After four years of waiting, the puck is finally about to drop on the Sochi Olympics men’s hockey tournament.
The NHL began sending its best to the Games in 1998, making this the fifth time the Olympics have truly been a best-on-best tournament. We’ve seen three different countries win gold and six nations earn at least one medal. There have been stunning upsets and predictable blowouts. But as we look back over those 16 years, some patterns begin to emerge.
OK, sure, we’re dealing with just four tournaments. Is that too small a sample size to draw legitimately meaningful conclusions from? Yes, it probably is. Are we going to try to do it anyway? You’re damn right we are.
So here are 10 lessons we’ve learned from the NHL’s Olympic history, and what they might mean for Sochi.
Lesson 1: Round-robin dominance won’t matter much.
Since 1998, eight teams have gone undefeated during the round-robin portion of the tournament. Not one those teams has gone on to win gold. Four of them didn’t even manage to win a medal. That includes Slovakia, which ran the table at 5-0-0 in 2006 and then immediately lost in the quarterfinals, as well as Sweden, which was 3-0-0 in 2002 and then had this happen.
By comparison, the four gold-medal winners combined to go a rather pedestrian 8-5-1, and not one finished in first place in their group.
This year, all 12 teams will advance to the elimination round. It’s nice if you can get a good enough seed to avoid running into a powerhouse early. But perfection doesn’t matter.
If history repeats: Given the format, in which each group of four has one or two weaklings, there will almost certainly be two or three perfect teams after the round-robin. We’ll all overreact, and assume they’re unbeatable. They won’t be.
Lesson 2: The tournament’s best player will probably be a goalie.
In each of the past two Games, the goalie named to the All-Star team has also been named tournament MVP — Antero Niittymaki in 2006, and Ryan Miller in 2010. And while they didn’t name All-Stars or an MVP in 1998, if they had, Dominik Hasek would have been a lock. The only exception to the “goalie as best player” rule was 2002, when Mike Richter lost out on MVP honors to Juh-yoe Sakic.
And of course, that’s exactly what you’d expect in a single-game elimination tournament. This is hockey, where a hot goalie is the great equalizer. It’s not that the team that gets the best goaltending is guaranteed gold (of the goalies above, only Hasek won it all), but it can get you awfully close.
Maybe the more interesting observation is that you never really know which goalie it’s going to be. Hasek was the best in the world, and Miller was in the middle of a Vezina season. But Richter was a borderline star on his last legs, and Niittymaki was a 25-year-old NHL rookie splitting time with Robert Esche.
If history repeats: Some team is going to go way further than we expect because their goalie stands on his head. This would be a good time to start getting nervous about Tuukka Rask.
Lesson 3: Speaking of goalies, Canada isn’t really dangerous until they make a switch.
Riding a hot goalie all the way through the tournament to a gold medal worked for Hasek and the Czechs in 1998, and the Swedes relied on Henrik Lundqvist in every key game in 2006. Then there’s Team Canada, who’ve perfected a slightly different approach.
It goes like this: Agree on a starter. Watch him have one bad game. And then panic.
In 2002, Canada’s starter’s job was supposed to belong to Curtis Joseph. But after he was shelled in a 5-2 opening game loss to Sweden, coach Pat Quinn turned to Martin Brodeur, who went undefeated to lead Canada to gold. (As a side note, both Quinn and Joseph were members of the Toronto Maple Leafs at the time, and the coach’s Olympic decision soured the relationship and led to a split a few months later.)
In 2010, Canada was prepared to ride Brodeur again. They let Roberto Luongo have the opener against Norway, since it would be a cakewalk (Luongo earned a shutout), but then went back to Brodeur for tougher matchups with the Swiss and the U.S. In that second game against the Americans, Brodeur struggled. So Canada handed the job to Luongo for the playoff round, and the rest was history.
If history repeats: Canada’s announcement of a starter will be big news. Just don’t get too attached to him.
Lesson 4: The silver-medal winner will dominate the All-Star teams.
This one’s more of a weird quirk than anything we can actually learn from, but it’s still fun to point out. In the three years that the tournament has named an All-Star team, they’ve been full of players from the runner-up. In 2002, Team USA scored four of the six spots. In 2006, Finland had four more. And in 2010, the Americans slipped all the way to three.
By contrast, players from the gold-medal winners were only recognized once each in 2002 and 2006, and twice in 2010. That’s a total of just four spots, or barely more than the three players who made the All-Star squad despite not even winning a medal. (Oddly, nobody from the bronze-medal team has ever been an All-Star.)
