By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — Get ready for some of the most exciting and aesthetically pleasing hockey that you will ever see.
Blackhawks fans have had plenty of highlights in the last few years with Stanley Cup triumphs in 2010 and again last year. However, when Canada, the United States, Russia, Finland, Sweden, Slovakia and the Czech Republic start competing in Sochi, hockey fans will see true All-Star teams competing for the gold, silver and bronze medals.
Olympic officials can only hope to duplicate a tournament that was as exciting as the 2010 competition in Vancouver. Canada and the United States squared off in the gold medal match, and the Americans found themselves down by a goal in the final stages of the third period. Zach Parise tied the game for the USA and momentarily silenced the Canadian crowd.
Overtime ensued, and the Canadians took the gold when Sidney Crosby took a quick pass from Jarome Iginla and beat Ryan Miller with a seeing-eye wrist shot.
Joy for Canada; anguish for the United States. Sensational hockey for the world to see.
But there’s a lot going on beneath the surface that defies logic. Forget about the international terrorism that threatens everyone in Sochi. That’s scary enough and the NHL is quite concerned. NHL vice president Bill Daly hinted that the league was at least considering a last-minute change of plans.
But it’s the competitive aspect of the Olympics that is truly strange. As players compete for their home countries, they compete against players who are their regular-season teammates.
So, for Blackhawks fans, this means that you could see Patrick Kane attempt to stickhandle across the Canadian defense and put himself at risk to a devastating open-ice hit from Duncan Keith or Jonathan Toews.
It’s shocking that one teammate has not finished off another in previous Olympic competitions. While most players value the Stanley Cup with greater esteem than any other honor in the sport, some would put Olympic gold at an even higher level.
Especially for those who play for teams that have little chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup. Take John Tavares of the New York Islanders. His team is on the outside of the playoffs looking in right now, and even if they make a miracle run to the playoffs, they are likely first-round fodder for a team like Pittsburgh or Boston. But Taveras has a chance to earn Olympic gold on the Canadian hockey team.
He will leave everything he has on the ice in Sochi. Taveras is one of the most highly skilled players in the game, and while his stickhandling, passing and accurate shooting are his calling cards, he will not hesitate to punish an opponent with a hard check to gain possession of the puck.
Olympic hockey wreaks of conflict of interest. Toews, Keith and Patrick Sharp will be cavorting with the likes of Roberto Luongo of the Vancouver Canucks, Jeff Carter of the Los Angeles Kings and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins.
How many playoff battles have the Blackhawks had with the Canucks? Chicago earned its Stanley Cup final spot by beating Carter and his Kings last spring. The Blackhawks took the Cup from the Bruins despite a sensational effort from Bergeron. Is there not a hint of retribution, jealousy or ill will flowing in any of those directions during the Olympics?
Joel Quenneville is not a part of the Canadian team’s coaching staff, and he’s probably thrilled that he doesn’t have to go to Sochi and worry about any of these issues. But that’s not the case for Claude Julien of the Boston Bruins.
Julien is assisting Mike Babcock on the Canadian bench. Canada plays Finland Feb. 16 in the last of the preliminary round games. Let’s say Canada needs that game to finish first in its grouping and get favorable seeding for the medal qualification round.
Julien and his Canadian players are likely to see Bruins goalie Tuukka Rask in goal for Finland. Does Julien spill everything he knows to his players on how to beat Rask? He certainly knows his weaknesses. If he’s trying to help Canada win, he has to. But if he’s trying to help the Bruins win a Stanley Cup, how can he sell his goaltender out?
Nobody is asking any of these questions.
Olympic hockey is thrilling and it is an example of the sport being played at its highest level. But devastating consequences and conflicts of interest lurk in every corner, and the NHL may rue the day that it allowed its players to compete in Sochi.