In a delightfulact of cheek last Saturday, the day before the Finland-Sweden Olympic hockeyfinal, Sweden's top-selling tabloid, Expressen, invited Finns to become Swedishcitizens so that they could take part in a gold medal hockey celebrationscheduled for the next day. Expressen provided a convenient link that wouldenable users to download Sweden's immigration form. This would have been, as itturned out, the only time any form held in a wild Olympic hockey tournament. InTurin's Nordic Combined, Indoor Division, Sweden did indeed edge Finland, 3-2,in a tightly played match not quite as good as its backstory.
The third, and probably penultimate, Olympic tournament with NHL players--thegrueling eight-games-in-12-days schedule, and its disruption to the NHL season,has made league officials loath to commit beyond the conveniently located 2010Games in Vancouver--had it all: prominent players going for MRIs and NorthAmerican teams going MIA; a post-game vivisection of USA Hockey; anall-tournament defenseman named Kenny Jonsson who plays with gardeners and realestate agents in the Swedish Second Division; and a dream final ... at least ifyou dream in a language with dots over the vowels. As Swedish and Finnishplayers patiently explained to sportswriters who get Duke-Carolina but are alittle fuzzy on Scandinavian Smackdown, this was Big Brother (Sweden) againstLittle Brother (Finland), with all the requisite complexes.
One problem wasthat Little Brother had to stay up past his bedtime to get to the final. Theundermanned Finns, impeccable for seven games, played the final on leaden legs."We weren't as fresh," captain Saku Koivu said. "[The Swedes had]an extremely experienced team, and they didn't have to play as hard in the lasttwo games as we did."
With a mix ofgamesmanship and a compliant Czech coach who did not pull his sievelike goalie,Milan Hnilicka, until after Hnilicka had allowed five goals in the semis, theSwedes waltzed to the final. In the quarters they faced Switzerland, thecupcake of the last eight teams, a matchup Sweden snared by losing its finalpreliminary-round game, with Slovakia. Beforehand, Swedish coach Bengt-AkeGustafsson had ruminated about tanking against Slovakia to avoid powerfulCanada or the Czechs in the quarters, telling Swedish television, "One ischolera, the other the plague." Then, on an extended two-man advantageagainst the Slovaks, the scary power-play unit of Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin,Daniel Alfredsson, Nicklas Lidstrom and Fredrik Modin--five men out?--didn'tput a puck on net. If the Swedes had passed the puck any more, their nextopponent would have been the Washington Generals. "[They] were even afraidto shoot!" exasperated Russian coach Vladimir Krikunov said.
For the first timesince 1992, no North American team reached the semis. The Canadians fell in thequarters 2--0 to Russia, the third time in four matches they were blanked,which made them less like cholera and more like acid reflux. Forward ToddBertuzzi, who had been a controversial choice for Team Canada, was in thepenalty box when effervescent 20-year-old Alexander Ovechkin scored thedecisive first goal. In a country where people Monday morning quarterback everypower play, Canadians debated the absence of young stars such as Sidney Crosby,Eric Staal and Dion Phaneuf on their team.
Meanwhile on the26th anniversary of the American win over the Soviet Union--Feb. 22--a mewlingMike Modano, benched in the third period by coach Peter Laviolette, evisceratedUSA Hockey moments after a knockout loss to the Finns. One complaint: Theorganization hadn't adequately handled transportation and ticketing for playersand their families. Apparently the U.S. rallying cry has gone from "Do youbelieve in miracles?" to "Can we get three on the red-eye?" Afterreturning to the U.S. on the same flight as Team USA general manager DonWaddell, and not exchanging a word with him, Modano, the Stars' top center,told The Dallas Morning News he regretted the timing of his remarks.
But like writerDickie Dunn in Slap Shot, Modano was just trying to capture the spirit of thething: a negative vibe that marred the tournament. Not that the Turinese wereexpected to rabidly support what is, to them, essentially an exotic sport.(Before two of the quarterfinal games, tickets were offered to Olympicaccredited personnel for three euros, the price of a prosciutto and provolonesandwich at the rinks.) But the NHL also seemed distinctly lukewarm. There wasfretting over an All-Star team on the injured list--goalie Dominik Hasek(groin); defensemen Mattias Ohlund (ribs) and Sami Salo (shoulder); left wingSimon Gagné (knee); right wing Jaromir Jagr (groin); and Modano (feelings)--andgrousing from owners like the Flyers' Ed Snider, upset that Forsberg, whomissed his last eight games before the break with a groin injury, had suited upfor Sweden.
If 2010 is theNHL's Olympic swan song, though, that would be a shame for hockey fans. Thefinal provided some indelible moments for Sweden's so-called GoldenGeneration--Forsberg, Sundin and Lidstrom, who scored the winner 10 secondsinto the third period--as its NHL stars finally won as a group. As the Finnspressed in the last minute, goalie Henrik Lundqvist made a point-blank, blockersave on Olli Jokinen, and Henrik Zetterberg hurled himself at Kimmo Timonen'sblast with four seconds left. "It hit the shin pads," Zetterberg said."Felt good."
Maybe this finemadness didn't register across the Atlantic, but back home, Big Brother waswatching. And smiling.