Thursday, 20 February 2014

Olympic Women's Hockey Final: Canada 3, USA 2 (OT)

The gold medal game in Women's Hockey is an instant classic.  It was tightly contested, hard-fought, and I caught myself on a couple of occasions literally on the edge of my seat, rather than comfortably lounging on my couch.  I was watching a couple of hours behind everyone on my trusty PVR, and I repeatedly had to fight the urge to skip ahead or check online to find out how it turned out.  Am I ever glad that I didn't start fast-forwarding when the Americans made it 2-0.

The final's narrative will be different depending on which side of the border it is spun.  The cool thing will be that it won't evolve independently, and go in different trajectories.  We'll bicker as neighbours over the facts of the case, and argue each other's conclusions, but in this age of livecast television, live streaming, Twitter, etc., we'll have started with the same source material, at the same time, with roughly the same instant analysis.

As we headed to certain defeat, I formulated the thought that the American team was clearly populated with better athletes.  They seemed faster, more explosive skaters, for one thing.  Their shots were more dangerous, a couple of their blueliners could really blast the puck at the net, something which the Canadians seemingly couldn't do.  A lot of our shots seemed to be flip shots, instead of true wrist shots, they fluttered to the net instead of whistling in.  Sometimes we had clear possession of the puck but failed to clear it effectively, the puck would hit the boards and die instead of rattling around and out of the zone.  Or we'd try to clear through the middle, but the American players would easily intercept those.

If I'm the Canadian coach, starting tomorrow, I put my girls on a daily regimen of 100 pushups a day, every day, for the next four years, on top of all the other training they'll have to do.  It's harder for ladies to develop upper body strength, but they won't be able to generate shot velocity if they can't flex the shaft of their stick, and that will only come with strength from the chest and shoulders, from the arms, from their abs and hips and core.  

So nice job ladies, but hit the deck and give us a hundred, we have to defend our gold in Korea.  No time to waste, this American team won't go away.

Oh, and we're going to need to match their explosiveness, so we'll have less hiking and more running stairs, less yoga and more deadlifts.  It was scary on a couple of occasions how much faster the American players looked, notably on races to retrieve the puck in the Canadian zone.  It seemed the American forwards were taking two strides for every sluggish step the Canadian defence player took.  At first I thought the Canadian must have been at the end of a shift, and out of gas, but it became evident that there was a large gap between the fastest Americans and the more ponderous Canadians.

Where the Canadian team shined was in goal, with Shannon Szabados making spectacular saves all game long.  The coaching staff played a hunch there, in making the change mid-tournament from Charline Labonté, and it paid off.  Ms Szabados never seemed bombarded or overmatched or lucky, just athletic and sharp.  And fantastic.

Another aspect which the Canadian team dominated was in terms of their system of play, their team game, their cohesion.  The team was more than the sum of its parts.  Whereas the Lamoureux sisters and Hilary Knight on the American side were noticeable individually, it wasn't enough to overcome the steadiness and veteranship of the Canadian team.  They passed the puck well, would circle back and be patient when they found their way blocked, they defended well as a group, at even-strength and on the penalty kill.  

The fact that they didn't lose their composure when down by two goals late in third, but kept fighting, while I was already trying to reconcile myself with the silver medal, speaks volumes.  

Mark Lee spoke of Coach Kevin Dineen's bench management during the tournament and the game in particular, how he never stopped coaching, and trying different line combinations, notably trios that had played well together in the previous Olympics.  They never gave up either, so the coaching staff deserves credit as well.

Kevin Dineen just probably earned a chapter all to himself in the "Encyclopedia of Coaching".  Taking over a team in disarray two months prior to the Games, while having precious little experience coaching women, but turning the tide and taking them to the gold medal is a magnificent result.  He can probably write his own ticket from now on.  

He took on the job on a temporary basis, after having contacted Hockey Canada about opportunities, which he admittedly thought were more likely to be at the Men's World Hockey Championships in the spring.  So with a two-month interim stint he covered himself in glory.  He'll probably get some NHL offers soon, but I wonder if he may be tempted to sign up for another four years.  

You have to think that in the last few weeks he thought to himself frequently how well he could have done, how much more he could have accomplished, if he'd just had more time to mold his charges, to polish their game.  Well now, he can have all the time in the world to take this program and try to catch up and surpass the American team, which has been superior overall in recent years.  I can't believe that he's not charged up by the experience, that he's not seduced by the possibilities.  

It'll be up to Bob Nicholson of Hockey Canada to make him an offer he can't refuse, that could make him put the NHL on hold.  It can wait.  After all, Mr. Dineen has proven to be nimble and flexible.  For example, he's not that dogmatic that he absolutely has to play a leftie with a rightie on his blue line.  He seemed to have the revolutionary notion that when it came down to it, he was better off putting his best players on the ice...

There will be some debate about the competence of the refereeing crew.  I must admit that when I heard the referee was from the U.K., I thought that was equivalent to having a Ugandan judge for the ice dancing competition.  I know it would have been near impossible for a Canadian or American to act as officials in this game, but are there not any others from traditional powers like Russia or Sweden, that might have more experience?  And I say this without having any knowledge of the résumé of the refs, maybe they were on paper the best choice, but in practice the results suffered.

