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The Most Exciting Event At The Winter Olympics Is Ice Hockey

There are a number of thrilling events at the Winter Olympics. However, with all due respect to downhill skiing, snowboard cross, and short track speed skating, it’s pretty clear that the most exciting event of all is ice hockey. So what is it about hockey? Well it’s not just the fast pace, the skill, the rivalries, and the hitting that make it so great. Obviously all those factors are relevant, but in the end what makes hockey the most exciting Olympic sport is the potential for major upsets.

Think about it for a minute. There’s absolutely no chance that any figure skater outside the top 10 in the world is going to come away with a gold medal in the men’s figure skating competition, and it’s pretty much inconceivable that a cross-country skier from India is going to medal over athletes from Norway or Sweden. But in hockey? In hockey a David always has a shot at taking down a Goliath. We know because it’s happened before, and it’s what keeps us on the edge of our seats.

Canada is the center of the hockey universe, and in 2002 the men’s team won Gold at the Olympics. So obviously, with their roster made up entirely of NHL stars, they were the heavy favorites to take gold again in 2006. Switzerland, on the other hand, had a roster that featured just three NHL players, and two of them were goalies. So there was no way they should have been able to beat Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla, Vincent Lecavalier, Joe Sakic, and Joe Thornton. But they did, 2-0.

Of course, this shocking defeat came in the preliminary round when teams are still trying to develop their chemistry, and obviously it didn’t knock Canada out of the tournament. But it was still one of the biggest upsets in the history of Olympic hockey and a huge moment for Swiss hockey. You ask a Swiss sports fan where they were when this happened and I bet $100 they can tell you.

There’s still a long way to go in Sochi 2014, so we may still see some more big upsets. However, it’s unlikely that any will be bigger than Slovenia knocking off Slovakia in the preliminary round. To be sure, Slovakia is no Canada. It’s not even a Sweden or a Finland. But they are a solid hockey country that’s finished 4th and 5th in the last two Olympics, and their roster featured such NHL stars as Zdeno Chara, Marian Hossa, and Jaroslav Halak in addition to nine other NHLers and 12 KHLers.

Slovenia, meanwhile, is a country of just two million people and seven ice rinks. Their roster features only one NHL star-Anze Kopitar-mixed with a bunch of players from second- and third-tier European leagues. This is their first Olympics. They should have been thrilled just to be there. But Slovenia wanted more, so they went out and beat Slovakia 3-1. Then they went and beat Austria 4-0 to set up a date with Sweden in the quarterfinals. Do they have one more upset in them? Probably not. But crazier things have happened.

Everyone knows what the U.S. hockey team did in Lake Placid, and some people know what they did in Squaw Valley. (If you’re not one of those people, hold your horses. We’ll get to those teams.) However, very few people know what they did in Sapporo. In 1972 the United States was expected to finish no better than fifth place at the Olympics, and that was only because Canada was boycotting international hockey over the farce of amateurism. You see, the national teams competing in IIHF-sanctioned events like the Olympics were supposed to be amateur-only. However, communist countries like the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia were allowed to field teams made up of players who were technically amateurs, but whom everyone knew to be professionals. And Canada didn’t like it.

In any case, the USSR and Czechoslovakia were widely regarded as the two best national teams in the world in 1972. Thus, they were expected to take gold and silver respectively, with Sweden and Finland duking it out for bronze. However, despite getting destroyed by Sweden and the USSR, the Americans managed to stun Czechoslovakia 5-1 and then upset Finland 4-1, earning a silver medal. Of course, they don’t make movies about teams that win silver medals. But that doesn’t mean this wasn’t a major upset.

In 1998, for the first time ever, NHL players were allowed to compete for their countries in the Olympics. Thus, it was obvious that Canada was going to win gold for the first time since 1952, because they had all the best players. Wayne Gretzky, Joe Sakic, Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque, Rob Blake, Chris Pronger, Al MacInnis, Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur-the list of Hall of Famers goes on and on.

