In his memorable 1998 ESPY monologue, Norm MacDonald joked about that year's Winter Olympics thusly: "We've got a lot of great stuff to look forward [to] in the next two weeks, like hockey and ... well, just hockey, really." Now, we know that's not really true — and we'll prove it with a flood of non-puck-related Olympic coverage over the next couple of weeks — but we'll be taking a special interest in the hockey tournament at The Sports Section. To kick things off, we'll be looking at each of the three preliminary-round groups individually, culminating with a medal-round preview next Tuesday when the men's tournament kicks off with the United States versus Switzerland. Up first: Group A, consisting of Canada, Norway, Switzerland, and the United States.
Truth be told, the United States might have missed its window for Olympic greatness. In 1998, just two years removed from a World Cup victory, our national team made more headlines for what it did to its hotel rooms in Nagano than for what it did on the ice. Four years later, on American ice in Salt Lake City, it finished second to Canada. (Damn Salt Lake Loonie.) Now the American team is in something of a rebuilding mode — or as much of a rebuilding mode as a team can be in when it only competes on the highest level once every four years. Only three members of the team have Olympic experience, and as a group, they're probably not quite ready for prime time. (The U.S. also has problems on defense, as original selections Paul Martin and Mike Komisarek will miss the games with injuries.) The good news? Even as constructed, they should advance to the playoff round, where anything can happen. At the very least, it's a dry run for Sochi in 2014 — assuming NHL players will be competing. (More on this when we discuss the Russian team.)
Something the Americans won't have to deal with are particularly high expectations — which is something that can't be said for the Canadian team. It's really a perfect storm of pressure: an all-star roster on its home ice, in front of fans from a hockey-mad nation who got a taste of Olympic gold eight years ago and want it back, badly. Of course, pressure aside, the home-ice advantage should work in their favor. Also working in their favor? The rink itself. To save money, rather than renovating the existing arenas to accommodate a larger Olympic-size surface, the games will be played on an NHL-size rink. In addition to benefiting teams with lots of battle-tested NHL players (like Canada and the U.S.), this will hinder squads that would prefer to play in wide-open European style but have less room to maneuver. And it also means that, without the behind-the-net trapezoid restricting him, goaltender/puck-handler extraordinaire Martin Brodeur won't have to worry about skating longer distances to chase down dump-ins. Essentially, he'll be operating as he did in the NHL, pre-lockout.
As for the other two teams in this group, Norway, which hasn't qualified for the Olympics in sixteen years, doesn't pose much of a threat, but Team Switzerland, captained by Islanders defenseman Mark Streit, has two goalies (Martin Gerber and Jonas Hiller) with NHL experience.