Big Rivalries in Sunday’s Hockey Games
VANCOUVER - Because the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan, were the first Olympics after Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslavkia in 1968, the Soviet-Czech hockey game that year was as much about politics as sports.
The contest boiled over to the point that Czech player Vaclav Nedomansky fired a puck into the Soviet bench.
It's hockey's history of intense rivalries that fuels the idea that Sunday's day of Olympic games could be one of the more interesting days of elite competition in international hockey history. The Russians will face off against the Czechs at 3 p.m. ET, followed by renewal of the Canada vs. USA rivalry at 7:30 p.m. and the Finns vs. Swedes at midnight ET. Those are also rematches of the 1998, 2002 and 2006 gold-medal games respectively.
"I don't think the (Czech-Russian rivalry) is what it used to be," said Czech goalie Tomas Vokoun. "But if we beat them, we go straight to the quarterfinals. That's definitely enough emotion."
The rivalry is still important to Jaromir Jagr, who wears No. 68 to honor the Czechs' 1968 freedom movement.
"As a player, you sometimes want easy games," Jagr conceded. "But once you retire, you're going to remember the games that meant something. That's why I want to play against Russia. (And) I want to play against Canada in Canada."
The U.S.-Canada game should drip with intensity. Outside of the USA's 1980 Lake Placid triumph, Canada's international hockey tradition is grander than the Americans' hockey credentials in recent years. Currently, though, the USA holds the international titles at the under-17, under-18 and under-20 divisions. It needs only the senior men's title to hold hockey's equivalent of a grand slam.
"We're the enemy tomorrow," said Team USA general manager Brian Burke. "We know that. It's going to be a hostile, crazy crowd on behalf of Canada and that's the way it ought to be."
Canadian fans' zeal for the Vancouver hockey tournament has been one of the talking points of the Olympics. Fans have filled Canada Hockey Place, and the vast majority come wearing Team Canada sweaters or shirts. A good number have painted faces.
"You are standing in the crease before the game and it's so loud you get Goosebumps," Vokoun said. "People love their hockey in Canada. No question."
Los Angeles Kings defenseman Jack Johnson appreciates Canada's passion for hockey, but he has no desire to be another of Canada's victims in a march to a gold medal.
"Do we dislike (Canadians)? Absolutely," Johnson said. "And I think they dislike us as well."
His Kings teammate, Drew Doughty, plays for Canada, but Johnson said the two have had no discussions about this tournament. When Johnson chartered a private jet to walk in the opening ceremonies, he invited fellow U.S. Olympians and Kings teammates Dustin Brown and Jonathan Quick. He didn't invite Doughty because he viewed this as a U.S. team trip.
"I don't think there is any country out there I particularly like," Johnson added.
The Americans certainly believe they can defeat Canada. Coach Ron Wilson's decision to move gritty Jamie Langenbrunner to the scoring line with Zach Parise and Paul Stastny gives the USA some size on every line to combat Canada's size.
"In their own zone, USA has been good defensively," said NBC analyst Ed Olczyk, a former NHL coach. "But their defensemen have to be better at making decisions at the offensive blue line."
The USA is supposed to be the faster team and Canada the more physical squad.
"We have to take away their time and space," said Canada defenseman Chris Pronger. "To counteract them, you have to be good with the puck and force them to play defense." The Canadians will want to play aggressive to ignite their fans. Said captain Scotty Niedermayer: "We would all say that the game we played against the Swiss isn't the way we play. It's very important of us to come out against the U.S. play our style." All three rivalry games have major implications on the quarterfinal matchups. If the USA beats Canada, it will end up with a bye and the No. 1 or No. 2 seed heading into the quarterfinals.
The standings are messy heading into Sunday's games, but the Russia-Czech game will help the USA know what it needs to do heading into its meeting with Canada. The importance of goal differential makes it difficult to project at this point.
"We will know every possible ramification," Wilson said. "This will be like a football coach in the last five minutes knowing if we score a touchdown, do we go for one or two?"
USA Hockey assistant executive director Jim Johannson is a former Olympian and the leader of the U.S. national team program. He has witnessed these rivalries close up for more than 20 years and marvels at them all.
"To me, Russia-Czech has pretty deep rooted political overtones - it rests mostly with the parents and grandparents," he said. "The history is very long. But in terms of hockey, this will be a game featuring incredible one-on-one talent."
The key game for the Americans probably will be Sweden vs. Finland because the Finns have a goal-differential advantage over the USA going into the game.
"This will be the tenacity of Finland with Teemu Selanne's star power against the pure skill and puck-controlling Swedish style," Johannson said. "I think the rivalry and relationships are similar to U.S. and Canada."
Selanne said the Finland-Sweden rivalry is similar to two brothers.
"You always want to beat the big brother," Selanne said.