It has been about a month since the World Cup of Hockey, give or take s few days and it’s taken me this long to fully digest the results and parse my feelings on the whole tournament. Now that it’s over the familiar refrain of “Canada always wins” is drowning everything else out but there were some glorious minutes where that story was pushed to the back by a much more interesting one. That’s what I want to look back on.
Let’s celebrate Team Europe because my heart is always with the biggest underdog, although if you want to argue results Finland had the worst record of the teams I was pulling for but they were hardly considered an underdog going into the tournament.
For a team whose presence seemed at first simply the barest attempt at showing some type of NHL inclusiveness, Europe acquitted themselves brilliantly. They went further than anyone thought they could and challenged the current dominant hockey country for the championship.
While the NHL wants to bill this as an “international competition” it was clear from the start that the real goal was to showcase their talent. That much was clear when they built North American under 23 team just to show off to the world that “we have so much talent on this continent that we need three teams to represent two countries.”
The groups were carefully constructed to facilitate a US vs Canada or Russia vs Canada showdown in the final but alas the US didn’t hold up its end of the bargain. To be fair Russia at least squeaked out two wins, one against North American and one against Finland but fell to Canada rather unspectacularly in the semifinals.
The US went home without a win, a completely predictable result given that they couldn’t bring in any under 23 talent and were saddled with the most toxic coach active in the league today.
I wouldn’t have expected to say this but I felt bad for them as the press was perfectly happy to glory in their misery. In typical cowardly fashion the coaches and organizers of team USA, around whose neck those three losses should rightly hang, sent five demoralized players out to face the media shit storm following their last disastrous game. On top of the loss they had to answer questions about a tactless vitriolic tweet that Phil Kessel added to the bloody feeding frenzy insinuating that his presence would somehow have lifted them to a win. Suffice to say a group of players who didn’t deserve it got hung out to dry while also being kicked in the gut by a supposed ally.
Let’s not linger on that any longer. Instead let’s focus on the real story a team that deserved more respect than it got from start to finish.
( I should also mention that my assessment before the tournament that Slovakia should have its own team would have been a disaster for Team Europe. At very least the organizers understood that. When projected starting goal tender, Denmark’s Frederik Andersen went down with an injury before the pre-tournament it was up to Jaroslav Halak to step up and step up he did! Without him this team would have fizzled the way everyone expected.)
At the start of every game my heart bled as Team Europe stood listening to the national anthem of whatever country they were playing against. They of course had no anthem. No one could put together a medley or something? Furthermore the classless fans in Toronto, consistently booed the players during introductions. Despite all that, men from eight countries with nothing to play for but pride and each other came together to make a cohesive shut down team. After faltering early they used their pre-tournament matches to build a team spirit and a focus. They wanted to prove that they belonged at this level and they certainly did that.
To begin with, while teams USA, North America and Canada were comfortably preparing at home, most members of team Europe had to play in Olympic qualifiers before they could even fly to Quebec to begin forming their team. Their first practice consisted of less than a dozen jet lagged players.
In their first pre-tournament game against North America they were outplayed badly. In their second game against North America they bounced back and put up four goals but still lost to a much younger, speedier team.
This is not to say that the make of up team Europe was shoddy in any way. Team captain Anze Kopitar may be the only NHL player from Slovenia but he’s taken the Stanley cup home for a visit twice, led his team in scoring and been a finalist for the Selke trophy twice, and the list goes on. No seriously it goes on. I suggest you take a look.
Alternate captain Zdeno Chara, a personal favorite I have to admit, has led his team to a Stanley cup, won the Norris Trophy and been to the all star game so often it’s a rare year when he isn’t there. He’s also played an important part in many World Championship’s for Slovakia not to mention a couple Olympic appearances.
Names like Gaborik, Hossa, Tatar and Zuccarello are all household names. Hossa, also from Slovakia has a couple Stanely cup rings with the Blackhawks. Roman Josi is an up and coming star on defense. I won’t run through the whole roster but you can find it here.
However, just focusing on the results of the two games I had seen, things looked pretty bleak at this point and I expected nothing but heartbreak. After all most of the national teams included swaths of players who had been to the Olympics together or at very least played an international tournament together. I don’t think any two members of Team Europe even play on the same NHL team. These guys literally did not know each other.
But if I was doubtful it was because I was completely ignorant of Ralph Krueger’s coaching legacy. He is a former player. In his first coaching gig in Austria he led his team to five
straight titles and went on to coach the Swiss national team. Under his guidance in the 2006 Olympics, Switzerland placed ahead of Canada after shutting them out. Think about that for a second. Not only did Canada finish outside the podium they were below Switzerland and without being rude I think I can say that is a sentence you don’t see very often.
Krueger was a consultant for the Canadian team in preparation for the Sochi Olympics. He’s also written a best seller on coaching so if you want to build a team that can out perform expectations he is the place you want to start. By the time team Europe played their third pre-tournament game against Sweden it was clear that Krueger had worked his magic. They were out shot but made up for it in blocks and certainly made their shots count, scoring six goals on Henrik Lundqvist, considered one of the best in the business.
Despite everyone’s continual insistence that this team couldn’t really be a team I felt that was their biggest strength. They were a cohesive unit on the ice with good communication and patience. They moved the puck well, defended seamlessly and had a surprising amount of goal support. They also kept out of the penalty box which is pretty key to winning hockey games. In the round robin portion they had one OT scare from the Czech Republic but took home the win.
They shut down team USA completely despite being out shot.
Their only loss was to Canada who was expected to cut through everyone like butter and basically did.
Team Europe found itself matched against Sweden in its semi-final match and just saying Europe was in the semi final was blowing minds at that point. No one really expected them to come out on top anymore than anyone really expected Canada to fall to a Russian team who had scraped into the semi’s by the skin of their teeth. Europe again stuck it to Lundqvist in over time and propelled themselves into the final.
The impossible match up was set, a team no one expected to ever need a national anthem faced off against the dominant hockey team in the world. Still fans expected the next two games, for no one would have predicted needing a third, to be utter blood baths. They weren’t. Europe may have gone down in two games but not without making team Canada nearly shit itself that it might actually have its perfect tournament record tarnished.
In the final game Europe held a one goal lead until the final three minutes, which was basically when Mike Babcock started to sweat at the idea of losing and pulled out the white board on a time out.
Maybe my expectations for this team should have been higher but even I underestimated them. All I can say is it was a pleasure to watch them frustrate the hell out of the teams they played and I have to hold on to that because the game two loss was a bitter pill to swallow. They were the better team that night. Canada had to pull a rabbit out of a hat to beat them and that is really something.
Despite being booed in every introduction in Toronto, Chara still maintained his class act positive attitude citing it as the most competitive tournament he has played because guys were fresh at the start of the season rather than showing up to the World Championships after missing or losing in the play offs.
If there is a next time for the World Cup of Hockey I hope Krueger and Team Europe get a chance to do it again even if it means letting the North Americans double dip. In my mind it was worth it.
This is a follow up to this post. Read the Pre-pre-tournament rant here.