During the Turin Games, I spent two long weeks at the Palasport Olimpico and the smaller Torino Esposizioni rinks, covering Canada’s Men’s and Women’s hockey teams.
The men, as you will remember, followed up a miserable round robin with an embarrassing quarter-final loss to the Russians. But, from a writer’s perspective at least, there was plenty of fodder.
Conversely, the women won gold, but didn’t provide much of a story-line. Their victory was beyond expected—it was preordained. On the ice, they were clinical, to the point that they treated some games as practice. And off the ice, they were just as disciplined with the media, determined not to provide any type of controversy for their opponents to rally around. There’s no question that they delivered the goods, holding up to the kind of pressure the men crumbled under. But with all due respect, it was probably the most boring gold medal in Canadian history. Not only did they win all of their games easily, they never even trailed for a single second of the Olympic tournament.
At the time, René Fasel, president of the IIHF, said parity was coming in women’s hockey. “It took 64 years for Sweden to beat Canada in the men’s competition,” he told reporters, just prior to the medal round. “You have to be patient. It will be different in Vancouver, we will have much stronger teams.”
(As it turned out, Fasel looked prophetic when Sweden notched their first-ever win against the U.S., in a 3-2 shootout thriller that very same afternoon to advance to the gold medal game.)
The events of this past week at the Four Nations Cup tournament in Lake Placid, NY, suggest that things really are changing. On Friday, with a place in the final already secured, the Team Canada women suffered their first-ever loss to a country not named the United States, falling 2-1 to the Swedes in overtime. On Sunday, the women’s squad lost again, 3-2 in a shootout with the Americans. It was Team USA’s second win over the Canadians in international tournament play this year. Last April, they beat Canada in back-to-back games to take the world championship.
Throw in what appears to be a serious injury to Hayley Wickenheiser, and you have all the ingredients for a good-old public freakout about the state of Canadian hockey.
I don’t think the smart money would ever bet against the Canadian women defending their gold on home turf in 2010. But it sure would be a lot more exciting if the outcome was actually in doubt.