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Wednesday, August 6, 2008

U.S. Olympic Brilliance

OK sure there's lots of talk about the Olympics right now. After all, a lot of the best athletes in the world are in China to see who can perform the best under environmental and political duress in games that occur when the weather is normally warm and pleasant.

These Olympics are, of course, inferior to those that will occur in two years in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

What will stay similar between these games and the Winter Games in 2010 is how the United States will fare in the glamour team sports.

I've no doubt in my mind that the fretting and worrying and kvetching going on about the Team USA basketball team will again pay off because, frankly, the rest of the world figured out how to play great basketball by watching the same players that made basketball great during the 1980s. The U.S. players, of course, got too enamored with how well Michael Jordan played basketball and everyone from my generation and onwards has been doing a really, really terrible impersonation of him thus eliminating team play in the sport.

You know the kind of play I'm talking about. The kind that Larry Bird and Magic Johnson made absolutely dominant during the 1980s. Those guys made everyone else on the floor with them better and it showed. The same style of ball the Europeans like Spain, Greece and Italy as well as the Argentinians and Brazilians play now. The kind of ball that got the U.S.A. a "lowly" bronze medal in 2004 in basketball.

Given how woefully me-first many of the players on this year's Team USA are I can't help but buy into the media fretting and think that the doom and gloom forecast will hold up. These Euro and South American guys can ball and they do it old school style.

Getting owned by Euros is something Team USA is going to have to get accustomed to though. Come 2010 and the Vancouver games, despite the onslaught of young and up and coming scoring talent for the hockey playing Americans, this is a bad time to be gunning for gold.

The host Canadians are going to be very, very good. That goes without saying. Thankfully, in terms of world hockey, Canada gets the Maple Leafs treatment in Canada. They get all the media hype, worrying and coverage one could imagine is possible coming from three major metropolitan media markets (Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver) and then the rest of the world knows that they're loaded as well and follow suit.

Adding to the circus this time around is, of course, Sidney Crosby - hated by bloggers everywhere outside of Pittsburgh, mocked for not being able to grow anything resembling respectable facial hair and the newest icon of the NHL. Team Canada will be the favorites because they'll have a maniacal and idiotically rabid home crowd for every game.

I warn you now, if you're an American get ready for booing. Booing of the team, booing of the players, a whole lot of booing of Jack Johnson - all because during the 2006 World Junior Championships he tried to do the world a favor and send super NHL scumbag and Philadelphia Flyer (pardon the redundancy) Steve Downie a message. He didn't exactly connect on his message, but if you're a psychotic Canadian hockey fan, chances are you're still holding a ridiculous grudge against Johnson. Judge for yourself here:

This was hailed by Canadians as the dirtiest hit in the history of hockey.

And you think they won't be ready to tear the building down to win gold at home? Oh baby.

Just for reminder's sake - here's some of what you may know Steve Downie from this past season:

What sucks for Canada and the United States alike is that while Canada v. USA will have all the hype of a classic rock 'em, sock 'em championship fight - the USA is the least of the worries for Canada. The Euros have plenty to deal out but there are two teams in particular that will make life absolute hell for anyone that has to play them in the medal round.

No, it won't be Slovakia nor will it be the Czech Republic as they're both aging hard and already a bit thin on all-around talent.

And yes, Ukraine will be weak.

First up: Russia

Yeah, I know, we'll be 30 years removed from the Miracle on Ice and still USA v. Russia gets people worked up. What won't be fun for the US is that Russia will break out with Evgeni Nabokov in goal and three of the "other" greatest players in the NHL, maybe you've heard of these guys:

Alexander Ovechkin
Evgeni Malkin
Pavel Datsyuk

Sure, Canada has the talent to keep up with those guys - but do you really want to be dealing with those three, potentially on a line together, for 25 out of 60 minutes in a game? No thanks.

Meanwhile, there's still guys like Ilya Kovalchuk, Alexander Semin and Maxim Afinogenov who enjoy scoring at will.

The Russians are woefully thin on defense however, but that's OK because Nabokov is used to not having a decent defenseman in front of him. The Russians will be very dangerous and a huge pain in the ass to play. It'd behoove teams to not take penalties because you'll be assured of getting those first three guys out on the ice together to make Brodeur/Luongo/Price/Fleury's life hell in net.

Next up: Finland

Finland stunned everyone and their mother in the Turin games in 2006 by making it to the Gold Medal game. They shutout the Russians in the semis winning 4-0 and their toughest game (aside from the Final) did indeed come against the United States in the first game of the elimination round defeating the Americans 4-3.

What helps the Finns is that they're absolutely stacked in goal. Mikka Kiprusoff, Vesa Toskala, Kari Lehtonen and Nicklas Backstrom all hail from Finland and while its always a question who will say yes to playing for Finland, they're stacked. For what it's worth, Finland won the silver in 2006 with arguably their "C" team goalie tandem of Antero Niittymäki and Fredrik Norrena. While Niittymäki was the sometimes starter for the Flyers at the time, Norrena wasn't even playing in the NHL yet while being property of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

With the talent the Finns have in goal, their scoring prowess is going to, likely, take a big hit in 2010. Saku Koivu will be another year older, Teemu Selanne may or may not play (I'd say he will even if he's not playing in the NHL - he lives for the International competition), and Olli Jokinen will be the only scorer actually in his prime. The Finns are also going to be markedly weaker on defense as well, but something happens in the Olympics that makes the Finns incredible difficult to deal with.

