With all apologies to the Slopestyle Snowboarders, the Team Figure Skaters, the Biathletes and the Lugers, the REAL Olympic Games begin today. Of course, I'm talking about the Men's Ice Hockey Tournament--which starts with preliminary pool play this morning. The greatest athletes in the greatest winter sport will compete in a week-long All-Star game, except everyone actually tries hard and cares who wins.
The only thing in sports that I love more than Stanley Cup Playoff Hockey--is Olympic Medal Round Hockey. There isn't an American kid who laces up the skates that hasn't seen the Team USA upset of the Soviet Union in Lake Placid in 1980 and that doesn't want that same Miracle on Ice moment. Canadians derive their national identity from the success of their team in their sport. Europeans like Sweden and the Czech Republic are far more invested in Olympic play and winning the gold than they are in winning The Cup. And for the first time, Russia--with its history of international dominance--gets to play on home ice.
While Olympic "purists" may be disgusted by the inclusion of millionaire professionals in this tournament, having guys from everyone's favorite NHL teams spread out amongst all the countries makes every game a must-watch affair. As a Bruins fan, I will root for Patrice Bergeron on Team Canada, Zdeno Chara on Team Slovakia, David Krejci on Team Czech Republic and Tuukka Rask on Team Finland--except when they are playing Team USA. Unlike a lot of fans, I won't even have to set my alarm for the 4:00 am games--since I'm already an hour into my work day by then.
The tournament is returning to the larger International-sized rink this year--meaning we should see wide-open play and a lot of fancy passing and stickhandling. It will likely be an advantage for the European teams--as they grew up in this style of play--whereas North Americans learn a much more physical, take the body, type of game. And with so much talent on so many teams, the final outcome is anything but assured. I've seen plenty of predictions on hard-core hockey websites and nobody has the same final medals predictions. I'm going to root for Team USA to win Gold--but my mind says to pick Sweden (they are the most balanced team) to beat Canada in the finals--with the US beating Finland for the Bronze.
And if you needed one more reason to watch Olympic Men's Hockey this time around, there is a very good chance we won't see the NHL guys play next time around. There is very little interest from the NHL league brass and owners to send players to South Korea in 2018. Don't be surprised if there is a World Cup of Hockey played in the early fall of that year instead--which is also awesome--but not like getting the Gold Medal and singing along to your national anthem.