If there are still some people out there who are bitter about NHL stars participating in the Olympics, if yesterday showed us anything, it was that you're not doing yourselves any favors by not watching the games. Wow.
Russia-Czech Republic, USA-Canada, Sweden-Finland. All unbelievable hockey games. Gary Bettman, are you watching these? Do you know why they're so good? Do you even know that they're so good? Here's the hint: they don't have an agenda. They're not trying to turn hockey into something that isn't hockey (CROSBYBALL!!!!1). They don't call ridiculous penalties under the guise of making the game look safer without actually being safer, or making the game more "exciting" by adding a bunch of goals and giving points to losers.
(Yes, I know - Olympic hockey gives 1 point to an OT loser, but it only gives 2 points to an OT winner, and it gives 3 to a regulation winner, so it doesn't actually ruin the standings. Don't understand that? You're the commissioner of a multi-billion-dollar international league full of the best and most well-known people in the world at their particular craft, which is one of the most popular competitions in the world: read a fucking book on game theory.)
The point is: for those of you who are relative newcomers to our sport, and who haven't seen a lot of older hockey, these Olympics are a chance for you to see what hockey is supposed to look like. And maybe, one day, what it could look like again. Bonus points if you can catch a non-NBC feed. Maybe they'll even show you a faceoff that doesn't have Sidney Crosby in it. No, really, the only faceoffs they showed were the ones Crosby took. Crosby didn't have a very good game, but you wouldn't know that from the number of times the camera showed his face, compared to everyone else on the ice. Come on, NBC, it's the fucking Olympics, and he's not the star anymore. Give us a fucking reprieve.
Now, there was been a lot of debate leading up to these Olympics about whether or not the NHL should allow its players to participate. As you know, it wasn't always this way. The policy was always that the NHL was for the professionals, and the Olympics were for everyone else. In 1998, for the Nagano games, we got on board. That makes these the fourth Olympic games in which NHL players have participated. In the previous three, the majority of the makeups of the gold medal winning teams (the 1998 Czechs, the 2002 Canadians, and the 2006 Swedes) has been NHLers. So there's no denying the change was a big deal.
There's a good argument that allowing NHL players to play in the Olympics is a bad change. It goes, as I've heard it from my father, "the NHL was always for the professionals, the Olympics was always for everyone else." It's a noble idea. Certainly, the Lake Placid gold medal win (which was, as you know, the most important moment in sports in the entire history of the free world) would never have been quite so thrilling if it had been won by a bunch of NHL stars. The Soviet team had been playing together as a unit for years, and the US team was just a bunch of kids who defeated a Goliath. That was pretty sweet, and it's hard to get that feeling back again out of a team full of multi-million dollar professionals. (Admittedly, it's also harder to get without the terrifying shadow of the Cold War.)
Also, it's undeniable that the Olympics fuck with the NHL. We stick this 2-week break in with less than two months left in the regular season, it throws off the rhythm of the teams, and it forces the rest of the season to be compressed to make room for it without extending the season by 2 weeks. It throws off everyone's mental game, either giving them a vacation or causing them to think about a whole new team for a while, and it puts an incredible physical stress on our top stars, as they go off to play as many as 10 games in 13 days in the name of bringing honor to their respective countries.
So there's something appealing about letting the professionals play in their professional league, and letting the best American, Canadian, and other amateurs compete for the Olympic gold.
However, there's also a pretty good argument for keeping the NHL in the Olympics. First of all, it's hard to imagine the inferiority complex-prone KHL making a similar move to remove themselves from competition. Since "Westerners" predominantly go into the NHL, and some great Eastern Europeans tend to stay home in the KHL, it gives the Russians an advantage. Not necessarily a big one, since most of the best players there still tend to come to the NHL, but I think that you'll find a lot more "good but not legendary" North Americans in the NHL, while the "good but not legendary" Eastern Europeans tend to stay home and play in the KHL.
Also, it's the fucking Olympics. It's supposed to be nations sending their best, most bad-ass competitors to face off in crazy sport for metallic glory. Something seems wrong about telling new NHL applicants "well, if you come work for us, you won't be allowed to represent your country in international competition at what you do best." Imagine that in any other line of work: imagine, if you'll pardon a stretched analogy, the President asking a branch of Google to come restructure the West Wing's IT infrastructure, and Google saying "nah, our engineers aren't really allowed to do that. It cheapens the craft."
There's something else appealing there: the idea that the Olympics are all about each nation's best putting aside any other disagreements (whether those be the Cold War or their day jobs as NHL players) and competing in this bad-ass international event that takes place only once every four years. Hell, there might even be something disturbing about Gary Bettman choosing to take that away in the name of theoretical better ratings for his awfully managed CROSBYBALL!!!1 league.
I think Dave Maloney, broadcasting during the third period of our 5-2 win over the Lightning that took us into this break, put it best. I don't remember exactly what he said, of course, but the gist of it was more or less: whether or not you like that the NHL is participating in these Olympics games, it is happening. It may not have happened in the past, it may not happen in the future, it may be right or wrong, but it is happening, right now, this year. And regardless of how you feel about that, it's going to mean some really, really good hockey is coming our way.
I think yesterday was the ideal example of that. No matter how you feel about whether or not it should be like this, you can't deny that we were treated to three fantastic hockey games yesterday. And if you like really good hockey, you're really missing out on some if you choose not to watch.
Here is where you stop reading if you don't care about the specifics of the Olympic bracket.
For those of you looking to follow along at home, here's the deal. Yesterday ended the "regular season" of the Olympics during which the 12 competing teams are split into 3 "divisions," and each team plays each other team in its division exactly once. Those twelve teams, ranked by their standings as of the end of those games, are: USA, Sweden, Russia, Finland, Czech Republic, Canada, Slovakia, Switzerland, Belarus, Norway, Germany, Latvia.
Based on those rankings, the playoff bracket is constructed. Tomorrow, the bottom eight teams will compete in a one-game playoff. The losers will be eliminated and the winners will go on to each play one of the top four in a one-game playoff on Wednesday. The four winners of those games will play each other in the one-game semifinals on Friday, and then the losers of the semifinals will play each other for the bronze on Saturday, and the winners for the gold on Sunday.
The teams are not re-seeded throughout the competition from here out, so the bracket is already decided, and the USA, with the first seed, has really lucked out. In the top half of the bracket, or "the easy half," the United States will play the winner of Switzerland-Belarus, and Finland will play the winner of Czech Republic-Latvia. The winners of those two games will play each other in the semis for the right to advance to the finals. In the other half, Russia will play the winner of Canada-Germany, and Sweden will play the winner of Slovakia-Norway, and the winners of those two games will play each other in the semis for the other spot in the finals.
Interesting bonus fact: because of the way the brackets fell out, the only way any of the three games from yesterday could see a rematch would be in a medal game.
Interesting bonus fact two: Henrik Lundqvist's Olympic save percentage so far is 100.
Let's Go World!