x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Trip to Sochi Games could turn frosty for Canada’s ice hockey team

Rob McKenzie on why Canada are not overwhelming favourites to win the Olympic gold medal.

Team Canada had beaten the United States for gold at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images
Team Canada had beaten the United States for gold at the 2010 Games in Vancouver. Nuccio DiNuzzo / Getty Images

There is Canada, and then there is everyone else.

The Olympic ice hockey tournament begins in nine days’ time in Sochi, and when it ends on the evening of February 23, the country that is most likely to be garlanded in gold medals is Canada.

This team is stacked. Consider:

• Of the top 20 scorers in the National Hockey League through Friday’s games, seven are on Team Canada. Next highest: the US, with three.

• Of the players to be nominated for league MVP over the past four years (four years being an Olympiad), Team Canada has four. Next: Sweden, with three.

• Of the defencemen to be nominated for the Norris trophy in the same span, four are on Team Canada. This is the sharpest area of differentiation; no other country has more than one.

• From last year’s first and second NHL All-Star teams, four players are on Team Canada. Russia follow with two.

And yet …

And yet, there are two places where Canada do not have an edge. One of them is in goal.

Of the Vezina Trophy nominees (for top NHL goalkeeper) over the past four years, only one, the mercurial / unpredictable / quixotic / adjectival Roberto Luongo, is on Team Canada. The United States have two. Finland, Russia and Sweden have one apiece.

You could argue that goalie is the one position where depth is least important – a team can ride a solitary goalie right through the Olympic tournament. But Canada’s presumptive starter is Luongo, and he can be great or he can stink, and in the knockout portion of the tournament that could be crucial.

So goal is one place where Canada could fall apart. The other is Sochi itself. Since NHLers started playing in the Olympics in 1998, Canada have won the tournament both times it was played in North America (Salt Lake in 2002 and Vancouver in 2010) but finished outside the medals both times it was played overseas (Nagano in 1998 and Turin in 2006).

Sochi will be a tougher venue for visitors than Nagano or Turin. The atmosphere of armed-camp security will be more unsettling for the Canadians than it will be for the Russians, who besides their familiarity with the setting will have the advantage of being flush with pride as representatives of the host nation.

Further, it is entirely conceivable that front-line Russian security officials might take it upon themselves to patriotically create inconveniences for their nation’s great barbarian rivals from Canada – and really, for any team that does not have a double-headed eagle on its uniforms.

rmckenzie@thenational.ae