THN in Sochi: Why the 2014 gold medal men’s hockey team is Canada’s best ever

Ken Campbell
Canada

SOCHI – So it turns out Nicklas Backstrom was banned from the Olympics for elevated levels of pseudoephedrine, something he has been taking for the past seven years. Truth be told, Backstrom could have been loading up for the past seven years on human growth hormone, spinach and every banned anabolic steroid known to man and it would not have made one bit of difference in Sunday’s gold medal game.

Team Canada would not be denied in these Olympics. And that’s because the 2014 Olympic Mike Babcock-coached squad will go down in history as the best hockey team this country has ever produced. Ever. There have been teams with better players, certainly teams with more Hall of Fame players than this one will produce. But in terms of sheer efficiency and the ability to absolutely smother its opponents, no team that has ever worn the maple leaf even comes close.

The 1972 Summit Series team was more exciting and dramatic. The 1987 Canada Cup team was more dynamic. The 2010 Olympic team probably gave its country a more enduring memory. But there was no team that was better than this one.

Consider this: Canada played six games and most of us can remember vividly each of the goals it gave up. Two tip-ins, one because of a botched play behind the net, and a breakaway where the player was sprung on a lob pass from Sandis Ozolinsh. Anytime you can do that, you’re dealing with an incredible team. For six games, it controlled the puck almost all the time. The only knock against it was that it couldn’t score as much as people liked. But who needs a ton of goals when the opponents can’t even enter your zone?

Or as Swedish coach Par Marts put it: “You have to score the first goal, but they wouldn’t let us.”

Or anyone. Canada never trailed in the tournament and of the 362 minutes and 32 seconds it played, it led for 205:54. If you’re looking for a sign of its dominance consider that USA, which had scored more goals than any other team in the preliminary round and looked to be the favorite to win, failed to score a goal in its last two games. Canada, on the other hand, didn’t give up a goal in the last two games. So much was made of how difficult it would be for Canada to adjust to the international ice surface, but in the end it used the extra ice to its advantage.

“At the end of the day, I think the big ice surface played some role in limiting chances,” said Canadian defenseman Duncan Keith. “It’s harder than you think to create. You make a mistake and there’s a lot more room you’ve got to skate to actually capitalize on that chance.”

(Speaking of that, can we finally put to rest the notion that a bigger ice surface creates more offense? In the medal round there were four games. Three of them were shutouts and they produced a total of 12 goals by some of the most talented players in the world. The medal round averaged three goals a game, two fewer than you see in the average NHL game. As Keith said, if anything the bigger ice stifles offense rather than encourages it.)

So suppose you were sitting at a barstool talking to someone before the Olympics began. Heck, you probably were. Anyway, the person with whom you’re speaking tells you that Canada is going to score 17 goals in six games and John Tavares is going to get hurt midway through the tournament. Corey Perry, Martin St-Louis, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau and Patrice Bergeron are going to combine for zero goals and Sidney Crosby, Jonathan Toews and Ryan Getzlaf are going to score one each. What place do you figure Canada would have finished armed with that information?

Have there been more dominant teams representing Canada? Well, in 1924, Canada outscored its competition 132-3 and followed that up by outscoring its opponents 28-0, 32-4, 69-5 and 71-14 in the next four Olympics. But that was a time when hockey was basically a one-nation sport and not the global game it is now. If you take into account how much other countries have improved and how strong players are worldwide, Canada’s performance in these Games was the most dominant we have ever seen.

“When you talk about great defense, sometimes people get confused,” Babcock said. “Great defense means you play defense fast and you have the puck all the time and so you’re always on offense. Don’t get confused. We out-chanced these teams big-time. We were a great offensive team. That’s what we coached, that’s what we expected, that’s what we got.”

They also got a gold medal and, in case anyone cares, the distinction of being the greatest team the greatest hockey nation has ever produced.