Really Pucking Up The Olympics

Steve Murray
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Wednesday - March 01, 2006
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This was not supposed to happen.

The United States, home to 24 of the 30 NHL teams, and Canada, the country that supplies the league with the vast majority of its players, left empty handed.

Wayne Gretzky, the executive director of Team Canada, took the blame for his underachieving squad during post-game interviews. Showing the stress of dealing with Olympic expectations and the ongoing gambling investigation involving his assistant coach Rick Tocchet, the Great One said he will have to re-assess his future as the head of his country’s national sport.

While it’s admirable that Gretzky is taking the bullet for his team, he’s not the one who should apologize. It’s the players who lost. Though Team Canada and Gretzky were blamed for leaving hot youngsters like Eric Staal (57 goals and 75 points) and rookie phenom Sidney Crosby off the team, Canada still had more than enough to get it done.

Let’s be real. The Canadian roster looked like an NHL All-Star Team because it was. With Martin Brodeur and Marty Turco in goal, defensemen Rob Blake, Adam Foote and Chris Pronger and stud forwards Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Thorton, Joe Sakic and 2003-2004 MVP and scoring leader Martin St.-Louis, anything but a gold is a failure. Especially when this group failed to do the one thing you thought was a given: Score. The Canadians were shut out in three of the final four games and in 11 of the final 12 periods of play.


Things were even worse on the American side. Paced by a roster that included eight players from the 2002 Winter Games and 10 from this year’s World Championship, the U.S. went looking for a medal. What they got was poor performance, fingerpointing and an abysmal 1-4-1 record. While Gretzky was taking the blame, Mike Modano, the captain of the U.S. squad, was looking in the other direction.

Following the 4-3 loss to Finland, Modano complained about what he thought was poor planning by USA Hockey in the areas of hotel rooms and flight accommodations for family members and other such important things. Of course, he failed to mention his own performance that saw no shots on goal during that final game and very little to brag about in the prior contests.

After a few months when the wounds have healed, both U.S. and Canadian hockey authorities need to take a look in the mirror and decide what went wrong. Much like the U.S. discovered in basketball, it is no longer possible to just trot out a bunch of stars and cruise to a victory. Much thought has to be put into determining which players will make the best team and not what kind of team can be made with only the best players.

Of the two, the U.S. faces the biggest challenge. The Americans have bowed out of medal contention in three of the last four Olympics. In fact, the only thing the U.S. hockey team seems to have done good of late is destroy dorm rooms at the Olympic village. And that’s too bad, because it’s not like the shelf is bare. While true that the United States may never produce hockey talent of the caliber of Canada, Sweden or the Czech Republic, it still has enough, if playing smart, to be consistent medal contenders.

Canada can, at times, get by on talent alone, but not enough to satisfy its fans. Since the dissolving of the Soviet Union and its professional amateur Red Army team, Canada stands alone at the pinnacle of hockey. As it should, being that hockey is to Canada what soccer is to England.

Gretzky will be back, as he should. Though the controversy surrounding him, his wife and assistant coach may have had a downward effect on the team, he is much too valuable to the sport to be sitting on the sidelines.

In 2010 the Olympics return to Canadian soil, and the Mapleleafers will expect to hear O Canada from the medal stand.

What will the Americans do? Nothing if they keep playing like temperamental brats and not athletes hungry for one of the biggest prizes in sports.

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