Great Day for Canada, Sad Loss For Hockey

The Most Interesting Hockey Analyst in the World was nearly 7,000 miles removed from the action, but the look on his face said it all. In a plaid jacket that would have made fellow countryman Don Cherry jealous, spit-faced ESPN pucks expert Barry Melrose smiled through droopy, bloodshot eyes that had the look of a Molson-and-eggs breakfast. Or maybe it was just early. My guess is, probably both.

Did the man need to tell us that the Canadian men’s hockey team had repeated as Olympic champions? Three days after their women’s team had done the same?

Jealous? Americans? Nah.

“The next round’s on me,” said Melrose, a native of Kelvington No. 366, Saskatchewan, where a town can be named after its population.

Rest assured there will be thousands of Melrose look-alikes across the border in the next few weeks. Liquor laws were loosened throughout much of Canada – the gold medal game started at 7 a.m. in Toronto, where bars were packed one hour ahead of time — which gives you an idea how much it loves hockey. And beer, for that matter.

“It feels great,” said Team Canada center Sidney Crosby, who saved his best for last as one would expect of the world’s best player.

Great described the hockey in these games. The pace was considerably faster than back home. Stoppages and violent collisions were fewer in number, and there was nary a fight. Too bad we’ve probably seen the last of the best players in the world at the Winter Games for a while.

While the brunt of NHL players say they look forward to the Olympics despite the aggravations, too many of the people who pay their freight are opposed to it. The league is forced to shut down for nearly three weeks in the middle of the season, which creates a ripple effect that many believe isn’t worth it. Star players come back hurt. Teams lose momentum. The schedule becomes overcrowded and difficult to manage.

NBC Sports is certain to be heard from in the weeks to come — it has a $963-million investment in the 2018 Winter Games in South Korea — but buzz-kill commissioner Gary Bettman appeared to tip his hand at a news conference days ago. “There is nothing like winning the Olympic gold medal,” International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasal said, to which Bettman replied with a sheepish smirk, “Except perhaps winning the Stanley Cup.”

Fasel: “The gold medal, the Olympic gold medal, you can’t replace it. The Stanley Cup, the world championships, yeah, yeah. . . . But the gold medal, look at the faces here Sunday when the players win the Olympic gold medal. It’s so different.”

Bettman: “It’s like when they win the Stanley Cup.”

Mind you, the impromptu debate at took place before New York Islanders franchise player John Tavares blew out his left MCL and miniscus and was lost for the season. Before Detroit Red Wings star center Henrik Zetterberg went down with a herniated disc. Before New York Rangers top scorer Mats Zuccarello fractured his left hand. Before Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman Paul Martin had one of his own placed in a cast . . .

“Are the IIHF and IOC going to reimburse our season-ticket holders now? It’s a joke,” Islanders general manager Garth Snow fumed to Newsday. “They want all the benefits from NHL players playing in the Olympics and don’t want to pay when our best player gets hurt.”

If the NHL players can be convinced that a preseason international tournament is a better alternative, the torch will be passed to amateurs, which will make for purer competition in the true Olympic spirit but not necessarily a better one. Team USA should remain competitive in the years to come, but until the sports culture changes in this country, the outcomes may not be that much different. In Canada, where some actually watched the final game during church services, hockey truly is a religion. In the United States, it’s an acquired taste, one of many options in some parts of the country but not others. Over the years, the bar been raised at the lower levels here, but it’s still not high enough. For now, the women’s team will continue to carry any realistic hopes we have for elite status, something it easily could have pulled off this year.

If this was to be the final puck-drop for the NHL in the Winter Games, then at least we were treated to the most dominant performance in recent memory even if it did come from the guys with maple leafs on their sweaters.

It wasn’t that Canada became the first unbeaten team in 30 years that was so slack-jawed impressive. It was the way they did it. “A defensive clinic,” forward Jeff Carter called it. The winners never trailed in any of their six games and allowed three goals in 18 periods. One, two, three. Total. In the final two rounds, overwhelmed American and undermanned Swedish teams were shut out. If the games had been four periods each, I doubt either one still would have put the biscuit in the basket.

“Canada was much, much better,” said Sweden head coach Par Marts, who didn’t have to say much, much more.

Widely considered to be a major question mark beforehand, goaltender Carey Price silenced his critics much like the competition, not that he was required to stand on his elbows much less his head. If defensemen Shea Weber, Duncan Keith, Drew Doughty, Marc-Edouard Vlasic, Jay Bouwmeester and Alex Pietrangelo didn’t comprise the best group in Olympic history, they put themselves in the team photo for sure. The champs averaged less than three goals per game, but when one is often enough, not even Canadian purists could complain about it.

“Does anybody know who won the scoring race?” head coach Mike Babcock wondered aloud en route to the closing ceremonies. “Does anybody care? Does anyone know who won the gold medal? See you, guys . . .”

In the process, the Canadians dumped a case of beer on several myths along the way. One version claimed they couldn’t strike gold outside North America, something they had never done. Some critics predicted they would play in straightjackets, so ridiculous were the expectations back home. Others said they would never be successful on the wider ice surface, which no NHL-led team had accomplished previously. “Uh, yeah, I guess we put that out the window,” said Doughty, a force from the start. “It did take a game or two to get used to it, but once we did, it was easy from there.”

Team Canada was so confident, so machine-like, so efficient, I had flashbacks to the great Soviet Red Army teams that captured seven gold medals in nine appearances. Said captain Crosby, “No matter where this game would be played, I think you get up for it. But obviously, we all know being Canadian, the amount of history with Canada-Russia . . . I think ultimately to come here, bigger ice, different challenges than Vancouver (four years earlier), everything wasn’t perfectly set up for us as it was in Vancouver. But we had to adjust to the ice and everything else. Yeah, it feels great to be able to find a way to win.”

And to think the United States was the team to beat only days ago, according to more than one veteran observer. Yet the longer the competition went on, the more its warts became obvious. For this, pin the tail on general manager Ray Shero, who was mostly responsible for a roster whose primary weaknesses were Canada’s main strengths. Except in goal, where Jonathan Quick acquitted himself well, Team USA was short on experienced talent up the middle, the area where games are decided more times than not.

Head coach Dan Bylsma also entered the tournament with no previous international competition, and it showed in his strategy and line combinations at times. It’s hardly an embarrassment to lose 1-0 to the eventual golden boys, except that I saw a tentative U.S. Team that didn’t believe it could slay the dragon. Inexplicably, it went through the motions in the final game, something that almost never happens in this sport. Shame on the Americans for their failure to come home with any medal at all. They were better than that.

“I think the (Canada) game took a lot out of us,” Bylsma tried to explain. “Took a lot out of us emotionally.” I like Max Pacioretty’s version better. “We didn’t show up,” the forward didn’t mince words. “We let our country down. That’s it.”

OK, Barry, in lieu of a medal, I’ll take a Labatt Blue. Very blue.