I am not going to discuss sports voodoo like guts, grit, magic, aura or any of that nonsense but know this: Finland has advanced to the medal round in every Olympics since 1980 except for 1984 when they finished just on the outside looking in in third place of their group. The Finns put it together come Olympic time, just don't bet the house on them if they make it to the Finals as they've yet to win Gold ever.

Finally, there's this team: Sweden

You might know most of this team already as the vast majority of the big talent on Sweden was playing for the Stanley Cup Champion Detroit Red Wings. That's no slight on the Red Wings nor is it a knock on their style. Sweden won the Gold Medal in 2006 beating their rival Finns for the prize 3-2 in the Gold Medal game.

The Swedes looked lackluster in the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, finishing third in their group. Little did everyone in the Final Rounds know that Sweden was playing the part of the pool hall hustler. They drew surprising Switzerland in quarterfinals and disposed of them 6-2. They drew the always difficult Czech Republic in the semifinals and destroyed them 7-3.

They were a wrecking ball in the elimination games and notched it up again against Finland to hold them off to win it all.

Worse yet for 2010 - they're even more loaded than before. As this year's Stanley Cup Playoffs showed, there's still talent emerging from Sweden. They'll bring all-world superstars and fellow best players in hockey Nicklas Lidstrom and Henrik Zetterberg. They'll also have Henrik Lundqvist in goal. They'll have Johan Franzen. They might still have Mats Sundin - depending on whether or not the NHL's version of Brett Favre ever decides what he wants to do with his life. The creepy Sedin twins will be there to make the hometown Vancouver fans boo them. Tomas Holmstrom will be there to infuriate all the teams. Daniel Alfredsson might even crack the first line. Hell, Peter Forsberg might even make an appearance too.

Sick. Just absolutely sick.

What's worse for everyone is that even with their "D" team playing in the 2008 World Championships, since most everyone was still playing in the NHL Playoffs, Sweden suited up a bunch of mostly nobodies and still made it to the bronze medal game where they were shutout by Finland. For what it's worth, Canada beat Russia in the finals to win the championship but these results barely register as a barometer for how things might go as all of these teams were mostly suiting up guys that won't even be going to Vancouver.

Sweden is frighteningly good and will be more than equal to the task of the seemingly overloaded Canadians. Don't get me wrong, it's going to be fun to root for Team USA hockey in 2010. There's a lot of talent up front and Ryan Miller is more than a stud in goal - heck, even Rick DiPietro isn't overly terrible, he's certainly better than Robert Esche or Tim Thomas, that's for sure, but Team USA is at best the fourth most talented team going to Vancouver. Canada and Sweden are 1A and 1B. Russia checks in next and then it drops off a bit to Team USA.

Can Ryan Miller steal games? Absolutely. Can Patrick Kane take the baton and be the big scorer? Tough to say.

America will be thin on playmakers and scorers, period. It's probably for the best that NHL idiot Brian Burke was named the General Manager of the 2010 team because he'll have to pick a squad ugly and nasty enough to try to slow down the likes of Canada, Sweden and Russia.

Team USA will have a lot of fun youth on the blue line in the form of Jack and Erik Johnson (not related). Ryan Whitney and Brian Rafalski will help out immensely as well but their jobs are going to be extremely difficult in trying to help contain these ridiculously talented teams.

What's important here is that the USA are going to be underdogs all along. They can play loose, they can play without worry, they can do what they need or want to do because let's face it, all the pressure in the world is on Canada to win gold in their home country. Team Canada in hockey is what Team USA is in basketball - plain and simple.

But let's face facts here, things have to break really, really, really well for the United States to have a shot at even bronze. They're closer in talent to the Czechs, Finns and Slovaks than they are to Russia, Sweden or Canada. That means there's a good chance that two of those teams will be facing each other in the semifinals of the knockout round meaning if Team USA makes it that far, they'll have to get the team lucky enough to miss out on that soireé.

Of those three who would Team USA want to deal with? The choice is simple: Bring on the Russians. A matchup with Russia would render the crowd almost neutral, although its likely that the US and Canada will face each other in the round-robin part of the tournament - hello bad blood! Canada has no love for Russia either. Canadians hates their swagger, they hate their flashiness and most of all they'll have a hate magically built up for Alexander Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin for having the temerity to be as good as or better than Canada's Hockey Savior, Sidney Crosby. The US will have no real flashy superstars on their team and as long as there's no incident to dump gasoline onto the Canadians rabid fire of hate for the US, the Americans could win the crowd - especially if it means a date with Canada in the Finals.

Yeah, I know this forecasting is way too far out and there are far too many things that will change by the time the rosters are filled and February 2010 rolls around - but I love this. The Olympic hockey tournament is perhaps the greatest hockey tournament in the world and when nationalities and pride are on the line... anything goes.

Just remember Americans... we're the underdogs for once.

Big time.

Anything positive is a victory of sorts whether it be real medal-winning victory or just moral. Sure, some folks will try to talk it up like Team USA is loaded, but if they do, chances are they work for ESPN or they're an idiot blowhard blinded by nationalism who still doesn't jack about hockey.

Just keep in mind, if Team USA loses to a team from Europe it won't be the end of the world - in fact, it's probably expected.

Kind of how it should be for Team USA basketball in the coming days.

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