Sochi hockey squad one of the greatest Canada has ever iced 0
Team Canada's Jonathan Toews celebrates his first period goal against Sweden's goalie Henrik Lundqvist as Sweden's Patrik Berglund looks on in the men's ice hockey gold-medal game at the Bolshoy Ice Dome during the last day of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday Feb. 23, 2014. (Al Charest/QMI Agency)
When it ended, Steve Yzerman stood alone high above the ice, taking in everything, desperately trying to miss nothing.
He wanted to savour the moment. He needed that time alone. His time.
He got to see the flag, hear the anthem, take a distanced view of the celebration on the ice. He saw the scene of elation. Every bit of it.
Four years ago, he had raced to the ice in Vancouver, to hug his staff and his coaches and anyone else for that matter, jumping into the arms of players in celebration, with a crowd standing, a whole country going crazy. He made his way into the team picture. He did a lot he didn’t remember.
It was a gold-medal blur. This time, he wanted a private viewing.
This time being his last time as GM of Team Canada.
This time having put together, witnessed and been part of what just might be the greatest Canadian tournament hockey team in international history.
The gold-medal victory by Team Canada was that complete, that absolute: Canada was too strong, too fast, too deep, too defensive, too clinical, too well-coached, too everything.
“There’s never been a team like this one,” said Yzerman, after Canada’s 3-0 demolition of Team Sweden in one of the least dramatic championship games in history. There was not a single second of the gold-medal game when it appeared Sweden had any chance to win.
This coming after a one-sided complete 1-0 victory — if a 1-0 victory can be one-sided — against Team USA.
“Since I’ve been around,” said Yzerman, “this is the most impressive team I’ve ever seen.”
He stood and applauded everything in the post-game celebration. He watched as Jonathan Toews, completely out of character, grabbed the flag and began to dance with it.
“I don’t know why I did that,” said Toews. “That’s not me.”
He saw Ryan Getzlaf grab the injured John Tavares and carry him on the ice. He looked down as Patrice Bergeron leapt into Claude Julien’s arms. The ice seemed covered in Canadian red with the best player at the Olympics, defenceman Shea Weber, bear-hugging anyone he could reach with his long arms.
The players were thrilled with each other. The coaching staff was thrilled with the players. After the kind of hiccups that always happen between coaches and managers, Yzerman couldn’t have been happier with Mike Babcock.
And how could a coach be unhappy when his team plays six games, wins six games, never gives up more than one goal-against in any game, and allowed a truly crazy three goals-against in the tournament.
That’s worth repeating: Sweden would have had to score more goals than Canada allowed in the entire tournament to win the gold medal. That’s how far apart these teams were.
“I thought we were dominant,” said Babcock. “I thought we played great.”
Throughout the tournament, with Canada not scoring much, Babcock kept insisting he liked the way his team was playing, liked the way they got better. Not everyone agreed with his view — including some of those in management who thought they should score more.
“We wanted to score 10 goals each night,” he said. “I thought we didn’t give up anything and we had numerous opportunities (every game). I like the way we played. I’ll take that every time.
“We spent the whole time in the offensive zone. The ability to play 200 feet. That was our plan.”
Babcock then took a slight shot at Phil Kessel, without mentioning his name.
“Does anybody know who won the scoring race? Does anybody care? Does anybody know who won the gold medal?” said the coach, who rushed out to get to the closing ceremony.
“See you guys,” he said.
Yzerman stayed around to live in the moment, but also to talk about it and bring some context to the gold-medal ass-kicking. Because that’s what it was: Not since the Russian professionals played against the rest of the world’s amateurs has one team so separated itself on the Olympic hockey stage.
Yzerman referenced the Canadian teams of his life: Team Canada 1972 from the famed Summit Series, the ’76 Canada Cup team that may have been as stacked as any in history — he never even got to the ’87 team with Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. After all, that squad gave up 16 goals in the last three games of the tournament.
This Canadian team would have to play five Olympic events to give up that many goals. They gave up fewer than half-a-goal-a-game here. A goals-against average below 0.50: That is remarkable.
And he didn’t really mention his previous gold medals, the victory as a player in 2002 in Salt Lake City and the 2010 home-pressure win in Vancouver.
Here, this was different. This was a big-ice tournament and Canada had done well on the big ice. This was Russia and supposed to be Alexander Ovechkin’s time. This was Canada’s first Olympic win overseas since 1952. That was 62 years ago.
“Those Russian national teams in the 1970s and ’80s were pretty spectacular,” said Yzerman. “I don’t know whether I can say that (we’re the best ever), I just sat here and watched these six games, and the team didn’t score as many goals as we liked, but every other facet was fantastic.
“And we weren’t just strictly playing defence. We weren’t sitting in a shell. We were being aggressive, forechecking, closing gaps and not letting them get the red line or the blue line.”
In other words, owning the ice. All 200 feet of it. Sharing none of it.
Toews and Sidney Crosby and Drew Doughty and Weber — the best offensive players for Canada here — also ended up as the best defensive players. The oldest cliches are that defence wins championships and your best players had better be your best players. Both rang true for Team Canada.
“We came into one of the most hostile environments for Canadian hockey players — Russia — and to win on their soil is amazing,” said Rick Nash, who has been part of Team Canada for three Olympics, calling this the best win.
“Defence usually isn’t that fun,” said Getzlaf. “When you’re winning it is.”
Said Niklas Hjalmarsson, owner of two Stanley Cup rings: “That’s the best team I’ve ever played against. I think we had maybe one or two scoring chances today.”
“We knew what we had to do, how we had to win,” said Crosby the captain, who like Toews, scored in the gold-medal game, just as he had four years earlier. Last time, Crosby’s goal gave Canada the win. This time, it gave them certainty. The two best centres in the world being the best when it mattered most.
And when this near-perfect team came out for the third period, Getzlaf supplied just the right amount of levity to relax the bench. His timing and the score was perfect.
“It’s all about the ball hockey, guys,” he said to the players, referencing their summer camp in Calgary. “It’s all about the ball hockey.”