Table set for Super Sunday in men’s hockey

Canucks Ryan Kesler stirs fans with anti-Canadian quote

Jaromir JagrWhen Jaromir Jagr arrived in the National Hockey League 19 years ago, he seemed like—what’s the right phrase?—a callow piece of Euro-trash. Great player. But what was with that two-fingered salute after he scored? And the omega-class mullet? And the cheap shots and the whining and the showboating?

But beneath Jagr’s Pittsburgh Penguins jersey beat a political heart.

Then, as now, the kid from Kladno, Czech Republic wore No. 68 in honour of the Prague Spring, and the year his grandfather died in prison. He revered Ronald Reagan, whose resolve against Moscow Jagr credits with the demise of  the Soviet Union (as a teenager, Jagr kept a photo of Reagan taped to his school notebook).

Every time he gets a chance to stick it to the Russians on the ice, he does.

He’ll get one more opportunity today, an enormous day on the Olympic hockey schedule. Not only will Super Sunday determine the playoff seeds—which teams get a bye to the quarterfinals, which teams must play qualifying games—it pits three great teams against their blood rivals.

First, the Russians must contend with the Czechs (3 p.m. ET). The ultra-talented Russians remain a gold-medal contender, and after losing to the Slovaks in a shootout on Thursday, Ovechkin, Malkin & Co. will be out for blood. But the Czechs have history to motivate them. And No. 68. At a ripe age of 38, Jagr’s no longer the callow kid, and he’s looked as good as ever on Olympic ice, raising speculation that an NHL team may try to sign him. He currently plays with Omsk Avangard in Russia’s Kontinental Hockey League.

Up next is Canada and the U.S. (7:30 ET) The Americans salivating for a chance to chop down the sequioa spruce of the tournament on its home turf. Canada Hockey Place will be electric, with plenty of American fans to stir up the home crowd.

If you don’t think the players get caught up in the hoopla, check out this quote from Ryan Kesler, the hard-nosed U.S. forward who plays for the Vancouver Canucks, which is splashed all over the morning papers: “I hate them,” he said of the Canadian team, repeating the phrase for reporters who thought they heard him wrong. “It’s a big rivalry and for Canadians, it’s their game. I wouldn’t say I ‘hate’ them, but Canadians expect to win gold and anything else is not good enough. We obviously have something to prove, and it’s going to be fun to try to knock them off.”

So far Kesler’s been getting a warm reception from the hometown fans. Five’ll get you 10 he doesn’t this evening.

Finally, the Swedes take on their ancient rivals, the Finns (10 p.m. ET), who have had a relatively easy ride so far, beating Belarus and Germany. But they always get up for a game against the neighbours.

It’s a gut-check moment for Canada and Russia in particular. Everyone from Vegas oddsmakers to office poolers had them pegged as the top two teams in the tournament. As it stood before last night’s game, they were fifth and sixth overall, meaning they’d be forced to play qualifying games to reach the quarterfinal round.

Think Canada wants another outing against some wannabe Cinderella, like Switzerland? Or Slovakia, which boasts two offensive superstars (Marian Gaborik and Marian Hossa), a defensive one (Zdeno Chara) and a hot goalie (Jaroslav Halak)?

Neither do I. Deep breaths everyone.

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