The Olympic hockey tournament will be over by the end of February, but its impact will probably be felt throughout 2010.
Once the medals are handed out in Vancouver, the hockey world will turn its attention back to NHL playoff races that are likely to be shaped by how some of the game’s top players respond to the Olympic experience.
Todd McLellan was an assistant coach with the Detroit Red Wings back in 2006 and remembers being concerned when a tired group of players returned from the Turin Games. Even though Detroit went on to win the Presidents’ Trophy that season, it was upset in the first round by Edmonton.
“In 2006, when we were in Detroit we had eight or nine players in that tournament,” said McLellan, now the head coach of the San Jose Sharks. “I remember when (Sweden) won, we looked around at each other and said, ‘Did we just win our tournament for the year?’ We never got out of the first round of the playoffs.
“You can’t deny (players) that opportunity but you do have to make sure they have enough left in the tank.”
Even though this Olympics will involve less travel and fewer games played, it’s something guys like McLellan will be thinking about ahead of the event. San Jose may have as many as eight representatives in Vancouver.
The Olympic tournament is an event that sees some players put their country over their club team, as evidenced by the number of guys who have played hurt at the Games, including Canada’s Steve Yzerman in 2002.
A gold-medal celebration can even affect NHL teams. After winning gold in Turin, the Swedish team returned to Stockholm for a massive party and left Red Wings players Nicklas Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg and Mikael Samuelsson with a pretty hectic travel schedule.
“Yeah, that was a crazy couple of days,” said Lidstrom. “We had to fly, I believe, from Stockholm, to Paris, to New York, to L.A. so that was a hectic time. And we got into L.A. at 10:00 or 11:00 at night, and had a game the next night again. So that was a rough couple of days.
“That’s something you’re willing to do when you’re winning the Olympic gold.”
It’s little wonder why the Olympic tournament will likely be the biggest hockey story of 2010. It was a pretty hot topic throughout 2009 as well, with countries holding summer orientation camps and an ongoing debate about which players would be selected to participate.
In fact, Toronto Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson believes there’s been more discussion about the Games than the NHL season in recent months.
“Most of the players this year are talking about an Olympic gold medal way above thinking about their team making the Stanley Cup playoffs,” said Wilson, also the Team USA coach.
The Games might provide the next chapter in the Sidney Crosby-Alex Ovechkin rivalry that was taken to a new level in 2009. The playoffs saw Crosby’s Pittsburgh Penguins face Ovechkin’s Washington Capitals in an epic second-round series that lasted seven games.
Crosby and the Penguins came out on top of that series on their way to winning the Stanley Cup – the first for the franchise since 1992. A major motivating factor for them was losing the NHL’s championship series in 2008.
“That was probably one of the toughest summers I’ve ever had,” said Crosby. “Knowing I was that close and realizing that when you’re talking about the league and the way it is today, how competitive it is, you never know when your opportunity’s going to come along again. There’s a lot of really good hockey teams that sometimes don’t even make the playoffs now.”
His next dose of high-level hockey will come at the Olympics.
Russia has held a slight edge in international competitions over the past few years. The Russians beat Canada 2-1 in the gold-medal final of the IIHF World Hockey Championship in Switzerland – the second straight year they took gold at the event.
Yzerman, the executive director of Team Canada, attended both of those gold-medal games and understands just how tight the competition is. He’s quick to note that it extends beyond the Canada-Russia rivalry.
“Two finals in a row and great hockey games,” Yzerman said after the latest final in May. “Having said that, the Swedes are going to be a powerhouse again and the U.S. is coming, the Finns. Anybody can win the Olympic tournament.”