me what Christmas is to any kid, an anticipating bundle of joy. Even after a heavy bout of partying on New Year’s Eve, I can’t wait to wake up in time for all the pregame ceremonies, and to see what the particular stadium at the time looks like with a hockey rink right in the middle of it (bonus points if there’s snow on the ground or even a touch of snow in the air despite the potential problems is poses to ice conditions).
Here are a few observations I made about the third installment of the Winter Classic, and the fifth NHL game to be played outdoors. (NOTE: I wrote these on paper, and then transferred them to my computer. A blend of the old and the new, just like what this game represents to the millions of hockey fans who started playing the great game on an outdoor rink, pond or even stream.)
Weather Conditions: The best it’s been for the three Winter Classics. There was actually a concern about the possibility of rain (in January in Boston?!), but there was the right amount of cold, and the right amount of cloudiness, too. In fact, a sunny day would probably put too much glare on the ice.
National Anthems: “O Canada” almost makes me wish I was Canadian. The song makes a heckuva lot more sense than what’s sung in “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The “We stand on guard for thee” line was probably a reference to blue-line defense.
Seating: I felt sorry, really really sorry, for the people in the right field area of Fenway Park. They were too far away and not high enough to see the entire rink. I thought the Green Monster seats would be an excellent vantage point, but on TV, even they looked like you needed binoculars to see the entire layout. Honestly though, who didn’t want to see a slap shot bounce off the wall? Maybe it happened in pregame warm-ups, but the announcers didn’t make any mention of this.
Honorary Captains: For the Philadelphia Flyers, it couldn’t be anyone but Bobby Clarke. I only wish the Flyers would have come through an entrance in the shape of Clarkie’s gap-toothed mouth during his playing days.
For the Bruins, well, Eddie Shore is long dead, so who else could it be besides the man whose name rhymes with his number: Number Four, Bobby Orr. It’s probably the best number-name combo in all of sports. When I use the lockers my workout place, if all the ‘Hawks numbers are being used (9, 21, 19, etc), then I’ll go with Number Four. Enough babble, back to the column.
Game Play: While the weather conditions were excellent, the ice seemed to be making the puck a little “jumpy.” The players, most of whom grew up playing outdoor hockey all day long, haven’t been doing much of this lately in their NHL careers, so it seemed they had a bit of a problem keeping track of the puck amidst an unfamiliar background of, say, a baseball park. Nevertheless, the pace of the game was generally good, and if you managed to concentrate solely on the action on the ice, you might’ve forgotten you were watching an outdoor game. Might.
Matchups: Yes, the Boston-Philly hockey match up was strong, some say unbelievably brutal, back in the 70s, I’d have to say an even better match up for the Bruins would have been against the Montreal Canadiens. Now those two teams really hate each other. Plus, we’d finally have a Winter Classic game with one Canadian team participating. This leads me to my next observation. . .
Future Sites: While there’s talk of the next Winter Classic match up being Washington-New York at New Yankee Stadium (good) or even a Washington-Pittsburgh game at Heinz Field (even better), it really should be an all-Canada affair next year. Here are my top three match ups I’d like to see on New Year’s Day 2011:
1) Montreal-Toronto: French Canada vs. English Canada. The oldest, polarizing rivalry in the league, and probably all of hockey. Don Cherry in a maple-leaf patterned suit. What could be better than all of that?
2) Calgary-Edmonton: Okay, that’s not too bad, either. The Battle of Alberta. Lanny McDonald’s handlebar moustache vs. Gretzky’s 80s mullet. Don Cherry in a plaid parka. At least you’d have a younger crop of players for the Old-Timers Game.
3) Toronto-Ottawa: The Battle of Ontario. Not as old of a rivalry as the other two, unless you count the period Ottawa was in the NHL in the 20s and 30s. Still, these two clubs had some great postseason battles in the early 00s.
TV Feature in Second Period Intermission: A nice piece done on the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. From now on, it’s going to be scary thinking anything done in the 80s was-GASP!-30 years ago. I mean, that was my childhood, how could it be so long ago? And how many millions of times have anyone else ever asked that in the span of human history?
Dan Carcillo: No surprise that this guy was in the first fight in Winter Classic history. Brought over from the Phoenix Coyotes in a trade three years ago, he’s provided much of the grit for a team known for having plenty of it, as well as blood, sweat and maybe even a little plasma, just for kicks and giggles. He looks like a beat-up Ashton Kutcher. He’s also sporting a ‘stache in honor of the Broad Street Bullies, but he’s got a long way to go to match the one Dave “The Hammer” Schultz wore those days.
Sweet Caroline: The coolest Neil Diamond song out there, which is really wacky to say. A standard at Boston sporting events, alongside “Dirty Water” by the Standells which is usually played following a home victory. Nice touch seeing Denis Leary and Lenny Clarke, big-time Boston sports fans and of course, both from the TV show “Rescue Me”, alongside some Boston PD and FD leading the crowd in song. Perhaps this inspired what happened in my next observation. . .
Mark Recchi: The man who tied the game with just over two minutes left in regulation made a name for himself during his 21-year career with most of that time spent with the Flyers. From 1991-95 and 1998-04, he played with the Flyers and set the club record for most points in a season with 123 in 1992-93. Seems only fitting that one of the few current players for either team has played both sides of this brutal rivalry.
Final Thoughts: Though I’ve never played hockey-outdoors, indoors, whatever-I can certainly appreciate for what must be a unique feel for playing this game outdoors. Just pushing the puck along some wide pond, playing keep-away with the other kids, doing this day after day and even night after night. There’s something magical here, and it should be done every year during this magical time of the season.
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