Olympic Hockey- One of a Kind

Since 1998, NHL players have been able to represent their countries in the biggest international competition in the Winter Olympics. With the top players in the world playing for their countries, Olympic hockey has risen to new heights and has had some memorable tournaments since the NHL players have been allowed to participate in the Winter Games. Many of these players are paid millions by their NHL clubs but gain an experience of a lifetime by playing for their countries and have created some of the most memorable tournaments ever .

Prior to 1998, the NHL’s best players got to showcase their talents in international competition with the 1996’s World Cup of Hockey. The United States and Canada were the top two teams who met in the finals that year but each game of that tournament was competitive and meaningful to every player and every team. That tournament paved the way for allowing the NHL players to play in the Winter Olympic games and has changed the dynamics of that tournament.

In 1998, the United States and Canada were thought to be set for a rematch but other teams in that tournament had a say in that matter. That tournament saw the emergence of a Czech Republic team that came out of nowhere to win a gold medal with the help of Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek, who was considered one of the best goaltenders in the world at that time. The tournament also saw how powerful the Russian team can be and saw Teemu Selanne led Finnish team take the bronze. No one predicted the tournament would end the way it did but had some of the best hockey played in an Olympic games. The NHL players proved the importance of playing for their countries and set the stage for some great tournaments later on.

Also in 1998 saw the beginning of women’s hockey in the Winter Olympic games as the United States defeated Canada for a gold medal in that Olympic tournament. The United States were led by both Cammi Granato and Karyn Bye, who became household names and role models to many young hockey players in that tournament. The gold medal game in 1998 between Canada and the United States was the beginning of a rivalry that carried on to the 2002 Salt Lake City games, the 2006 Torino games and will continue in these 2010 Winter Olympics. The United States are hungry for a gold medal victory they have not seen since 1998 but Canada will not be satisfied earning a silver medal on their home ice. With the pride and determination of both teams set at a high mark, this Olympics could see another United States against Canada matchup in the women’s gold medal game.

During the 2002 Salt Lake City Games, the gold medal game in men’s hockey came down to the United States and Canada. Players on both teams clearly remembered what occurred in the 1996 World Cup but at a bigger stage with the Olympics, this game was not going to be taken lightly by either side. The United States was coached by the late Herb Brooks, who was brought in to rekindle the magic he helped put together in 1980, had NHL stars like Mike Richter, Chris Chelios and Mike Modano to work with this time instead of college players. Many of his players were older but understood how important and meaningful it was to win a gold medal on home ice. What stood in the way of that was a determined Canadian team that consisted of Mario Lemieux, Martin Brodeur, Steve Yzerman, Paul Kariya, and Joe Sakic to name a few that wanted to win not only for themselves but for the country whose name was on the hockey sweater they were wearing. The Canadian team ended up with their own miracle on ice that Olympics by taking down the United States for the gold medal. It was the first time the Canadian team had won a gold medal since the 1950s and that game was the highest rated Olympic hockey game since the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” game and was a memorable one for those who watched.To the NHL players on both teams, having an opportunity to play in a tournament and achieve the ultimate goal of a gold medal, which is something they might not have had the opportunity to do if professionals were not allowed to participate.

The United States and Canada would not meet for the gold medal game in the 2006 Torino games, however, the tournament saw the emergence of the Swedish and Finnish teams. The Swedish team was led by Peter Forsberg, who is still considered to be one of the best players in the world and was a hero in the 1994 game in Lillehammer, as well as Mats Sundin, and Nicklas Lidstrom. Forsberg never would have had the opportunity to play in the Olympics again if NHL players were not allowed to play and helped lead the Swedes to their first gold medal win since the 1994 games. They did beat a great Finnish that wasn’t expected to go far in the tournament but with the help of Saku Koivu and Teemu Selanne, fought until the very end. Like many others, that tournament saw the NHL’s best fight to the very end for the chance to win a gold medal in the biggest international competition the world has to offer.

The Torino games also saw the appearance of the Swedish women’s team in the gold medal game but Canada ended up walking away with the gold medal. The Swedish team got to that game with the heart and determination to win and played well against a very powerful Canadian hockey team. The Canadian team, however, knew that a silver medal would be considered a disappointment and did not let the Swedes stand in their way. For the players on the Canadian team, the importance of hockey was instilled in them at an early age and personal and national pride was on the line with that gold medal game.

With the 2010 Winter Olympics in full swing, NHL players are set to return and represent their countries. The Canadians are the hands on favorite to win because of home ice, Sidney Crosby, Rick Nash, Eric Staal, Jarome Iginla and two of the best goaltenders in Martin Brodeur and Marc-Andre Fleury participate in front of their home crowd. The Canadians are the favorites but with a younger American hockey team with Ryan Miller, Tim Thomas, Ryan Suter, Ryan Whitney and Zach Parise participating, the United States is determined to be competitive. With the emergence of Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin in the NHL, the Russian team will be eying gold as well and many non-NHL players such as Jaromir Jagr (who is playing professionally in Russia) and Peter Forsberg (now playing in Sweden) will be returning for their respective countries to try and earn the ultimate prize. For many NHL players participating in this tournament, it is their first Olympics but the pride they possess to win for their countries will be what will make an incredible tournament.

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~ by jeffrsabo on February 15, 2010.

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