NHL fan guide to Olympic hockey

The King

The King

The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi are underway and soon hockey fans from around the globe will be treated to the best ice hockey tournament not named the Stanley Cup playoffs. For the 5th straight Winter games, NHL players will officially be allowed to participate. And as a result, expectations for gold are highest around Canada, Sweden, the US, and of course the host country - Mother Russia.

Tracking the quest for gold is always the main reason for following the Olympics. However, this year in particular there are quite a few other narratives that are equally compelling and definitely worth waking up early to watch.

Before we get into the games I circled, let’s revisit the basics. First, a quick reminder of the groups:

Group A: USA, Russia, Slovenia, Slovakia

Group B: Canada, Finland, Norway, Austria

Group C: Sweden, Czech Republic, Switzerland, Latvia

Men’s hockey will kick off this Wednesday at 11am EST with the Czech Republic facing Sweden. USA’s first game will take place vs. Slovakia on Thursday at 7:30am. They will square off against Russia on Saturday at 7:30am. In other words, put your Valentines to sleep early Friday night.

With that out of the way, let’s focus on several interesting plot lines heading into this week’s tournament.

The fate of Norway rests on The Hobbit’s shoulders

In 2010, little known Mats Zuccarello took North America by surprise when he dropped a goal and an assist vs. Marian Gaborik’s Slovakia. Although Slovakia won the game, Mats helped Norway push them to the brink, forcing a 3-3 game heading into the third. Zuke’s all around play paved the way for him to join the NHL.

Four years later, the hopes of Norges rests on MZA’s shoulders, as he is the only NHL player on the roster. Fortunately, they are one of three teams in the Olympics to only be featuring one NHLer, the others being Slovenia and Latvia. The pressure though is on MZA and his Polar Bears to follow up their 2010 performance with perhaps a spot in the quarterfinals.

Key Game: Norway vs. Finland on 2/14 at noon EST on MSNBC. The Nordic Wars, a must win for MZA. 

A sleeping giant in Switzerland 

Traditionally, Swiss hockey always got overshadowed in Europe by Sweden, Russia, and the Czech Republic. In 1998 the Swiss didn’t even qualify for the Olympics. In 2002 they finished 2nd to last, but times are a changing.

Strong national teams are often fostered because of strong domestic leagues. Across the pond, perhaps no league is stronger right now than Switzerland’s National League A (NLA). The most attended hockey league in Europe the past few years wasn’t the KHL in Russia, or even Sweden’s SEL. It was the NLA.

Higher attendances lead to higher revenue and higher revenue means more investments back into the sport of hockey. It’s paying off. This year’s Swiss National Team features a very deep roster with eight players currently in the NHL, up from only two players in 2010.

Key Game: Sweden vs. Switzerland on 2/14 at 730am EST on NBCSN. To be the best you have to beat the best.

Family Matters, Kopitar & Slovenia

Anze Kopitar being named to Slovenia’s team was obviously no surprise, as he is the only NHL player on the roster. What did come as a surprise though was that Anze’s brother, Gasper Kopitar, didn’t make the cut despite having helped the team qualify for the Olympics for the first time.

Even more surprising, the team is coached by their father, Matjaz Kopitar. That has to make for some awkward family dinners. No goulash for Gasper!

Key Game: Slovakia vs. Slovenia on 2/15 at 3am EST on MSNBC. Beat the country that stupid people will likely confuse you with.

Bigger Ice Surface

The idea that there will be a different style of play on an international size rink (200 by 100) vs. NHL size (200 by 85) is certainly not a unique thought. However, most of the focus at this point has been on the players because of the extra time and space they will have with the puck. What I’ll be looking for though is how the coaches adapt.

Hockey systems on the big rink can be very different from what we’re used to seeing. Heavy forechecking, dump and chase, ramping up shot-attempts (aka Corsi/Fenwick events), etc. are all North American concepts.  In Europe, you tend to see more overloads, east-west breakouts, and neutral zone traps. It’s not uncommon to see an 0-5 forecheck, which has been extinct in the NHL since the ’05 lockout.

Speed through the neutral zone is going to be key for the US and Canada. Breakouts will have to be different. Coaches will need more regroups in their arsenal than they’ve ever had in the NHL. It will be a different game. Can internationally inexperienced coaches handle it? We shall see.

Key Game: Finland vs. Canada on 2/16 at 12pm EST on USA Network. A potential upset game for our northern neighbors.

No Olympian faces more pressure than Ovechkin

Russia not medaling in Vancouver and Turin was a big deal, especially since they are always a favorite to win the Gold. To make matters worse, Canada embarrassed Russia in the quarterfinals losing 7-3. Ovechkin finished the tournament with 2 goals and 2 assists in Russia’s four games.

Although the team features plenty of notable stars like Malkin, Kovalchuk, Bobrovsky, and Datsyuk who’s actually captaining the team, for better or worse all fingers end up getting pointed at Ovechkin. Losing on Russian soil will not bode well for his legacy.

According to The Washington Post, Capitals coach, Adam Oates had the following advice for Ovie, which I thought was great message.

“You can’t control your coach, you can’t control your line mates, your teammates, how much you’re going to play…All you can control is how you play.” “You’ve got to go over there and be the fastest, hardest working guy you can possibly be because that’s what they’ll remember…I just want him to come out feeling like he left it on the table, he did the best he could possibly do.”

