Carolina Hurricanes\' Rod Brind\'Amour holds up the Stanley Cup. (AP File/Paul Chiasson)
People from Sweden might disagree after their well-deserved triumph in the Olympics but the reality is that the level of hockey in Turin, Italy, last February did not match the previous NHL tournaments in Salt Lake City and Nagano, in large part because of organizers' bonehead decision to add more games to the schedule.
The players were dead tired in Turin, and it showed.
Four months later in Raleigh, N.C., 18,978 fans at RBC Center screamed at the top of their lungs when Justin Williams scored an empty-net goal with 61 seconds remaining to cap a 3-1 Game 7 victory over the plucky Oilers.
"You've got to give Edmonton credit," Carolina goalie Cam Ward, who captured the Conn Smythe Trophy as playoff MVP, said afterwards. "They didn't give up, they threw everything at us."
Other hockey champions in 2006:
-Canadian women's Olympic team;
-Canadian world junior team;
-Quebec Remparts won Memorial Cup;
-Sweden also won the IIHF men's world title in Latvia;
-Hershey beat Milwaukee to claim AHL honours;
-Alberta won a second straight University Cup.
The Hurricanes' motto was "Whatever It Takes" and that's exactly what they did.
"There was no way we were going to lose - that's the way we played," said champagne-drenched captain Rod Brind'Amour.
The Hurricanes were on the ropes two months earlier when upstart Montreal had a 2-0 lead in a first-round series and was ahead in Game 3 at the Bell Centre before losing captain Saku Koivu to a scary eye injury. That sucked the wind out of the Canadiens and Carolina roared back to win four straight.
Down the highway in Ottawa, it was the same as any other spring, the talented Senators finding a way to lose in the playoffs. This time it was to the young and speedy Buffalo Sabres in a second-round series that featured some of the best hockey in the playoffs. The Senators wasted a 113-point season and the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
"I'm so disappointed right now it's not even funny," Ottawa captain Daniel Alfredsson said moments after the series ended.
In Calgary, pre-season Stanley Cup contenders faded out in a first-round loss to Anaheim, the Flames perhaps guilty of not embracing the new NHL's virtues.
There was no playoff hockey in Vancouver and Toronto, which costs the jobs of head coaches Marc Crawford with the Canucks and Pat Quinn with the Maple Leafs.
The NHL's post-lockout season, meanwhile, had not one but two regular-season MVPs.
The players voted for Jaromir Jagr of the New York Rangers, handing him the Lester B. Pearson Award as outstanding player after his 123-point season made hockey cool again on Broadway. Hockey writers, however, voted Joe Thornton the Hart Memorial Trophy winner after his NHL-leading 125 points turned around the fortunes of the San Jose Sharks following his acquisition early in the season.
Perhaps a more intriguing battle for hardware featured Alexander Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby, the two young stars who delivered as advertised despite the massive hype and pressure heaped on them as the two beacons of light meant to bring hockey out of the lockout.
The writers chose Ovechkin over Crosby in a Calder Trophy race as memorable as ever, his 52 goals for the Washington Capitals too impressive to ignore.
"I can't believe I won the Calder," Ovechkin said awards night in Vancouver. "Sidney Crosby and Dion Phaneuf (oh yeah, he had a great year in Calgary, too) deserved to win it as well. But thank God I won."
The was also scandal in 2006 after New Jersey authorities charged three men, including Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet, with running a gambling ring whose alleged bettors included a handful of current NHL players and actress Janet Jones, the wife of hockey great Wayne Gretzky.
The case shocked the hockey world, but NHL officials say there is no evidence of bets on that sport. Authorities have said bettors in the case will not be charged.
The year started with Canada's boys doing it again. The national junior team surprised the experts and captured a second straight world title in Vancouver despite what was considered an inexperienced lineup.
Credit coach Brent Sutter, who added another world junior title to his resume, and relentless team defence. Canada allowed only six goals against in six games and capped the tournament at GM Place with a 5-0 whitewash of what was supposed to be a more talented Russian squad.
"Going into the game, all you heard about was how skilled the Russians were and how good of a team they had, and rightly so," Sutter said after the game. "But I think one thing everyone underestimated was the skill level we had on our team."
If Canadian hockey fans had their collective chests puffed out thanks to back-to-back world junior titles, national pride took a hit seven weeks later in Turin when Gretzky's Team Canada went out meekly in the quarter-finals after a 2-0 loss to Russia.
No one took it harder than Gretzky, the executive director of the Olympic team, who with bags under his eyes and the weight of a nation on his shoulders accepted full responsibility after the early exit. A typical classy move by The Great One.
"We're all devastated today but we'll be back in 2010 (in Vancouver)," said Gretzky. "This country is too proud and the kids who play the game of hockey are too proud. We'll be back.
"Canadian hockey is not dead. Let's not panic."
Sweden beat rival Finland 3-2 to capture gold, erasing the bitter memory of the embarrassing 4-3 loss to lowly Belarus in the quarter-finals of the 2002 Olympic tournament in Salt Lake City. It was Sweden's first Olympic gold since 1994 at Lillehammer, Norway.
"It's been a long wait for Swedish hockey," said beaming captain Mats Sundin.
More than anything, the tournament proved more than ever how much parity exists in international hockey. Want proof? The Sweden-Finland final made it six different countries in the three title games since NHL players began participating in '98 at Nagano.
Bringing up the rear are the likes of Germany and Switzerland, the Swiss saying hello to the hockey world with Olympic stunners over Canada and the Czech Republic in Turin.
"There's a lot of talented teams now - more than ever," Swedish defenceman Mattias Ohlund said in Turin. "There's no longer any easy games like there used to be. It's probably more fun for the fans but it's harder on us."
Parity is something women's hockey would love to achieve. In Turin, Canada blew away the competition en route to more Olympic gold, and even drew criticism for a 16-0 thrashing of host Italy.
"Why is women's hockey the only sport that gets put down for excellence?" asked captain Cassie Campbell, who would later retire from the sport. "Why should we stop and not get better?"
Perhaps the best development in Turin was Sweden upsetting the U.S. in a semifinal shootout. At least it gave Canada someone different to beat in the final.
In May, fans were rocking and chanting in Riga, Latvia, as the IIHF men's world championship made its first visit. The Swedes made it a delicious double in international hockey by claiming their first world title since 1998. A young Canadian team featuring Crosby lost 5-0 to Finland in the game for bronze.
Also in May, fans went home disappointed in Moncton after the hometown Wildcats were pounded 6-2 in the Memorial Cup final by Patrick Roy's Remparts. Russian winger Alexander Radulov was unstoppable with two goals and three assists in the championship game en route to being named tournament MVP. A few months later he was scoring goals for the NHL's Nashville Predators.