Team USA, meanwhile, was supposed to be the only real challenger. After all, they had a pretty star-studded lineup, too, with guys like Mike Richter, Chris Chelios, Brian Leetch, John LeClair, Pat LaFontaine, Mike Madono, Jeremy Roenick, and Brett Hull. However, neither Canada nor the USA won gold in 1998. Instead, they both got beat by the Czech Republic.

Now, the Czech’s were no slouches. They had some guys named Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek in their primes, plus other successful NHLers like Roman Hamrlik, Milan Hejduk, and Petr Svodoba. But still, they should have been no match for Canada, the USA, or even Russia. But thanks mostly to Hasek playing out of his mind, they beat them all to win their first ever Olympic gold. And it’s a moment nobody in the hockey-mad Czech Republic will ever forget.

Unfortunately, in women’s hockey it’s Canada and the USA, and then everyone else. In fact, the dominance of these two countries is so complete that it’s sparked some discussion within the IOC about giving women’s hockey the ax. After all, what’s the point if nobody can beat these two teams? Of course, there was one time that somebody beat one of these teams. In 2006, the Swedish women’s hockey team shocked the hockey world by taking team USA to overtime in the semifinals and then beating them in a shootout. It was and to this day still is the only time the American women’s hockey team has been beat by a team other than Canada. It’s pretty much the women’s version of the Miracle on Ice.

The 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City marked the second time in which NHLers were allowed to compete. Once again the Canadians were the favorites, but not by much. Right behind them was Sweden, which was led by such NHL stars as Daniel Alfredsson, Mats Sundin, Nicklas Lindstrom, Markus Naslund, Tomas Holmstrom, and a young, pre-Detroit Henrik Zetterberg.

Sure enough, these Swedish superstars sent a message early by clobbering Canada 5-2 and going 3-0 in the preliminary round, setting up an appointment with lowly Belarus in the quarterfinals. How lowly was Belarus, you ask? Well, they went 0-3 in the opening round, losing 6-4, 8-1, and 8-1. So yeah, they were pretty damn lowly. But they somehow managed to pull off the impossible, beating Sweden 4-3 on a goal by Vladimir Kopat with less then three minutes remaining in the game. After beating Sweden, Belarus went back to being terrible and got destroyed by Canada 7-1. But for one night in 2002, they were the best hockey team in the world.

You may not be a hockey expert, so let me just clue you in on a little piece of information that will make this upset easier to comprehend. Great Britain? Um, no, they are not a hockey power. The last time they even competed in the Olympic hockey tournament was 1948. Canada, meanwhile, is the world’s greatest hockey power, and in the early days of the Winter Olympics they absolutely dominated hockey, winning six out of the first seven gold medals.

So to which country did Canada lose that one time? Great Britain, of course. It happened at the 1936 Games in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. In the final round Great Britain beat Canada and Czechoslovakia and tied the USA to take the gold. Of course, I should disclose that the British team was made up of nine players who grew up in Canada and 11 who had played hockey there. Obviously, though, these were not Canada’s best players, otherwise they would have been playing for Canada’s official team. So even though it was kind of Canada who beat Canada, it was still a major upset.

In 1956 the Soviet Union surpassed Canada as the greatest hockey nation in the world by winning gold at the Winter Games in Cortina d’Ampezzo. From there they would only continue to grow stronger, and in 1960 they were heavy favorites to win gold again. The Canadians were beginning to get left behind because they didn’t skirt the rules on amateurism like the Soviets did, and the Americans were supposedly even further behind because they were never even as good as the Canadians to begin with. Heading into the Games they were ranked fifth in the world after the USSR, Canada, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden.

That’s what makes what transpired in Squaw Valley, California, so insane. The Americans didn’t just beat the Soviets, the Canadians, the Czechoslovaks, or the Swedes. They beat all of them, along with Austria and Germany, to go 7-0 and claim their first ever gold medal in Olympic hockey. So heading into the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, did the American hockey establishment believe in miracles? Yes. Yes they did.

On paper, what Team USA did in 1960 was more impressive than what they did in 1980. After all, in 1960 they went 7-0, while in 1980 they went 6-0-1 with a tie against Sweden. However, to understand the significance of the “Miracle on Ice” upset over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, you have to understand the context. And I’m not talking about all the Cold War stuff, either. That was important for Americans, but it had nothing to do with hockey.