So is there some sort of weird bias toward second-place teams? Is this further evidence of our society’s growing desire to punish the winners and reward the also-rans? Actually, there’s a more sensible explanation: The All-Star teams are usually named during the gold-medal game, before the eventual winner is known.
In other words, being named to the All-Star team isn’t a consolation prize … it’s a curse! Sorry, you can’t argue with the math.
If history repeats: You’ll wait for the All-Star announcements, then call your bookie.
Lesson 5: Home-ice advantage matters … maybe.
This one’s a little trickier, since two of the four years we have to work with — 1998 in Japan, and 2006 in Italy — didn’t offer any sort of home-ice advantage to anyone. And in fact, this Sochi Games will mark the first time in more than 60 years that a European medal contender is playing on its home ice.
But the 2002 and 2010 Games were in North America, and both years featured a pair of North American teams in the gold-medal game. And of course, Team USA managed to do OK on home ice once before.
If history repeats: The Russians will be playing for gold.
Lesson 6: Lucky number seven
While goaltending is crucial, a little offensive firepower never hurt. In fact, having an offense that can blow the doors off an opponent as you approach the final seems to be a good sign you may be headed for gold.
In all four Games, there’s been exactly one game during the quarters or semis that saw a team hang seven goals on their opponents. In 2002, Canada overpowered Belarus 7-1. In 2006, it was Sweden steamrolling the Czechs 7-3. And in 2010, Canada memorably smoked the Russians 7-3. All three went on to win it all.
The one exception came in 1998, when the Russians beat Finland 7-4 behind Pavel Bure’s record five-goal performance, only to be shut out the next game by Hasek and the Czechs. Dominik Hasek ruins everything.
If history repeats:
It will be a coincidence Um, I mean, it will prove that the hockey gods have a favorite number.
Lesson 7: The team most likely to win a medal will be … wait, that can’t be right.
Pop quiz: Since 1998, name the only nation to win three medals in Olympic hockey.
No, not Canada — their pair of golds are the only two medals they’ve earned. The U.S. has their two silvers, and that’s it. Both Russia and the Czechs also have just two medals each, and the Swedes 2006 gold was the only trip they’ve made to the podium.
No, the only country to earn three medals during the Olympics’ NHL era is Finland. While they haven’t earned gold yet, they picked up bronze in 1998 and 2010 and a silver in 2006.
If history repeats: Seriously, nobody else is terrified of Tuukka Rask? Or one of Finland’s other 13 awesome goalies? Just me? It’s the puppy picture, isn’t it? Fine, let’s just move on.
Lesson 8: The gold-medal game will be between two teams that came up empty last time.
All four gold-medal winners during the NHL era hadn’t won a medal of any color in the previous Olympics. In fact, you have to go back to 1988 or 1992 (depending on whether you count the Unified Team as being the same as the Soviets) to find a gold-medal winner making a return trip to the podium.
What’s more, all four of the gold-medal winners since 1998 earned it by beating a team that had also been shut out in the previous Games.
If history repeats: It would be good news for a pair of favorites, Russia and Sweden.
Lesson 9: The old guys are all right.
The NHL tends to be a young man’s league — it’s been 13 years since a player in his thirties won the Hart Trophy. But in the Olympics, the grizzled veterans tend to do just fine.
Twelve of the 18 players named to the tournament All-Star teams were in their thirties, including the entire 2002 squad. And that seems to hold especially true on the blue line: Five of the six All-Star defensemen were thirty-plus, including a 40-year-old Chris Chelios in 2002 and 36-year-old Brian Rafalski in 2010. Meanwhile, Hasek had just turned 33 when he dominated Nagano, and the only player to score in that year’s gold-medal game was 32-year-old defenseman Petr Svoboda.
If history repeats: There are plenty of older stars dotting the rosters — Teemu Selanne, Jaromir Jagr, and Martin St. Louis come to mind. Looking at overall rosters, the U.S. is sending a comparably young team, while the Czechs, Finns, and Swedes look especially grizzled.
Lesson 10: Oh, screw it, nobody knows anything.
While it can be fun to comb through the history books to look for patterns, at the end of the day, this is a single-elimination tournament in a notoriously random sport. Anything can happen. It probably will.
After all, Belarus infamously eliminated Sweden. Switzerland once upset Canada and the Czechs back-to-back, but then couldn’t beat Germany or Italy. Slovakia won just one game total while failing to even make it out of the prelims in 1998 and 2002, and then went 5-0-0 in 2006.
Upsets are still relatively rare in Olympic hockey, but they happen, and in a short tournament one surprising result can blow everyone’s predictions out of the water.
We all think we know what’s going to happen. History tells us we’re probably wrong.
If history repeats: Maybe spend some time learning the Latvian national anthem. Just in case.