Spotlight in Sochi

 Sports_Sochi-2014-olymic-stadium

International hockey teams look for key players to help win gold in Russia

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor

Formerly published in The Other Press. Nov. 2013

The Olympics bring out the hockey nations’ most elite players, but when stars in club teams join international teams, not every player will get the spotlight—many accustomed to being leaders in the NHL will have to take on secondary or defensive roles. Players recognized for highlight reel plays might not get the opportunity to showcase their skills on the international stage, but that doesn’t mean they’re a liability—in fact, the unsung players are often those that contribute most to gold medal teams. Without further ado, here’s a quick preview of the top contenders.

Canada: Who is going to get Sidney Crosby the puck? It might not be Steven Stamkos, even though he was a projected line mate before the top goal scorer in the NHL went down with a leg injury. In 2010, Jarome Iginla set up the golden goal, but due to his rise in age and decline in stock, he might be dismissed, making room for an up-and-comer. So who will be the key figure in 2014 flying under the radar? Consider Crosby’s set-up man on the Pittsburgh Penguins, Chris Kunitz. Team Canada often tries to be fancy, but I believe team chemistry is more important than talent alone. Head coach Mike Babcock may consider trying out many players with Crosby, but with 27 points in 28 games this season, Kunitz is as good as any Canadian to set up a game winner.

Russia: With home ice advantage and a team known for its firepower, Team Russia is going to do everything they can to reverse their Olympic fortunes. It’s true, the Red Army has been intimidating on paper for many years, but if the Alexander Ovechkins and Evgeni Malkins can’t win games, who can they count on? We might have forgotten about him in the NHL, but Ilya Kovalchuk is still a game changer (when he wants to be), with 30 points in 26 games in the KHL with league-leading St. Petersburg SKA. With Kovalchuk, Russia may be the favourite to upset the two North American teams.

USA: Tasting silver in 2010 was a bitter experience for the Americans even though they arrived in Vancouver as the underdogs. They failed to score the last goal four years ago, but that was not because of their forwards—it was because of their defence. Without Ryan Miller playing at top form there wouldn’t even be silver. But with Miller’s confidence crippled by a horrible Buffalo Sabres team, who can the US count on to stop the opposition? Why not Jack Johnson from the Columbus Blue Jackets? He had been sitting, waiting, wishing for a second chance at gold and this time with healthy experience on a defensively sound Blue Jacket team, he might just be the consistent blue liner to get the USA to the next level.

Sweden: The 2006 champions will not have an easy trip to the podium in 2014. Team Sweden will need both their veterans and youngsters to be at their best for the two-week tournament. Any stalled play will definitely go against their favour and may be impossible to recover. Look for the Colorado Avalanche’s captain Gabriel Landeskog to play a larger role on the international team after turning the Avalanche’s productivity around this year with an impressive 17-5-0 start to the NHL season.

Whether it’s blocking a shot or making a key pass in a tight situation, Olympic hockey is all about talented players doing the little things to win. These players may have smaller roles, but they are far from small players.

Repeat in Russia

Will Canada strike gold in Sochi 2014?

By Elliot Chan, Staff Writer

Sports_Sochi-hockey

Formerly published in the Other Press. Aug. 6, 2013

Remember that day in February 2010? Remember the city—the country bursting with jubilation? Wouldn’t it be great to relive it?

Sure, the Olympics in Sochi is months away, but it’s never too early to talk about international hockey—especially since the NHL has now confirmed that its players will be able to compete in the prestigious tournament.

The most notable change in Sochi in comparison with Vancouver is the rink size. The two Canadian ice hockey gold medals in 2002 and 2010 were won on NHL-sized ice (61m by 26m). In Russia, the Canadians will be competing on international-sized ice, which is (61m by 30.5m). Rink sizes have posed challenges before, especially against speedy teams like Russia who can take advantage of the open ice.

The home team is the favourite going into the tournament, but Canada, Sweden, and the United States shouldn’t be intimidated by the jeers they’re expecting when they step onto the ice against superstars such as Pavel Datsyuk, Alexander Ovechkin, and former NHLer turned KHLer Ilya Kovalchuk.

Since the days of the Soviet Union and the Unified Team in 1992, Russia itself has never won a gold medal. But there was a period in history when the red army dominated international ice. But like the Cold War, those days are long gone and though Russia has a barrage of talent, they haven’t been able to make the podium since 2002.

The question that hangs on everyone’s lips is will Canada be able to repeat? I hope I eat my own words, but I don’t believe they will. There hasn’t been an Olympic ice hockey repeat since the Soviets did it in the late ‘80s. Canada might be good, but we have never been dominant. The fact that we won in 2010 was not a miracle, but it was definitely a hard fought game that came down to one key moment. We could easily be talking about USA’s chance of repeating right now if it wasn’t for Sidney Crosby’s heroics.

In 2006, Canada followed up their gold medal victory in Salt Lake City with a demoralizing seventh place finish in Turin. By relying on players that had experience, but were way past their prime like Kris Draper, Adam Foote, and Todd Bertuzzi, the team was doomed from the start. Selecting the perfect team is difficult, since it’s about assigning roles to elite players. With Mike Babcock, head coach of Detroit Red Wings returning to serve another term as team Canada’s bench boss, the players and fans will know they are in good hands. Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews, and Shea Weber can all be expected on the roster come February 12, 2014, but the number one goaltender is still unknown.

Martin Brodeur will also be stepping down this year from the international limelight. Roberto Luongo will likely get a few games just because of his reputation, while Carey Price, Cam Ward, and Marc-Andre Fleury will fight for the last two spots.

As excited as I am for the beginning of the NHL season, there is something about Olympic hockey that can make a grown man giddy. The NHL season will pause their schedule from February 9 to February 25 for what should be some epic games in the Motherland.