SOCHI, Russia — The ice surface is bigger, the pay non-existent and what used to mean bragging rights around the world in the days of dueling superpowers counts for less now that everyone wound up on the same side of capitalism. The trade-off is that you might see one, and as many four, hockey games better-played than anything in an entire season of National Hockey League contests. Here’s a look at the upcoming Olympic men’s hockey tournament.
1. HOME COOKING
Both of the United States’ wins were earned on home ice, in 1960 and 1980, as was Canada’s eighth and most recent. Nobody else has turned the trick. Russia has never played host to a Winter Games and hasn’t been part of a gold-medal winner since the Unified Team in 1994 (and the Soviet Union dynasty before that). But nothing short of a title here is going to fly with generations reared on tales of the “Big Red Machine,” especially since goalkeeping legend Vladimir Tretiak, serving as the Russian federation boss, is around to stir those memories.
2. CANADA TAKES A BACKSEAT TO NO ONE
Arguments over where the game originated continue until today. But there’s no question who owns the modern version. The Canadians won the first Olympic tournament in Chamonix, France — scoring 122 goals and allowing just three along the way — and have added seven since. The Soviet Union won seven, including a stretch of four straight (five if you count the Unified Team), followed by the United States and Sweden with two each.
3. THE BIG SHEET
The return to the European-sized rink — 200 feet long by 100 feet wide — will give hosts Russia and the nine other European teams a better chance of taking down Canada and the United States. The extra 15 feet on each side — a combined 3,000 square feet larger than the NHL version — minimizes brawn by making it harder to check opponents and gives speedsters like the Russian duo of Alex Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk and Swedes Erik Karlsson and Carl Hagelin more room to maneuver.
4. CROSBY VS. OVECHKIN, or MAGIC VS. BIRD, PART 2
Canadian Sidney Crosby and Russian Alex Ovechkin were part of the same rookie class, two of the most-touted youngsters ever to arrive in the NHL. Hockey has been portraying their rivalry as the game’s version of Magic vs. Bird ever since, but so far it’s been all one-sided. Crosby has a Stanley Cup and scored the game-winner against the United States in overtime to lock up gold at Vancouver; he’s also the game highest earner.
5. A FINN AND PRAYER
Age might be just a number, but Finland’s team could be mistaken for hockey’s version of a retirement home. Finland’s Teemu Selanne tops the “grizzled veterans” list here at 43, but the Czech Republic’s Jaromir Jagr, who turns 42 during the tournament, is close behind. Throw in countrymen Sami Salo (39) and Kimmo Timonen (38) and the Finns win the trifecta. Runner-up goes to the Czech Republic, with Patrik Elias and Lubo Visnovsky (37) and an honorable mention each for Sweden’s Daniel Alfredsson and Latvia’s Sandis Ozolinsh (both 41).
6. YOU LOOK FAMILIAR, TOO.
By paying top dollar and scouring the globe for talent, the NHL has its hooks in nearly every top-flight player that will make the dozen national rosters. The Chicago Blackhawks and St. Louis Blues both have a league-high 10 skaters at the Olympics, representing five and six different nations, respectively. “There’s a good chance,” Chicago coach Joel Quenneville said matter-of-factly, “that somebody’s going to come back with a gold medal.”
7. CAN WE TALK ABOUT THIS?
Hockey players have been known to drop their gloves faster than a dirty diaper at the hint of a fight breaking out. There will be no shortage of violence here, but fisticuffs will be in short supply. That’s largely because the Olympic rules, unlike the NHL’s, require any player mixing it up to receive a 5-minute major AND a game- or match-misconduct penalty.
8. NHL’S LAST DANCE?
As recently as last week, Philadelphia owner Ed Snider was still complaining about past and present NHL decisions shutting down league play for two-plus weeks to accommodate the Olympics, “It’s ridiculous, the whole thing is ridiculous. I don’t care if it was in Philadelphia, I wouldn’t want to break up the league.” The NHL first came in 1998 and so far, commissioner Gary Bettman has been able to paper over differences among his owners to return. But the league has refused to commit beyond Sochi.
9. BEST GAME EVER
The prime minister was there. So was musician Neil Young and even “Star Trek” actor William Shatner beamed himself down to take in the 2010 Vancouver final between the United States and Canada. The moment Crosby’s game-winner crossed the goal line, all of Canada exhaled and everyone who played in it can still look one another in the eye every time their paths cross in the future and remember the magic they created.
10. HOW FAR TO THE NEAREST IKEA?
About 185 miles north, a fact that might come in handy depending on which team underperforms the most. The U.S. team in Nagano was expected to medal, but started out with a loss to Sweden and griped the rink was too big. They barely beat Belarus and said their egos might be inflated, too. Then they did the “Late Show,” followed by the “Late, Late Show,” in which team members led partygoers up and down Chuo-dori Street until 5 a.m. Then they called off practice the next morning, lost to Canada by three goals and didn’t find anything easy to beat until they turned their attention on the furniture in their Olympic village rooms. Said Keith Tkachuk, memorably summing up the experience after the Czech Republic beat the best American team money could buy and sent it packing: “The biggest waste of time. Ever.”