Twelve random observations of the greatest two weeks of hockey we've ever watched.
1.) NHL Ice
There was much hand wringing over the fact these games would be played on an NHL rink. Logistics prevented it from being played on the bigger IIHF sheets. And normally, one of the selling points for Olympic hockey is that it will be played on larger ice surfaces and that the skating will be amazing.
We're not sure if the games were impacted or played differently because of the smaller rinks. And it's not a coincidences the only two teams with rosters stocked exclusively with NHL talent ended up being the ones meeting in the gold medal game. But we're hard pressed to find any examples of this tournament being hurt by the dimensions of the ice surface. Everything from the gold medal match to a fairly meaningless but thrilling preliminary round game between Switzerland and Norway were enthralling.
During the 2006 games when Canada and the United States stumbled, Finland's Teemu Selanne had a wonderful quote about the parity in that tournament: "We all come from the same league and drink the same beer."
Selanne's point was, this wasn't like the 1960s, 70s or 80s when the Russians and the Czechs were the only ones trotting out virtual professionals against amateur. Everyone in this tournament these days draws a paycheck for playing the sport of hockey. Everyone from NHL superstar Sidney Crosby to Latvia's third string goaltender Ervins Mustukovs. Obviously there's still a gap in talent. But it's a lot narrower than it was 30 years ago.
3.) No fighting
A defining moment of this tournament came late in a preliminary match between Russia and the Czech Republic. Jaromir Jagr coasted through the neutral zone with the puck and BOOM! he was flattened by Alex Ovechkin. That caused a turnover that directly led to a game-winning goal by Evgeni Malkin. It was clean hit that totally defined a game.
If it were an NHL game, Malkin's goal would not have happened. Someone would have immediately jumped Ovechkin. A fight would ensue and a play would be halted. We're not in the "fighting doesn't make sense" crowd who say it should totally be illegal. It makes sense in the right spot. (See Talbot, Maxime vs. Carcillo, Daniel). But when a clean, legal is hit "answered" with fisticuffs, it makes no sense whatsoever.
4.) Mike Emrick
We'll preface this point by saying we've been lucky enough to have gotten to know Mike "Doc" Emrick a little bit this season. He's a true gentleman and an absolute professional. And his professionalism and the quality of his work has never been more evident than these past two weeks.
It's one thing to be able to do a Canada-Russia game when the rosters are stocked with NHL all-stars. You know all the names and all the stories. It's quite another to do a Belarus-Switzerland where there are only a few recognizable names. But that didn't prevent Emrick from learning how to correctly pronounce each and every one of their names correctly, but he was able to find some background stories as well.
FSN Pittsburgh announcers sometimes can't be bothered to learn how to pronounce Alexei Ponikarovsky's name during a two minute segment of highlights during the third period. For two weeks, Mike Emrick knew how to properly say, "Girts Akipans."
5.) Team first
Seeing Russia's struggles in this tournament, a point became pretty obvious. You can't build an all-star team for tournaments like these. This isn't a fantasy league. You need a team. You need first- and second-liners. And you need third- and fourth-liners.
When Russia trotted out a "super" power play unite comprised of Evgeni Malkin, Sergei Gonchar, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Ilya Kovalchuk, there was an assumption they would score at will. But they didn't. They looked very inept at times. They five of the best offensive weapons but they were five mismatched parts. Tossing out five elite players like that might work on PlayStation 3, but it doesn't work in real life. You need players willing to do the dirty work as well as superstars.
Seemingly, if you watch a national NHL broadcast in the United States, there aren't any teams outside Pittsburgh, Detroit, New York, Boston, Philadelphia or Washington. The NHL's national presence is seemingly limited to a few select East Coast markets. As a result, players in those markets tend to get the most mainstream attention.
This tournament provided a showcase for the likes of Los Angeles' Drew Doughty, Vancouver's Ryan Kesler and Nashville's Shea Weber (above) and Ryan Suter. For the most part, most hockey fans were only told these guys were good. We finally got to see how good these guys are.
7.) Tore Vikingstad
The crazy, amazing adventures of Norway's Tore Vikingstad took on a life of their own. We got to become familiar with the likes unfamiliar but fun names like Severin Blindenbacher, Nikolay Stasenko, Sven Felski and Mats Zuccarello Aasen. But Tore Vikingstad became a superstar in that regard. And having a pretty decent tournament helped his legend grow.
Based on the countless "Ray Shero should sign him" comments we've gotten over the past two weeks, it's a good time to be Tore Vikingstad's agent.