I don't have a problem with the slashing call on Jocelyne Lamoureux in Overtime.  I generally detest the concept of not penalizing trips or hooks or other infractions based on the severity or the score or time left, etc.  An infraction is an infraction, whenever it happens.  To 'let them play', as is often heard, equates to 'let them cheat'.  Ms. Lamoureux couldn't see the puck on the play, it was frozen by the Canadian goaltender, she showed indiscipline when she swatted at her pads.  Maybe she was trying to score, but maybe also she was trying to 'instigate'.  And maybe hockey players shouldn't hit each other with sticks.  Just because an NHL ref wouldn't have had the spine to make this call doesn't make it the wrong call.

Further, the referee had made a specific trip previously to the U.S. bench to warn Meghan Duggan and the rest of the team generally about a slash to the Canadian keeper.  They had been told not to do it, but Ms. Lamoureux couldn't muster the discipline to heed that injunction.  So the blame rests with her.

There were some other whoppers though.  Hayley Wickenheiser was hauled down from behind on a clear breakaway, bringing the ref to whistle the play dead and point to centre ice, the sign for a penalty shot, which would have been the right call.  Except she reconsidered mid-stream, and then awarded a penalty for cross-checking.  Which was bizarre.  

Ms. Wickenheiser was tripped by Hilary Knight as the latter was desperately trying to catch up.  Ms Wickenheiser protected the puck from a stick-check attempt, the American forward tried to switch sides and their skates collided.  Whether it was intentional or not is immaterial, the Canadian player was brought down illegally, and the act had to be penalized.  What is very strange is how this was deemed to be a cross-checking penalty.

The lowlight which could have forever lived in infamy as an instance of bad officiating is how, late in the third with Canada playing with an extra attacker in the offensive zone and trying to tie up the game, a lineswoman backed into Canadian defender Catherine Ward and caused her to cough up the puck.  An American player managed to clear her zone, and the puck headed for the empty net, but ended up gently bouncing off the post.  

This could have been catastrophic.  The game would have been sealed due to official incompetence, but as we know the refs are part of the playing surface, there would have been no avenue for appeal.  The goal would have counted, we would have groused that we could have made a comeback, the Americans would have told us to be realistic, and accept that the game was as good as won for them, and we would have gone round and round.  And we wouldn't have known what could have been.  Oddly, this bobble by the officials will now just add to the lore of the game.  But that specific official should never officiate in any major event again.  Until she learns to skate, at least.

Watching the American players receive their medals reminded us of the infamous Nike commercial that claimed that the silver medalist 'is just the first loser'.  In the specific case of women's hockey, that's possibly accurate.  Both teams came to Sochi with one goal in mind, which was to win the tournament.  Coming in second held no allure at all to either team.  Silver didn't mean you beat all the other teams but one, it meant you lost to your only real adversary, the only one that mattered. 

The tight smiles on the American showed how little value they put on the silver, how they considered it another karmic kick in the rear, considering how they now regularly beat the Canadian team in regular competition but come up short when it counts every four years.

Meanwhile, the Canadian players were fixated on the medals, hypnotized by them on the trays held before them, and while they were being unfurled by Dick Pound.  They were looking at the little trays of medals and bouquets with the same covetousness I'd eye a tray of free doughnuts with.

And the poor Swiss team, good on them for being overjoyed with their bronzes, but a handful of their players definitely do not look like athletes, they looked like nice enough girls who got scooped along for the ride, and it again spotlights how big a chasm exists between the North American teams and all the others.

Finally, did the Canadian team commit a breach of protocol by, after receiving their medals, going over to the Swiss team to shake hands, but then foregoing a handshake with the American team who were glumly, gamely waiting to fulfill this chore before repairing to their dressing room?  Instead, the Canadian team joined up for a team picture at centre ice, and the American team gave up and left the ice.

Now, the Canadian team and American team had already shaken hands before the medal ceremony, in the traditional hockey handshake line, but even that had taken quite a while, the Canadian women celebrated their win extensively and kept their counterparts hanging an uncomfortable amount of time I thought.  

And the CBC's Mark Lee had been quite clear that it's customary for the gold medal winners on the podium to shake hands and congratulate the silver and bronze medalists.  I'll be interested in finding out if this was an oversight or more of a snub.

Speaking of Mark Lee, he has done a tremendous job in these Olympics calling games.  I've noticed his work before, he usually gets a late game on Hockey Night in Canada, and I wonder why.  The CBC has already lost Chris Cuthbert to TSN while they prop up an embalmed Bob Cole in front of a microphone every Saturday night, you would think they wouldn't want to lose this guy and give him a more central role.  Even if it's for naught, and Nick Kypreos will soon be running the sport.  Into the ground.

Kudos also to Mr. Lee's analysts Cassie Campbell and Jennifer Botterill.  We already appreciate the former's strong work on HNIC, but Ms. Botterill is a revelation.  She was polished and informative from her post between the team benches.  I can envision her playing a role on the NHL coverage of the CBC, she's that strong a communicator.

So all that remains now is for the men tomorrow to, as the famous cartoon from 2006 read, "Play like girls."

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