Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Swede Emotion

Sweden's coach mused about throwing today's game with Slovakia so as not to have to face the Canadians.

CBC reports:

Before the game, Sweden coach Bengt-Ake Gustafsson raised some eyebrows when he suggested his team might be better off losing because it would meet Switzerland in the quarterfinals, instead of Canada or the Czech Republic.

"I said the Swiss, on paper, is the weakest team," Gustafsson said at a post-game news conference. "I stand behind that. That's a fact."

The Swedes then went on to lose, 3-0, after managing a paltry 17 shots against the Slovaks. Sounds like their hearts weren't quite into today's match.

Wayne Gretzky hammered Gustafsson in his post-game chat with Ron Maclean, claiming that he is essentially dismissing the capabilities of his own team by cowering before the mighty Canadians. He argued that every coach has to believe that his team can beat every other team. It was tough talk.

But before we get our dander up too much, let's think about this. Did the Canadians blow off a couple of matches? We had qualified for the medal round after two games. Why would Canada blow its legs in matches against the Swiss and the Finns? They're playing practically every day in a row, on a larger than normal ice surface. They have to keep some gas in the tank for the games that matter - essentially three game-7s in a row. I'm not saying that Canada threw the games they lost - they peppered the Swiss and the Finns with shots to try and save face towards the end of the game - but it's not outside the realm of reason to see that they might not have tried so hard. Especially when I could see plainly that they were just flat out there, as in lazy. And this is a team with plenty of heart. At minimum, why would Canada get up for a game that means nothing? The Swiss and Finns meanwhile had a lot to motivate them - they want to beat the defending gold medalists. It's only when there's a national outcry that Team Canada gets up to play hard like they did today - wanting a scalp from the Czechs for knocking them out in Nagano. But then they eased off after three easy goals to conserve those legs again, leaving the hard work to Martin Brodeur.

It's not ridiculous to point out that the set-up of the tournament dictates the strategy. Gustaffson has a point - if he has cinched his way into the medal round and can avoid playing the Canadians early on, then why not? The Swedes want a medal at the very least, and an early knock-out keeps them out of contention for so much as a bronze. I don't think Gretzky was so quick to lay down the condemnation because it's a cowardly, unsportsmanlike move to blow off a match - which it certainly is - but because it means that Team Canada has to face Russia instead of Sweden. Canada doesn't care as much about picking their competition on the medal round when only a gold will satisfy our rabid masses and they have to beat everyone to get there. But if you could pick a team to avoid in these games, I would say it's the young gunning Russians. Now we really could get shut out of the medals.

Finally, perhaps Gretzky blew off so much steam because Gustaffson committed a real cardinal sin by letting the outside world into a dirty little secret of Olympic hockey: the round-robin's only purpose is to weed out the minnows. For the big boys of international hockey, once you've won a few games it really means nothing, so let a few games slide to keep your legs for the medal round. But for Zeus' sake don't let anyone know you're doing that. Why, it would be un-Olympian.


At 10:43 PM, Blogger Avi Schaumberg said...

Under the current formulation, there's no point to the round robin: everyone knows the four teams that will be left on the outside.

We should move to a World Cup-style format where there are two groups of four, and the top two teams from each group move on. Then the round robin would be worthwhile.

At 12:17 PM, Blogger Nathan Muhly said...

The Swiss getting blown up today may lend some credence to your Canada coasts through round-robing theory.


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