Luca Sbisa and the rest of his Switzerland mates almost pulled an Olympic upset over Canada Thursday. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Be careful what you wish for, eh?
As soon as hockey pundits bemoan the blowouts of minnows such as Norway in international play, up steps a team like the Swiss to give Canadians a panic attack on home soil.
Yes, the Canadians escaped with a 3-2 shootout win over Switzerland Thursday night, but it shouldn’t truly be surprising that a new competent hockey nation has arisen.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s at least a temporary shift in power in the international game once 2014 rolls around.
Whether the NHL plays at the Sochi Olympics in Russia or not, the cycles of hockey talent will spit out new contenders.
The Swiss, of course, are building some great momentum and the important thing to remember is that today’s juniors are tomorrow’s Olympians in nations with shallower talent pools. Actually, in Switzerland today’s juniors are today’s Olympians: Defensemen Roman Josi and Luca Sbisa both played at the world juniors in Saskatchewan this year, though injuries limited their appearances.
The experience those two are gaining will serve them well on the international stage in the future and the Swiss program as a whole benefits. Other young players who cut their teeth in Canadian major junior hockey include Habs prospect Yannick Weber (Ontario League Kitchener) and Ottawa draft pick Roman Wick (Western League Red Deer), the latter of whom was particularly dangerous against Canada. Also, the Swiss have potential 2010 first-rounder and world juniors hero Nino Niederreiter (WHL Portland) coming up the pipe.
That core, plus captain Mark Streit and goalie Jonas Hiller, will be back to defend the Swiss honor in future competitions. Both men played pivotal roles in the near-upset of Canada, with Streit logging huge minutes and Hiller stoning his NHL rivals on many occasions when the game could have gotten out of hand.
In one very important respect, the Olympics are much more dangerous for traditional powerhouses such as Russia, Canada and Sweden than the world juniors are – and that’s because of the lack of an age limit.
At the world juniors, it’s an under-20 field, so depth of talent in the nation is key. But at the Olympics, you only need to find 23 of the best players, period; get a couple great juniors like Josi and Sbisa, pair them with 32-year-old Streit and 28-year-old Hiller and you’re off to the races. It doesn’t matter how many superstars the Canucks could trot out; there’s only so much room on that bench.
So in the future, look for past also-rans to step up. Of the five Danes who have recorded a point in the NHL this year, for example, Frans Nielsen of the Isles is the oldest at 25. Vancouver’s Jannik Hansen is about to turn 24, as is Ottawa’s Peter Regin. Phoenix prospect Mikkel Boedker is just 20, as is Blues rookie Lars Eller. That’s a pretty nice start for a core of forwards, but due to the age disparity, the quintet would have never merged at a world junior tourney.
Contrast that with Slovakia, which just upset the Russians 2-1 in a shootout. Looking ahead to 2014, the Slovaks will likely lose current Olympians such as Jozef Stumpel, Ziggy Palffy, Miro Satan and Pavol Demitra to retirement, while battle-worn vets such as Zdeno Chara, Richard Zednik, Michal Handzus and even Marian Gaborik would be no sure things, either.
Their replacements? Assuming they develop at current rates, you’re looking at juniors Tomas Tatar and Richard Panik to do some heavy lifting. With Jaroslav Halak in net, the Slovaks will be solid, but other than Marian Hossa, there won’t be a lot of imposing offensive threats.
Moving on to the women’s side briefly, the fact the next Olympics are in Russia is actually great for the state of the game. Currently, the nation of 141 million people has just 278 registered female players, according to the IIHF (the Czechs have nearly 2,000 out of a population of 10 million, by comparison). But there’s no way the Russians want to see their women embarrassed on home ice in 2014, so I expect to see a huge uptick in attention to the sport in the next few years.
True, four years will not help the Russian women contend for a medal in Sochi, but a wider base of participants will fast-track the development of a nation that tends to catch on to the game pretty quickly and help democratize competition in the female game.
If, for some unknown reason, the Russians continue to ignore the women’s game, it would truly be a shame.
Ryan Kennedy is a writer and copy editor for The Hockey News magazine, the co-author of the book Hockey's Young Guns and a regular contributor to THN.com. His blog will appears Monday and Wednesday, his column - The Straight Edge - every Friday, and his prospect feature, The Hot List appears Tuesdays.
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