PORTLAND, Ore. (TheStreet) -- Home team Russia is gone and the Winter Olympics' men's hockey final is weaker for its absence.
Recent Olympics have spoiled fans a bit, especially fans of the host country. Team USA's matchup against Canada in Salt Lake City in 2002 got a boost not only from its home-ice advantage, but from a shellshocked nation looking for something to rally behind. For the Canadians in 2010, Sidney Crosby's game-winning goal in the gold-medal matchup against the U.S. would have made the Vancouver games a success even if its hadn't eclipsed its larger neighbor's gold medal total for the entire games.
It takes a lot of elements coming together at the right time to make the men's hockey gold-medal game something universally memorable. The National Hockey League has tried its best to stack the deck ever since it began halting its season and sending its best players to the games in 1998. Even top-flight NHL talent has been no guarantee of a memorable or even watchable gold-medal matchup.
Thus far, Olympic men's hockey has been treating NBC well and justifying not only its nearly $800 million investment in the Sochi games, but its 10-year, $2 billion deal with the NHL as well. The U.S. team's win over Russia in the preliminary round alone drew 4.1 million viewers on average for NBC Sports Network, including 6.4 million who tuned in to the last half-hour just to see T.J. Oshie's heroics in the game-ending shootout. That's the most-watched hockey game that NBC Sports Network has ever aired, edging Game 3 of last year's Stanley Cup Finals between the Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks.
It also got a huge boost from a U.S.-Canada semifinal that was both a rematch of the 2010 gold medal game in Vancouver and the matchup that North American hockey fans craved most. What does that mean for this year's games-ending final? Tough to say, but it'll take one thriller of a matchup to make up for the lack of North American-Scandanavian animosity of late.
Just to give an idea of exactly what this year's final is up against, here are just five of the best Winter Olympics men's hockey finals of all time for comparison. It's a lot to live up to:
Soviet Union vs. Czechoslovakia
Every U.S. hockey fan who remembers Team USA's "Miracle on Ice" win in 1980 knows that the Soviets were good, but that game discounts just how great the Soviet team was.
The entire 1984 Winter Olympics was a brilliant reminder. Consider that the Soviet Union's starting goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, already had two gold medals to his credit from 1972 and 1976, but was pulled in the second period of that fateful game against the U.S. in 1980. He responded by starting six games for the Soviets in the 1984 games and allowing four goals. Let's put that up there again: six games, four goals -- a ridiculous 0.67 goals-against average.
In all eight games the Soviets played during the Olympics that year, they let up just five goals, and only one during the final round -- in a 10-1 win over Sweden. Meanwhile, they scored a blistering 58 goals throughout, which is impressive even without noting that silver medalist Czechoslovakia managed 44 goals for the entire tournament.
The USSR's matchup with Czechoslovakia wasn't a final, per se. The Olympics were still using a round-robin format for their finals rather than a true tournament final, but Czechoslovakia's 2-0 loss was at least a moral victory. Before that game, no team had been able to hold the Soviets to fewer than five goals.
Tretiak would become one of two Russian players inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame without ever playing a professional game on U.S. soil. Forward Viacheslav Fetisov, meanwhile, was one of the first Soviet players to play in the NHL when he joined the New Jersey Devils in 1989 and became the first to bring the Stanley Cup to Russia after winning his first of two with the Detroit Red Wings in 1997.
It was also a turning point for the Soviet Union's team. The men's squad would appear one last time under the USSR's hammer-and-sickle for a gold-medal performance in Calgary in 1988, but felt the change of Mikhail Gorbachev's regime and his Glasnost policy coming. By the 1992 Winter Olympics in Alberville, France, the USSR was ready for its final bow -- and gold medal -- as the "unified team" of former Soviet territories.
The Soviets had won all but two gold medals in men's hockey between 1952 and 1992 (the loss in Lake Placid and a U.S. win in 1960 in Squaw Valley, Calif., being the notable exceptions). Their performance in 1984 was the peak of their powers, but the turning of a corner for the soon-to-be-former Soviet Union, the soon-to-be-independent Czechs and Slovaks and the soon-embattled Bosnian and Herzegovinian city of Sarajevo.
Sweden vs. Canada
While the U.S. audience was preoccupied with women's figure skating and the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan plotline that accompanied it, the rest of the world was paying attention to a dynamite men's hockey tournament that only got more interesting after the 6-1 U.S. loss to Sweden in the opening knockout round.
This was the second year of the tournament format but the last year before the NHL decided to make every nation's squad an all-star team. Looking at how it ended, you just wonder why the NHL got involved. The Russians squeaked by Slovakia in the quarterfinals just to lose a one-goal nailbiter to Sweden in the semis. The Canadians needed overtime to get past the Czechs in the first round and needed five goals to get past the Finns and into the final.
None of that is even remotely close to the most interesting portion of that year's men's hockey tournament. No, that belongs to a men's final that ended regulation in a 2-2 tie, required the first Olympic gold-medal shootout to resolve and featured future NHL great Peter Forsberg scoring the game-winner with a deke so great it was known from then on as "The Forsberg." It was a move so mind-blowing that the Swedish postal service put it on a stamp.
While Canada and Sweden's rosters were dotted with future NHL notables including Tommy Salo, Paul Kariya and Petr Nedved -- who somehow competed as a Canadian in this event and then as a Czech in the World Cup of Hockey two years later -- it was the last time NHL millionaires didn't make up the majority of the on-ice talent. Somehow, the fact that it produced a great Olympic tournament anyway was lost on everyone but sullen NHL owners who lost game days and employees during every subsequent Winter Olympics.