The context I’m talking about is the fact that, in the years after Team USA won gold in 1960, the Soviet national team didn’t just continue to dominate the international game. They became the best hockey team on earth, period. In 1972 the USSR just barely lost an eight-game series to a team of Canadian all-stars, 4-3-1. Then, in 1979, the USSR thrashed the NHL all-stars 6-0 at Madison Square Garden. This was a team of professionals led by once-in-a-generation stars like goalie Vladislav Tretiak and forward Valeri Kharlamov, as well as future NHLers like Viacheslav Fetisov and Sergei Makarov. There was no way a handful of NHL prospects and college players should have beat them. But of course, we’ve all seen Miracle, so we all know what happened. Team USA beat the Soviets, Al Michaels gave us the greatest call in the history of sports broadcasting, and then the Americans went on to beat Finland and win the gold medal. It was a miracle…on ice.

Ice hockey joined the Olympic program at the 1920 Antwerp Summer Games held in early April. Canada and the Soviet Union have been the two dominant countries in the history of men's Olympic ice hockey. The two countries have won 14 out of the 19 Olympic tournaments. Canada won the first four Olympic tournaments and six of the first seven, but its streak ended in 1956. The gold medal at the 1952 Oslo Games marked the sixth and last gold medal for Canada. The changing of the guard occurred at the 1956 Cortina d'Ampezzo Games with the emergence of the Soviet Union. The Soviets dominated the competition and won eight of the next 10 gold medals. The only interruptions to the streak were when the United States upset the Soviets in 1960 and 1980 on American soil.

Olympic Hockey vs. the NHL

If you are a new hockey fan, you may not be aware of the differences between Olympic hockey and NHL hockey. Even though these two organizations were founded at around the same time in the early 1900's and the essential principles of the game are the same, the rules for the two are not exactly the same. If you understand the differences between Olympic hockey and NHL hockey, when you watch you will be able to enjoy the games more because you will not be confused by the differences. Here are some of the key differences between Olympic hockey and the NHL:

  1. The ice size: The Olympic hockey rink is over 3,000 square feet bigger. It is longer, wider, and has more space between the goal and the end boards. This minimizes the amount of checking that occurs in Olympic matches.
  2. Penalty shots: In Olympic hockey, any player from the team can shoot a penalty shot whether they were the penalty victim or not. However, the victim must shoot the penalty shot in the NHL.
  3. Fighting: Although this seems to be an important part of any hockey game, in Olympic hockey those who fight are given a match penalty and are ejected. In the NHL, players are put in a penalty box for 5 minutes and then they are allowed to play again.
  4. Shootout: A shootout is only used in regular season play in the NHL-they choose three players from each team to break the tie. During the playoffs, however, the teams play in overtime until one team scores the winning goal. In Olympic hockey, if the score is tied, there is a sudden death overtime period of 10 minutes. If the score remains tied, then a shootout is held with 5 players from each team.
  5. Icing: In the NHL, icing is only called after a player shoots down the ice from their team's side of the center line and it crosses the goal line and an opposing team's player touches it. Meanwhile, in the Olympics, no player from any team has to touch the puck before icing is called.
  6. Obstruction: While the NHL rules on fighting are more lenient than the Olympics, their rules on things like holding, hooking and interference are tougher. The international hockey community is implementing stricter rules as well in order to better protect players.

USA Hockey, Inc., is the national governing body for the sport of hockey in the United States. As such, its mission is to promote the growth of hockey in America and provide the best possible experience for all participants by encouraging, developing, advancing and administering the sport.

Headquartered in Colorado Springs, Colo., USA Hockey is the official representative to the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF). In this role, USA Hockey is responsible for organizing and training men's and women's teams for international tournaments that include the IIHF World Championships and the Olympic Winter Games. USA Hockey also coordinates activities with other national hockey federations around the world and, closer to home, works with the National Hockey League (NHL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) on matters of mutual interest.

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