8.) Team USA
Following the 2006 games, Team USA was lost. Established players such as Bill Guerin, Mike Modano and Doug Weight were clearly nearing the end of their careers. They had been the first true generation of American superstar hockey players. They had a vital hand in establishing USA hockey as a world power. But they no longer had a role in maintaining those lofty heights.
In came Brian Burke. He swept away most remnants of the old guard and brought in the next generation of NHL superstars. He stocked his roster with young hungry players like Zach Parise, Patrick Kane and Suter. He finally moved Team USA to a new era. And the results were staggering.
The American's beat Canada on its own ice in a monumental preliminary round win. And when the gold medal was up for grabs, the United States pushed Canada to the limit.
The United States established a new identity in these games as one of the elite hockey programs in the world.
9.) NBC is bad
NBC had not made a lot of fans in the hockey world over the past year. From putting the kibosh on the big screen outside Mellon Arena to just generally substandard production values for NHL broadcasts, the Peacock had done little to endear itself to puckheads. It did even less over these past two weeks.
Most hockey games were dumped on the cable outlets. We can forgive that. NBC's only goal with these games is to get ratings. And lets face it. Hockey fans are a niche audience. Ice dancing and speedskating were going to get bigger ratings, especially with personalities like Anton Apollo Ohno. But the quality of broadcasts on CNBC and MSNBC was embarrassing. Forget missing faceoffs. Goals were routinely missed.
And during its few high profile moments, hockey was still treated clumsily by NBC. When the United States beat Canada, 5-3, in the preliminary round, MSNBC's Willie Geist fumbled his way through a post game broadcast as he lazily suggested the win was the biggest for Team USA since the "Miracle on Ice" and wondered allowed where Brian Rafalski, an all-star in the NHL for roughly a decade, had come from. And prior to the pinnacle of the tournament, last night's gold medal match, NBC got to the point where they had Mike Milbury comparing footage of an NFL game to checking in an Olympic game. It was as if NBC had just simply said, "Hey Look You Fat, Ugly Ignorant Americans! It's just like BRETT FAVRE!!!!"
And this wasn't exclusive to hockey. The Peacock's heavy-handed determination to show all sorts of events on tape delay in this age of Twitter, Facebook and countless other forms of instant digital media really made this communications giant look out of touch.
If the NHL decides not to go to Sochi in 2014, NBC's performance in these games will deserve a significant portion of the blame.
10.) Last call for some old friends
Teemu Selanne entered this tournament one point short of tying the record for most career Olympic points. He eventually broke the record, but he hardly blew by it. He lurched his way to 38 points. We love watching Selanne. He's one of the most exciting players in the NHL in the past 25 years. But it’s obvious the end is near for him.
But we count ourselves fortunate for being able to see him compete in one more Olympic tournament. And not just him. Nicklas Lidstrom, Peter Forsberg, Sergei Fedorov and Jere Lehtinen gave us one last glimpse at their abilities on an international stage.
Additionally, being able to see some fomer Penguins once again was a treat. Zigmund Palffy, Aleksey Morozov, Konstantin Koltsov, Martin Strbak and even Sven Butenschon and his fierce blonde beard gave us reason to watch.
Oh, yeah... and don't forget...
11.) Jaromir Jagr
Admit it. You were eager to see if he still had it. If you still wear his jerseys to games. Or if you booed him every time he touched the puck in Mellon Arena as a Ranger. You wanted to see what a year and a half in Russia did to him.
He didn't disappoint. He looked like the Jagr of old. At least early on. He bulled his way through checkers. Scored tough goals. He even had his mullet back. (Note, it actually seemed more like Robert Lang's mullet instead of Jagr's old poofy mullet, but we digress). He looked a 26-year old Jaromir Jagr.
A lot of that came to an end when Ovechkin ran him over in the preliminary round. But for a brief time in this tournament, Jaromir Jagr showed he can still compete with the best in the world.
One of the reasons we despise the All-Star Lame Game is the lack of heart of effort. Hockey without contact or some form of bodily sacrifice is just brutal to watch.
That's what makes this tournament so special. You have what are essentially 12 all-star teams stocked with professionals. And they don't receive a dime of compensation. At least not directly. Yet every player goes out as if it were Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. The checking is brutal. Shots are blocked. And passion is on display.
Passion is as vital to this sport as ice.
(Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images, Cris Bouroncle/AFP/Getty Images, Harry How/Getty Images, Jasper Juinen/Getty Images, Alex Livesey/Getty Images, Gene J. Puskar.Associated Press; Matt Slocum/Associated Press, Cameron Spencer/Getty Images, Jamie Squire/Getty Images, NBC)