U.S. vs. Canada
Salt Lake City
On the other end of that loss in Lillehammer was a Canadian squad looking for an elusive gold medal in its national sport.
The last time it took home the gold in men's hockey 50 years earlier, it still had a Union Jack on its flag and didn't have the Soviet Union to contend with. NHL players or not, the nation was looking for a little bit of redemption. Boy, was it about to get it.
Canada's lineup was absolutely loaded with a who's who of NHL greats. Mario Lemieux, Joe Sakic, Martin Brodeur, Scott Niedermayer, Brendan Shanahan, Chris Pronger, Jarome Iginla and Steve Yzerman were just the top tier. Despite this, Canada managed only to sneak out of its group with a 1-1-1 record in the preliminaries and eked out a 2-1 win over Finland in the first round.
The U.S. team, meanwhile, was stacked with an aging lineup that managed to put on one last great performance, going 2-0-1 in the preliminaries to finish at the top of a group that included Finland and eventual bronze-medalist Russia. The U.S. hammered Germany 5-0 in the opening round and built an early three-goal lead in a 3-2 win over Russia in the semis.
But Canada built momentum just as the U.S. was running out of gas. Canada's 7-1 win over Belarus in the semifinals set up the gold-medal matchup, but it was clear from Mario Lemieux's faked shot and Paul Kariya's beautiful first goal for Canada that this was going to be special. The U.S. held Canada to a 3-2 lead going into the third period, but by the time Joe Sakic dumped in Canada's fifth goal of a 5-2 win, it was already bedlam among the Canadian fans in attendance.
It was a tough loss for the U.S., which certainly could have used the boost from its home-soil Olympics, but for Canada and Canadian hockey in general it was an enormous victory made all the sweeter by the women's team beating their U.S. counterparts for the gold as well.
U.S. vs. Finland
Lake Placid, N.Y.
The "Miracle On Ice" game changed U.S. hockey, but it didn't win Team USA the gold medal.
No, coach Herb Brooks and company still needed to play Finland to finish out the round robin and secure the gold medal just a few days after their 4-3 win over the Soviets. After their emotionally draining, context-laden Cold War upset on Friday, the U.S. team was still hung over the following Sunday.
It showed. After the second period, the U.S. trailed 2-1. Brooks used that break to remind his players in his subtle and understated fashion that they were about to blow their moment in history big time. His words, according to team captain Mike Eruzione, were as follows: "If you lose this game, you'll take it to your f graves ... your f graves."
The U.S. piled on three goals in the last period and took the gold medal with a 4-3 win. In one of the most familiar images from Team USA's time in Lake Placid, Eruzione stands on the medals podium alone before calling his entire team up to stand beside him.
It changed not only how hockey medals were later awarded -- with entire teams lined up on the ice -- but changed Olympic hockey's position in U.S. culture. If you think hockey isn't popular now, just keep in mind that there was serious debate about whether host network ABC should air the game live at 11 a.m. EST or defer to the Sunday political talk shows.
Before the Winter Classic came along, it was perhaps the only time hockey won a television coin toss in this country. It doesn't get bigger than that.
Canada vs. U.S.
Yes, it's another Canadian win, but just consider what this meant in the U.S. as well.
NBC drew an audience of 27.6 million for the game, which was the largest since Brooks, Eruzione and company played Finland for the gold in 1980. The U.S. went 5-0 for the tournament and Buffalo Sabres goaltender Ryan Miller played well above himself as the tournament's most valuable player.
The game itself was as tense as anyone could ask for. Canada held a 2-1 lead late in the final period and was about to enjoy itself a nice little party on the streets of Vancouver until Zach Parise scored the still-improbable tying goal off of a rebound with just 24 seconds remaining.
Unlike in 2002, the outcome of this game was never really a certainty. But the NHL itself couldn't have scripted a better ending than the one Sidney Crosby gave it by putting a pass from falling Jarome Iginla past Miller to win it. It was a face all of North America knew giving Canada a win at its home Olympics during a time the Canadian dollar was strong, the NHL tradewinds were shifting toward Canadian teams and the North American balance of power made the unthinkable possible. Just a year later investors from Winnipeg bought the Atlanta Thrashers and took them north to become the revived Winnipeg Jets. The Edmonton Oilers unveiled plans for a new arena, Quebec City got to work on a new building of its own to lure a NHL franchise and the league hurriedly brokered a deal in Phoenix to keep the financially unstable Coyotes from being poached by Canadian buyers.
Combined with blockbuster ratings for a series of Stanley Cup wins by the Detroit Red Wings, Pittsburgh Penguins, Boston Bruins and Chicago Blackhawks (twice in five years after not winning a cup since 1961) and a warm reception for the cold-weather outdoor Winter Classic matchups, the Vancouver Games made it clear where the NHL's strengths lie.
While successful in California, Texas and North Carolina, the NHL still draws much of its strength from traditional, cold-weather hockey markets. Quebec City and Hamilton, Ontario, are among the Canadian cities that have been pursuing teams, while Brooklyn made it clear that it believes there's enough room in New York City to bring in a second storied franchise from its faltering suburban home.
The NHL lockout that followed the Vancouver games was disheartening, but the ensuing realignment that not only isolated Florida teams but opened up two vacancies in the West implies that the league is again comfortable playing to its strengths -- and giving the die-hard fans what they want.
-- Written by Jason Notte in Portland, Ore.
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