SOCHI – Put a guy with a bad back on a plane for 10 hours and you’re just asking for trouble. When that guy makes $6.1 million and is the cornerstone of his franchise, it’s a recipe for disaster. So don’t be surprised if the NHL uses the devastating back injury to Henrik Zetterberg as an arrow in its quiver to keep the NHL out of future Olympics.
The 2018 Games are set for Pyeongchang, South Korea, which is about a 13-hour plane trip from New York. Zetterberg will be 37 then and anyone with back problems knows they usually don’t get better with age.
Then again, they can’t be much worse than they are now, since Zetterberg was unequivocally declared out for the duration of the Olympics, and likely, long after that. Swedish team doctor Bjorn Waldeback sounded rather pessimistic about Zetterberg’s healthy, saying, “For people who know medicine it is obvious that he couldn’t continue,” and adding that it’s possible Zetterberg could miss the rest of the season. Certainly if it turns out Zetterberg’s herniated disk requires surgery, his 2013-14 is over.
It will undoubtedly add to the debate about the future of NHL participation and will have the league mulling whether it’s worth all the trouble. But it’s important to keep in mind that this has been an ongoing issue for Zetterberg, one that forced him to miss a dozen games with the Red Wings earlier this season. But looking at it from the NHL’s standpoint, taking the decision away from the players will prevent them from having to choose between their employers and their Olympic teams.
It’s a shame for the Swedes, for the 2014 Olympics and, if used as Exhibit A to keep NHLers from participating, future Games. But all will have to carry on, as the Swedes proved Friday when they pulled out a 1-0 victory over Switzerland to improve their record to 2-0-0 in the tournament. Even before losing Zetterberg, the Swedes were forced to deal with the losses of Henrik Sedin and Johan Franzen, but remain one of the odds-on favorites to win the gold medal.
Niklas Kronwall, Zetterberg’s teammate with the Detroit Red Wings, took over the team captaincy for Sweden and said Zetterberg was devastated over the fact he had to return home for treatment and couldn’t be with his team.
“Obviously, Hank’s not doing great right now,” Kronwall said. “We all know what he goes through on a daily basis to be able to play and for him to sit out, it’s pretty bad. In saying that, we can’t feel sorry for ourselves, we’ll have to find a way through it. He won’t be with us anymore, but he’ll still be around somehow.”
What the injuries will likely do, however, for Team Sweden, is force it to play with a little less panache and a little more simplicity. Zetterberg was supposed to center the top line with Alexander Steen and Gabriel Landeskog, a position that will now be occupied by Patrik Berglund. Not having Henrik Sedin and Zetterberg, without question, robs the Swedes of much of their playmaking ability. Now goals will have to be manufactured more than artistically created. But the Swedes are equipped for the task and should have no problem making the adjustment to their style.
And as long as Henrik Lundqvist plays the way he did in stopping 26 shots, he will be the great equalizer. The Swedes were outshot 13-5 in the first period and Lundqvist kept his team in the game until it found its legs in the second period. Lundqvist, like any goaltender in this tournament, was a huge factor for his team coming in, but his impact without the offensive weapons will be magnified.
“He’s our leader, our captain and one of our best players and to replace him is going to be almost impossible,” Lundqvist said. “It was tough. I could just feel my energy go down when I heard the news. It’s definitely a tough break, no question.”
As for Switzerland, it finds itself in the unique statistical position of having the same record (1-1) as its goals for and against. The Swiss went 112:39 without giving up a goal in the tournament, which is really good. On the other hand, it took the Swiss 59 minutes and 52.1 seconds to score against Latvia in its first game, then came up empty against Sweden in its second. Switzerland entered the Olympics on an upward trend, having won a silver medal at last year’s world championship. The Swiss have always had a defensive bent to their game, but its chances for success will be slim unless it finds a way to start scoring.
“We’ve got to do something here to get the offense going,” said Damien Brunner. “I think we created enough chances and we just need a bounce or two. Even though, we didn’t score, I thought we deserved some points.”