The pressure and scrutiny on Ovie is almost unfair given their team’s balance and depth, but it will certainly make an interesting narrative to follow.

Key Game: USA vs. Russia on 2/15 at 7am EST on NBCSN. For the group stage, it doesn’t get bigger than this.

For the complete Olympic hockey schedule, check out our page here.

21 Responses to “NHL fan guide to Olympic hockey”

  1. Mike says:

    Isn’t USA’s first game on Thursday morning vs. Slovakia? Not Saturday vs. Russia?

  2. Walt says:

    The pressure should be on Malkin, only because they say he is much more popular in Russia, than is Ovie. Personally, I hope they all (Russia) play piss poor hockey, and that either the US, or Sweden win it all.

  3. Bob says:

    What no Callahan rumors today?

  4. VinceR says:

    Between this and the linked schedule, you saved me a lot of searching, nice work!

  5. Chris K says:

    I like how Oates just paraphrased some of Herb Brooks’ lines from Miracle

  6. Bloomer says:

    I love seeing the best hockey players playing on the world stage. If Bettman and the owners are seriously about growing the game, they shouldn’t hesitate about sending their NHL players to the Olympics.

    The Swiss hockey program is developing some very skilled hockey players and they have come a long ways. My heart is with Canada, but I am the first to admit that the USA team is very deep and has to be one of the favourites to win the Gold.

    Russia of course has their superstars, but has difficulties playing together as a team. Whereas the Swedes always seem to bound together quite quickly and will make a run for a metal.

    The Finns have determination and you never know what you get with the Czech Republic. Lastly we get to watch the Superhobbit playing with his Norwegian countrymen. Drop the puck!

    • The Suit says:

      Agreed. Unfortunately Bettman manages to the owners and they don’t see any money from these games, at least not directly.

      I’d say there’s a decent chance this could be the last time we see NHL players participating in the Olympics for a while.

      • Sally says:

        It’s a shame that the NHL takes such a short term view.

        • Bloomer says:

          It is a shame and the NHL continues to demonstrate that they have little understanding of the game in which they sell. Hockey is a international sport they need to think outside of their little fiefdom.

      • Walt says:

        Suit

        What happends if Crosby, Malkin, Ovie, Toews, Sedin, Callie, Mc Truck, etc. gets hurt??? The teams are out their best players, and the owners are stuck with the bills, and have to pay these guys for the duration of their contracts.

        I love to see these guys play for their countries, but if there is an injury, we the fans are the long term loosers along with the management. Just something to think about!!!!

        Do you know if there are injuries, what happends to the player contracts????

        • Dave says:

          The contracts are insured. That’s usually the biggest hurdle with the NHL players.

          • The Suit says:

            That’s their argument Walt. It’s hard to sell tickets, merch, concessions, etc. if your team loses their star player.

            Even if there are no injuries the NHL isnt getting a dime from these games. That’s a tough pill to swallow.

            The counter argument is that it is good for the growth of the game, but it’s hard to make a direct correlation with proof in terms of dollars and cents.

    • Chris F says:

      Yes, it’s great for “the game.” Yes, as a fan, this is an exciting tournament. I am definitely pretty amped to see team USA compete on the world stage.

      However, we shouldn’t trivialize the very prudent concerns that team owners have with NHL participation in the Olympics. The National committees have nothing to lose by getting the world’s best players involved, and everything to gain if it means bringing home the gold.

      But team owners, and not just NHL owners though that is the perspective I am most familiar with, have just cause to object to the NHL’s involvement. The owners are the ones paying these guys’ salaries. They pay them to play for their organization. It’s quite a risk lending their stars players for a grueling month long competition, especially in the middle of the season on the cusp of the run to the playoffs. Guys will be injured, chemistry and momentum will be stymied, and non – Olympic players are stuck in limbo.

      While the Olympics are great for hockey, they are only questionably beneficial to the NHL. I sympathize with team management concerns.

      With that said, USA!

      • Bloomer says:

        You can’t have a hockey league without players. The National Hockey League is made up of players from all over the world. The international promotion of the game is the driving force behind the development of hockey programs. Without marketing and promotion, its just a fun game played on ice by a few people at the north pole.

  7. Steven Cifuentes says:

    From a personal prespective I LOVE the NHL players going to the Olympics.

    I would watch but would only get really into it, if the USA made a run with young players.

    Now my schedule will be changed to make sure I watch these games.

  8. FlynBrian61 says:

    My take on it is this:
    I was a casual observer of hockey on the USA network in the late 70′s.

    Being from California, their was a lot of activities to keep busy with.

    However, this 18 yr old kid was mesmerized by an exciting and intense Hockey Tournament, we all know as the “Miracle on Ice”.

    (Feb. 22, pretty much cemented me to a lifelong passion for the game, and for the Red, White, & Blue, of the Rangers!)

    FF to the present.
    I too, love to see these games with our favorite pro’s, playing for National Pride. But in reality, I would still watch with the same passion if it were just the collegiate/amateur guys.

    So let’s just enjoy this tourney, and hope everyone makes it back healthy. Probably will be the last time the big boys are involved.
    U-S-A U-S-A